Forty years ago this month was a fateful meeting that led to one of the history’s greatest hoaxes. RICHARD LUCK reports.
Some scoops can be weeks, months or even years in the making. It can take a long, long time for a reporter to finally bring their story into the public domain, for all the world to digest. Such is the case with the ‘Hitler Diaries’ affair. The publication of the Fuhrer’s personal journals, apparently discovered decades after they were lost in a plane crash in the final days of the Second World War, was one of the biggest global news stories of 1983. Indeed, it was outdone only by the revelation of the subsequent unravelling of the hoax.
But the fateful moment that led to those tumultuous events came two years earlier, with a discrete meeting between two decidedly peculiar individuals that took place in the German city of Stuttgart, 40 years ago this month.
It was there that Gerd Heidemann, the obsessed journalist whose name and infamy will forever be linked to the scandal, was introduced to a man calling himself Konrad Fischer, a shopkeeper and collector of militaria who proceeded to recount the story of how he had come into possession of the previously-unknown diaries kept by the Fuhrer during the war.
The meeting lasted seven hours as the discussions moved on to haggling over a price for Heidemann to pay for the documents. No agreement could be reached but the pair met again the following day to continue their negotiations. This time, Heidemann brought along with him a uniform he said had once belonged to Hermann Göring to help seal the deal. It worked, and Fischer accepted the journalist’s offer, who – as a sign of good faith – also agreed to lend the uniform to the shopkeeper to show alongside his collection of other uniforms from prominent Nazis. For his part, Fischer gave Heidemann a painting purportedly by Hitler, as well as his agreement to make certain volumes available to the reporter.
It was a transaction that would transform both men’s lives, and by transform, I mean rapidly improve them before pretty much ruining them entirely.
Not that Heidemann and Fischer were the only people left soiled by what author Robert Harris coined the ‘Selling Hitler’ scandal, with global media figures and acclaimed historians among those whose reputations would take a tumble by the time the fraud had been exposed and the guilty men imprisoned.
So just how were eminent people the world over taken in? Much of the blame belongs to Heidemann, a man known as der Spürhund, ‘the bloodhound’, by his colleagues for the tenacity of his research. When he was not reporting from the world’s warzones for Hamburg’s highly regarded Stern magazine, Heidemann had a seeming passion for cultivating close relationships with what remained of the Third Reich.
Whether it was conducting an affair with Goring’s daughter, or buying her father’s yacht, the Carin II, or recording the drunken ramblings of octogenarian Obergruppenführers, Heidemann was a man with an unquenchable appetite for all things swastika-related.
It was thanks to this obsession that Heidemann was introduced to Fritz Stiefel. A factory owner and hoarder of Nazi memorabilia, the pride of Stiefel’s collection was a series of documents supposedly penned by none other than Adolf Hitler; love poems written by the young Adolf while serving on the front in the First World War; and an introduction to a third edition of Mein Kampf; this wasn’t your usual tat. (And nor was any of it genuine). What’s more, in the mid-to-late 1970s, Stiefel claimed to have received something that, on the face of it, could have forever changed our understanding of the Second World War and its principle player – journals kept by Hitler himself.
If nothing else a man of action, historians had long assumed the Fuhrer lacked the time and the patience to commit his thoughts to paper on a daily basis. When it emerged that he might in fact have been a dedicated diarist, Heidemann bullied Stiefel into revealing his source.
So it was that on January 28, 1981, Stern’s most dogged reporter headed to Stuttgart to talk terms with a man whose name couldn’t have been more fitting had it been conjured up by Charles Dickens – Konny Fischer.
Over a glass or two of schnapps, Fischer informed Heidemann that the diaries were in the possession of his brother, a general in the East German army. The volumes, he said, had come into his possession after they were rescued by villagers from the wreckage of a Junkers transport plane that crashed close to the Czechoslovak border in April 1945.
The flight had formed part of Operation Seraglio, an effort to get key Nazi personnel out of Berlin to the relative safety of Hitler’s Alpine retreat at Berchtesgaden. The brainchild of Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, Operation Seraglio was also committed to removing the Fuhrer’s effects from the bunker in the final days of the war, so they wouldn’t fall into Soviet hands.
On board the aircraft were ten heavy chests under the supervision of Hitler’s personal valet. On learning of the crash, Hitler lamented the loss of “extremely valuable documents which would show posterity the truth of my actions”. This much was known by historians. But what exactly was in the boxes had never been established. Until now, it seemed.
