Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Book of the Month: Selling Hitler (Robert Harris)

In 1983, on the fiftieth anniversary of the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany, Stern, a respected magazine in (what at that time was) West Germany, made a sensational announcement. Stern had discovered 27 volumes of the personal diaries of Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi party and Germany’s dictator from 1933 to 1945.  Stern had sold the British serialization rights to Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the News Corporation, and the story appeared simultaneously in the Sunday Times, in Britain. 

In less than two weeks of the announcement, the sensational diaries (which contained roughly 50,000 words), were proven beyond doubt to be forgeries. The affair cost Stern several millions deutschmarks; the reputations of a few suffered setbacks; and the careers of a few were destroyed.

Novelist Robert Harris’s Selling Hitler, first published in 1986 (Harris was a BBC journalist at the time and a few years away from writing his blockbuster novels), is a riveting account of how a small time crook—thanks to a combination of greed of few, incompetence of some, and hubris of many (including renowned historians, hard-nosed managers within Stern, and experienced journalists)—came to play a gigantic hoax on the world and almost got away with it.

The person who faced the full wrath and derision of the world when the diaries were proven to be fakes was the Stern reporter Gerd Heidmann. Born in 1931, Heidmann was a member of ‘Hitler’s Youth’. At the time of the publication of the diaries, Heidmann had worked for Stern for more than 25 years. His reputation within Stern, until then, was not exactly scintillating. He was regarded as someone who might have been able to gather material for a story but not actually able to make a story out of it, the job falling to the real journalists. Heidmann deeply resented this insinuation, although he had, through the 1970s, accepted advanced payments from his employers for writing books which he had failed to deliver. Heidmann was also a man who, it would be fair to say, found it near impossible to put a distance between him and the subject of his research (in a very loose sense of the term). In the 1970s Heidmann began researching the memorabilia of the Third Reich—for which there was apparently not inconsiderable demand, especially in West Germany and America (according to Selling Hitler)—and found himself getting increasingly immersed in the shadowy world of the German Nazis. The Nazis Heidmann fraternised with included Hans Baur (Hitler’s personal pilot), Otto Guensche (Hitler’s SS adjutant—the man who burned the corpses of Hitler and Eva Braun after they committed suicide), as well as high profile Nazis who had escaped the Nuremberg trials, such as Karl Wolff and Wilhelm Mohnke—the man known as Hitler’s ‘last general’ following his spirited, if hopeless, fight against the advancing Russians as Berlin fell and his master blew his brains out with a pistol in his bunker. On an impulse Heidmann bought Carin II, the yacht that once belonged to Herman Goering himself. Around that time he briefly had a relationship with Edda Goering, the only child of Herman Goering. The yacht was in a state of great disrepair and Heidmann simply did not have the means to maintain it. He tried to sell it, using a former Nazi as a middle-man; however even after he brought down the price from over a million deutschmarks to just under three quarters of a million, there was no interest. As a result Heidmann was forced to take loans from Stern and was heavily in debt by the time the 1980s arrived. It would appear that as Heidmann ‘researched’ more and more into the dark depths of the Nazi rule of Germany, his perspective towards the Third Reich began to change. He began regularly wining and dining with the Nazis, and, when he married his third wife (for the fourth time), Gina, a friend of Edda Goering, who shared Heidmann’s interests in the Nazis, he requested Karl Wolff and Wilhelm Mohnke to be witnesses (they obliged). For his honeymoon Heidmann—with Karl Wolff in tow—went sailing in the South American sea where he spent the next nine weeks searching for Joseph Mengele and Martin Bormann. Wolff introduced Heidmann to Klaus Barbie—the ‘Butcher of Lyons’ and a notorious war criminal. Heidmann would boast of his friendship with Barbie in the years to come.  Heidmann became increasingly obsessed with collecting memorabilia of the Third Reich. In his quest to hoard as many things as he could that might have had an outside chance of having been associated with the Fuhrer, Heidmann came into contact with a wealthy South German, Fritz Stiefel, who had a private collection of Hitler memorabilia. It was Stiefel who showed Heidmann what he believed was a personal diary of Adolf Hitler.

At this stage enters the second protagonist of the story—Konrad Kujau who had more aliases than you and I have had hot meals. Originally from East Germany Kujau crossed the border and entered West Germany a year before the wall went up. A compulsive liar, Kujau led a life of petty larceny throughout the sixties, getting into trouble with the police on innumerable occasions. Although he had not, at that time, embarked upon his career in forgery, Kujau had shown awesome talent for weaving fantastic stories explaining his past, education, and means of subsistence. Sometime in the 1970s Kujau hit upon the idea of swindling gullible hunters of Nazi relics, and started ‘creating’ fake originals. It started off as Kujau smuggling genuine Nazi military memorabilia, via illegal trade, into West where (it would appear) there was an unending demand for such bizarreries, from the Communist East Germany where (it would seem) there was a ready supply. Sometime in the early 1970s Kujau ‘discovered’ the latent artist in him. He began introducing forgeries into the genuine material. And when it came to Hitler Kujau had many opportunities: not only could he copy Hitler’s handwriting, he could also forge his paintings. Stiefel was one of Kujau’s customers.

