A few weeks ago, I said to a friend that I’d been listening to some episodes of “Selling Hitler” [serialised on Radio 4 Extra] and she offered to lend me her copy of the book [Thanks, Val]
The book deals with the “Hitler Diaries” which were purchased for publication by the German company Stern, and the Sunday Times, back in 1983.
In one of those bizarre twists, I started reading the book on September 6th – the day that Rochus Misch died. He was the last survivor of those who had lived in Hitler’s bunker in 1945. [BBC report here] and I finished reading on the day that Hitler’s ruby Swastika ring was sold at auction for $66,000 [report here]
There is still a phenomenal amount of interest in this evil man who died almost 70 years ago. In the early 1980s there were still many people around who clearly remembered the War, and wanted to find out what Hitler thought, and how much he knew about what was really happening under the Nazi regime.
It is 30 years since the Diary fiasco – and I confess I don’t really remember much of it at the time – I had a small baby, Bob was a student minister, life was rather busy…
But it was one of the greatest publishing frauds in history. Somehow a forger managed to convince a journalist he had diaries and other papers which had belonged to the Fuhrer – and the journalist persuaded his company to part with millions of German marks in order to buy them – and then Rupert Murdoch paid millions of dollars for the British publishing rights.
I found the book gripping. I have enjoyed other Robert Harris stuff; his fictional works like Enigma, Fatherland, and The Ghost [that was made into a superb film with Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor] – but it was interesting reading some non fiction by this author.
I think the thing which intrigued me most was the way the various parties involved all got sucked into the deceit. Gerd Heidemann, the original journalist, was a competent guy, but had got serious money problems, so this ‘scoop’ looked like the answer to his prayers. So maybe he didn’t check things out quite as thoroughly as he should have done, because he wanted to believe the diaries were genuine.
The editors likewise were eager to be the first to publish, and recognised the value of a world exclusive – and in their haste to get into print they too cut a few corners in the whole authentication process.
Konrad Kujau the forger [pictured] wrote the diaries in notebooks [purchased from East German stationers] which were made of paper not developed till after WW2
He stuck the initials AH on the front – except these were made of cheap gold [postwar] plastic, and some even said FH - somehow this was not noticed!
Kujau had been forging Hitler documents for some time – and when one page of the diaries was sent for handwriting analysis, it was not only sent to an American ‘expert’ who could not read German, but the accompanying ‘authentic Hitler’ documents he was sent for comparison purposes were actually more of Kujau’s forgeries!
As I read, I kept thinking “somebody has to see this is false soon” but then noticed I was only halfway through the 386 pages.
Kujau made basic spelling mistakes and factual errors in the diaries- but none of these was picked up by those sent to verify the writings. Even Hugh Trevor-Roper, the distinguished English historian authenticated the diaries [despite his niggling doubts]
Towards the end of the book, Harris says “The editors relied on the management, the management relied on Heidemann, Heidemann relied on Kujau – and between them they completely bungled the process of authentication. A competent forensic scientist would have established in less than a day that the diaries were forgeries” In 1984 Heidemann and Kujau were both sentenced to 4 years in prison for fraud, but more than 5 million Marks of Stern’s money, to this day, remains unaccounted for! <any of the main participants at Stern lost their jobs.
The book reads like a thriller, with astonishing plot twists. But it is not fiction. It happened!
Harris says that the whole thing was fuelled by greed and vanity. As I read, I felt that everybody involved thought they would end up rich and famous, so nobody wanted to say “Stop! There is something wrong here!” It was just like Hans Christian Andersen’s courtiers, who were scared to declare that the Emperor had no clothes – and in the end they were revealed as foolish. As the Good Book reminds us…
Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.
I thought this was a very clever book, and would award it *****