Appraised of this background by Fischer, Heidemann and fellow Stern journalist Thomas Walde drove to the crash site in the Heidenholz Forest. There they not only discovered the graves of the aircraft’s crew but also learned that many of the locals still owned pieces of wreckage. Increasingly convinced of the veracity of Fischer’s story, Heidemann was apparently transformed from investigative journalist to true believer when he took the first volumes of diaries into his possession.
According to Fischer, the diaries had been smuggled into the country out of East Germany inside pianos. So John le Carré-esque a detail couldn’t help but capture the imaginations of Heidemann and his editors.
Or at least, some of his editors. One of the incredible things about the scandal is that the diaries were surrounded by so much doubt for so very long. Editor Peter Koch and publisher Henri Nannen thought the whole thing stank from the off, their suspicions only serving to increase their long-held dislike of Heidemann.
Not only that but Koch and Nannen were quick to point out that it wasn’t so very long ago – 1968 to be precise – that no less a paper than the Sunday Times had been taken for £60,000 by Italian woman Amalia Panvini and her daughter Rosa after they claimed to have chanced upon the private diaries of Benito Mussolini.
But with another Gerd – Schulte-Hillen, the CEO of Stern’s parent company – convinced that Heidemann had made a great discovery, Koch and Nannen’s words of warning were drowned out by the ‘kerching’ of cash registers, and the magazine prepared to publish.
Having spent in the region of 9,000,000DM to acquire all 35 diaries, Stern wanted to recoup their investment by selling the international rights to the highest bidder. Naturally, a story this sensational attracted the biggest names in the business. Rupert Murdoch went so far as to fly to Switzerland to negotiate with Stern’s team, as did Newsweek president Mark Edmiston.
With an offer in excess of $3 million on the table, Gerd Schulte-Hillen overplayed his hand. His request for $4.25 million prompted a walkout by both potential customers. Frantic backtracking eventually enabled Stern to somewhat salvage the deal, Murdoch’s enthusiasm for the project having been reinvigorated by Hugh Trevor-Roper, the celebrated Cambridge historian, whose contribution to his chosen field had seen him raised to the peerage as Lord Dacre. As an intelligence officer in 1945 Trevor-Roper had been tasked with the official investigation into Hitler’s death, interviewing eyewitnesses to the Fuhrer’s last movements, a subject he chronicled in his highly-regarded work, The Last Days of Hitler.
Trevor-Roper was initially impressed by Stern’s assertions that the diaries were genuine, thorough handwriting analysis and keen forensic investigation having left the magazine convinced of the archives’ worth. He was far less taken with Gerd Heidemann, who insisted that the historian travel to Hamburg so he could take a look at the journalist’s collection of ‘strong man’ memorabilia. A pair of Idi Amin’s underpants, which the journalist had framed on his wall, left a particularly unpleasant taste in his lordship’s mouth.
On Friday April 22, 1983, Stern announced the existence of the diaries and their forthcoming publication, and called a press conference for the following Monday – the day after the Sunday Times would run their story.
Trevor-Roper, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly concerned that history’s greatest discovery was in fact history’s greatest hoax. Noting the similarity between the diary entries and published works such as August Kubizek’s account of his childhood friendship with Hitler, the historian was also frustrated by Heidemann’s refusal to reveal his source – Fischer had convinced the journalist that, should word of his brother’s dealings become public knowledge, his sibling’s life might be in danger.
Such were Trevor-Roper’s concerns that he telephoned Sunday Times editor Frank Giles on the Saturday evening, as the presses began to roll, to insist they should be stopped and the paper remade so that his doubts could be taken into account. Murdoch was promptly called. His response couldn’t have been more emphatic: “F**k Dacre! Publish!”
Matters were made that much more embarrassing for Trevor-Roper and the Stern higher-ups when the April 25 press conference was hijacked by David Irving, the now discredited historian and Holocaust denier. For all that his work has since been debunked and his books found by courts to have distorted history, Irving was dead right about the diaries, his announcement of their inauthenticity including a telling reference to a film Stern had produced commemorating the find.
How was it, Irving remarked, that Hitler could have written diaries in the wake of the July 1944 bomb plot when, in the promotional film, the Fuhrer was shown having to shake hands with Mussolini using his left rather than his right? It was a comment that provoked chaos among the attendees.
