It was not only one of the most scandalous fake news of the 20th century, but also a scam and an attempt to manipulate history to whiten the image of the person most responsible for the Holocaust. All this happened forty years ago when, on April 25, 1983, the German magazine Stern announced that he had found the personal diaries of Adolph Hitler and that he was preparing to publish them in installments.
That day, at a press conference held in Hamburg, which was attended by more than two hundred journalists and was broadcast by dozens of television channels, the journalist gerd heidemann and the editor-in-chief of the magazine, peter kochThey presented a series of notebooks with black covers, with the German eagle sealed on themwhere supposedly the führer had overturned in his own handwriting the account of his daily activities and his reflections between 1932 and 1945.
According to those responsible for the publication, those diaries had been salvaged from a plane that had crashed in what would later become East Germany at the end of World War II. They also explained that they were authenticated by three internationally renowned experts.
Stern had paid ten million marks -the German currency of the time-, which in the 1980s was equivalent to about four million dollars.
To ensure the authenticity of the notebooks, the experts Hugh Trevor-Roper, Eberhard Jäckel and Gerhard Weinberg were also present at the press conference, who had thoroughly reviewed the material.
Now I can say with satisfaction that these documents are authentic; that the story about his whereabouts since 1945 is true; and that the way in which Hitler’s writing habits and personality, and perhaps even some of his public acts, are currently chronicled need to be revised accordingly,” Trevor-Roper said when given the floor.
The last part of his statement contained a bomb, because in the text of the diaries Hitler had never promoted the persecution and mass murder of the Jews, neither in Germany nor in the territories occupied by the Nazis. On the contrary, he was concerned about the fate of the Jews.
“The measures initiated from day one against the Jewish institutions are too violent for me. I have immediately warned the responsible men. Some also had to be expelled from the party”, could be read in one of the notebooks.
Elsewhere, Hitler allegedly wrote: “I have been informed of nasty attacks by some uniformed men, and in some places also of murdered Jews and suicides of Jews. Have these people gone crazy? What will the other countries say about it?
For things like that, for Trevor-Roper, some of the acts awarded to the German dictator should be looked at from another perspective.
Stern was by then one of the most widely circulated magazines in West Germany and its credibility was beyond doubt. For this reason, after the announcement, the main media outlets in Europe and the United States wanted to buy the rights to publish the newspapers.
On the list were, among others, the US magazines Time and Newsweek, the British newspaper The Sunday Times, the French weekly Paris Match, and the Spanish newspapers Tiempo and El País.
Three days later, the magazine hit the streets with the title “Hitler’s diaries are discovered”.
The deception lasted a few days and the find of the century became a scandal.
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The story of the “find”
stern born almost three years working on the subject. It all started in 1980, when one of the staff journalists, Gerd Heidemann, came into contact with Konrad Kujau, an illustrator who was also dedicated to tracing all kinds of objects related to the Second World War, to sell them in the antique market or among those nostalgic for the Third Reich. What no one knew was that most of those objects were counterfeit.
Whether or not Heidemann knew this from the beginning is difficult to know. What he told the Stern executives is that he had news of the existence of a collector who had sold an alleged Hitler’s “personal diary”.
The collector was none other than Kujau, who in the first meeting assured him that there were several volumes of those diaries that were in the possession of an East German Army officer, who offered to sell them to him, but that they cost a lot of money.
The diaries, according to Kujau’s account, were part of a collection of documents recovered from the wreckage of a plane crash in Börnersdorf, near Dresden, which happened in April 1945 where a Luftwaffe transport plane carrying confidential documents of the Nazi regime had crashed in the last days of World War II.
Heidemann managed to get Stern’s managers to finance the purchase of the newspapers, which were trickling in through the wall. Everything was done in the most rigorous of secrets, until it was decided to validate and publish them.
By then the magazine had shelled out, through its reporter Heidemann, around ten million marks for Kujau to obtain the notebooks. What they never imagined is that the journalist kept part of the money.
There were not a few journalists who attended the press conference who doubted the authenticity of the documents. Not because they had been seen, but because the story about the “finding” was full of holes.
When in doubt, Stern handed over three of the notebooks to the Federal Archives of Germany to be analyzed by their handwriting specialists and documentation experts from the period that supposedly dated the texts.
The opinion was not long in coming: the notebooks were “totally fake”but they were also the product of a very gross forgery.
The content of the three notebooks examined was a mixture of the texts of some of Hitler’s speeches with alleged facts of his daily life, from alleged reproaches that Eva Braun made him for his flatulence and the need to change her diet until a hysterical pregnancy that Eva had suffered.
On the other hand, the experts found no mention of the Final solution nor Hitler’s obsession with exterminating Jews, Gypsies and other minorities. On the contrary, according to the newspapers, he seemed to care about them.
The handwriting resembled Hitler’s, but was nothing more than a resemblance, and the signatures that the führer unusually supposedly put in his private notebooks—there was no need for him to sign them— it was fake.
The mere existence of the newspapers drew attention. It was a known fact that Hitler hated writing by hand.
And there was more: the paper on which the diaries were written had not begun to be made until 1946, when Hitler had already died, and the forger had tried to disguise its age by moistening it with tea. The ink was not of the time either.
Later it would be known that the notebooks had been written by Kujau himself and that he was delivering them dropper not because of the difficulty of smuggling them from the other side of the wall but because it took him time to “manufacture” them.
Another discovery was that Heidemann kept a good part – usually a third – of the money that Stern gave him to buy the supposed newspapers.
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end of a charade
Stern had to remove the remaining copies of the magazine from the street and publicly apologize. It was not just that his journalistic credibility had collapsed like a fragile house of cards, but that his managers were in danger of being prosecuted for apology of Nazism, by publishing false texts that favorably showed a Hitler contrary to that of the historical truth.
The magazine’s sales plummeted, and its two editors-in-chief, Peter Koch and Felix Schmidt, were kindly invited to resign.
They had shown that they had accepted the authenticity of the notebooks with astonishing ingenuity, especially having at hand the history of another famous forgery, that of the “diaries” of Benito Mussolini.
They had already been “discovered” twice, in 1957 and 1967, to be sold to publishers interested in publishing them. On both occasions, the publishers had been careful to have them examined by experts, who quickly ruled them to be untenable forgeries.
Heidemann and Kujau were prosecuted and convicted to four and a half years in prison for defrauding Stern and for forging the diaries. They were released in mid-1987.
Once released, the journalist found himself without a framework, because he had to return the money he had obtained with the scam and he had to find another occupation, because there was not a single media outlet that wanted to hire him.
As for Kujau, when he got out of jail he devoted himself to copying works by famous painters and selling them under his own signature.
four decades later
Forty years after the scandal, the Bertelsmann media group, owner of Stern and the forged Adolf Hitler diaries that the magazine had bought, decided to hand them over to the National Archive of Germany.
The media group also commissioned an investigation into Stern magazine by the Institute of Contemporary History to analyze the newspaper scandal and establish “how and why it was possible that the forgeries were published.”
Upon receiving the notebooks, the President of the Archive, Michael Hollman, recalled that it was there that their forgery was discovered and said: “Hitler’s forged diaries are in good hands in the Federal Archives as rare testimonies of contemporary German history. show a brazen attempt to put a humane veneer on the brutal crimes of National Socialism”.
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