Add the doubts of Irving and Trevor-Roper to the damning forensic analysis that eventually emerged from the Bundesarchiv and it wasn’t long before things began to unravel. Heidemann’s editors insisted he reveal his source. That the journalist was reluctant to do so was motivated not just by concerns for the welfare of the Fischer family but also the knowledge that, once Stern started looking, it wouldn’t be long before they realised that much of the money they’d spent on the diaries had found its way into Heidemann’s pockets. (And quite a lot of that had subsequently been spent by the journalist on snapping up more Nazi memorabilia.)
Sure enough, in no time at all, Heidemann and Fischer were under arrest. It emerged Fischer’s real name was Konrad Kujau, who had a long history of making his collecting and trading of Nazi memorabilia more lucrative through forgery. What had started at a relatively small scale – faking a note to indicate that a genuine First World War helmet had been worn by Hitler, for instance – had grown to an almost industrial scale by the time he was turning out the Fuhrer’s ‘diaries’ by the end of the 1970s.
He had even started producing paintings which he claimed were by Hitler – including the one he had given to Heidemann at their fateful meeting (the Goring uniform he had received in return was, of course, also fake) – as well as those love letters and documents owned by Fritz Stiefel, a regular customer who had accepted them, and many other Kujau products – including the diaries – as genuine.
Whether Heidemann truly accepted them as genuine is something only he can be certain of. (Kujau said he knew they were fake and their subsequent trial often descended into a slanging match between the two defendants.) From relatively early on in the saga, doubts about the diaries were raised with Heidemann, including by an old Nazi friend, who pointed out that they contained factual errors about the name of a barrack visited by Hitler, and the unit based there at the time. The journalist once known as the bloodhound was unmoved. By then, his mind was seemingly made up either that the documents were genuine or that he was not interested in investigating further.
Come the end of a year-long trial, Heidemann and Kujau were sentenced to four and a half years in jail for defrauding Stern. If this was terrible news for the reputation and integrity of Heidemann, it has to be said that Kujau rather enjoyed his new-found infamy. He took particular delight in revealing how the hoax had been affected, showing the press the lengths he’d gone to to perfect Hitler’s gothic script as well as the way in which he used spilt tea to age the documents, and then bashed them on a desk to better help them resemble decades-old documents which had been rescued from a plane crash.
The contents were cobbled from various books, newspapers and magazines covering Hitler’s life. Many of the diaries’ entries were lists of party promotions and official engagements, though Kujau leavened it a little with some domestic information, such as the time that “E [Eva Braun] now has two little puppies so time does not lie too heavily on her hands”, and some banal entries (“The English are driving me crazy—should I let them escape [from Dunkirk], or not? How is this Churchill reacting?”).
As for the diaries themselves, they were just notebooks he’d purchased in East Germany, the gold ‘AH’ embossed upon each edition was in fact from a set of plastic, gold coloured letters which had been made in Hong Kong. Even more remarkably, Kujau inadvertently used the wrong ones – ‘FH’.
That the Hitler Diaries were such an obvious hoax is but one of the reasons the affair looms so large in our collective memory. The eminence of those taken in by the scandal is another factor, adding a smidgen of legitimacy to those whom cry ‘fake news’ whenever a story doesn’t entirely chime with their take on events. However, one of the most remarkable thing of all about the hoax is that it revealed that Rupert Murdoch actually does have a sense of humour.
No great fan of Sunday Times editor Frank Giles, Murdoch seized upon the scandal as an excuse to kick his employee upstairs by granting him the title of ‘editor emeritus’. “It’s Latin, Frank,” Murdoch remarked. “The ‘e’ means you’re out. And the ‘meritus’ means you deserved it.”
The Hitler Diaries provided the inspiration for both a TV series and a feature film. The latter, 1992’s Schtonk, was written and directed by Helmut Dietl. A broad, somewhat fictionalised take on the affair, it’s not for everybody. Not that that prevented it from being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1993 Oscars – it lost out to the Catherine Deneuve picture Indochine.
Far more accessible is 1991’s Selling Hitler, a five-part adaptation of Robert Harris’ book for ITV, directed by Alastair Reed and scripted by Howard Schuman. With Jonathan Pryce excellent as the driven Heidemann and Alexei Sayle having far too much fun as Konny Fischer, the series also features fine to-the-edge-of-parody performances from Alan Bennett (as Trevor-Roper), Richard Wilson, Tom Baker, Julie T Wallace, Peter Capaldi, Alison Doody and John Shrapnel. As for the especially eye-catching role of Rupert Murdoch, it went to none other than Barry Humphries. Complete with Wagnerian fantasy sequences, the series again applies a broad satirical brush to the material.