When the Nazi obsessed Heidmann saw Stiefel’s Hitler diary, he knew he was onto the scoop of the decade. Soon he tracked down Kujau, except Kujau was calling himself Fischer, in Stuttgart. Kujau, at this time, ran a cleaning business and a shop of Third Reich memorabilia. Kujau weaved (yet another) fantastic story for Heidmann: he had a brother in the East German army, who had managed to get his hands on to the Nazi stash that included Hitler’s personal diaries. For a price Kujau was willing to smuggle the diaries out of East Germany. Heidmann, without running even a rudimentary search, swallowed Kujau’s story hook, line and sinker. This may not be as surprising as it may seem at first: this was a man who believed Martin Bormann was still alive and leading a secret life in Spain, Switzerland and South America. What is surprising is Heidmann, who, until then, had not produced any material of significance for Stern in his more than twenty years of service, managed to bypass the editors and convince the management that they could get their hands on to a scoop that would fetch the magazine millions. The management, with utmost secrecy—the editors of the magazine and Heidmann’s immediate managers (who did not think highly of the reporter at all) were kept totally in the dark for a long time—colluded with Heidmann’s plan. Heidmann became the contact person with Kujau (although until the very end he kept the identity of the supplier secret from the management) and was, in effect, provided with a carte blanche to obtain Hitler’s diaries.

The reader reads with disbelief as tens of thousands of deutschmarks were made available to Heidmann to buy each of the diaries. It is estimated that Stern spent a total of 9 million deutschmarks to obtain the diaries. It is also estimated that Heidmann siphoned off roughly half of the amount to support a Sybaritic life-style as well as to indulge fully in his all consuming passion of collecting Hitler memorabilia for his personal collection. (And Kujau obliged. In Heidmann’s personal collection was the pistol which, Heidmann believed, Hitler used to kill himself. Kujau, very helpfully, had also supplied a note from Martin Bormann confirming that the Fuhrer committed suicide with the pistol! Kujau also told Heidmann that he could smuggle out of East Germany the original manuscript of Mein Kamfp!)

What is really breathtaking is the sheer scale of the forgery and Kujau’s industriousness. All in all, sitting in his attic in Stuttgart, Kujau produced 27 personal diaries of Adolf Hitler. All were written in the old Germanic script, and each page of the diary was initialled by Hitler! He also produced (for a hefty fee of course) Hitler’s ‘personal notes’ on the Hess affair, which ‘showed’ that the Fuhrer was aware of Hess’s flight because he (Hitler) wanted a peace treaty with Britain, and that he declared Hess insane only because the mission failed.

Stern did seek opinions from handwriting experts, all of whom opined that the handwriting was probably Hitler’s; but, crucially, Stern did not subject the diaries to forensic tests which would have proved, in a matter of days, that the diaries, in fact, were crude forgeries: the paper used for the diaries as well as the typewriter on which the diaries were typed were post-World War. When the editors of the magazine were belatedly taken into confidence, their scepticism of Heidmann’s discoveries was brushed aside, and they were ordered to tow the ‘party line’. (The editors, Peter Koch in particular, fought a heroic battle when the scandal blew up in the magazine’s face. For all his efforts Koch was made the scapegoat and made to step down when Stern was forced to accept that the diaries were forgeries; which he did, but not before claiming more than a million deutschmarks in severance fees.)

Two British historians played important, if slightly peripheral, roles in the whole affair. One of them was the pompous Hugh Trevor-Roper, who, at that time, was the master of Peterhouse, one of the oldest and most conservative collages in Cambridge, UK. He had also managed to become, through his connections, an Independent National Director of Times Newspapers. Rupert Murdoch who had bought Times had no time for the ‘establishment waxworks’ such as Trevor-Roper (so the reader is informed in Selling Hitler) but had allowed the historian—known for his sharp tongue, intellectual arrogance and insistence on the kind of dinner table etiquettes that would not have been out of place in Victorian Britain—to be one of the independent directors because he was told that that would enhance his chances of buying Times in class-ridden Britain.

Trevor-Roper (who had also managed to become Lord Dacre of Glanton by this time) was considered in the UK as something of an authority on Hitler. His reputation rested on two books, one which he wrote and another which he edited.

In September 1945, Brigadier Dick White (who later became the chief of both MI5 and MI6) was tasked with preparing a report (in six weeks) on what had happened to Hitler. White delegated the mission (codenamed Operation Nursery) to Trevor-Roper, who was, at that time, his intelligence officer. With the zeal befitting an amateur detective Trevor-Roper interviewed those who were close to Hitler in his last moments (and were still alive). The fruition of the investigation was a book entitled The Last Days of Hitler, which was regarded as a masterpiece in Britain (and banned behind the Iron Curtain). The consensus on how Hitler ended his life is derived from Trevor-Roper’s investigations. Trevor-Roper also edited, introduced, and helped publish another book entitled Hitler’s Table Talk, which was based on the extensive notes kept (on Martin Bormann’s orders) of what passed for conversation when Hitler had his dinner, and during which the Fuhrer expatiated on wide-ranging subjects. (It would seem that there wasn’t a subject on which the Nazi dictator didn’t have an opinion: from the origins of the planet to the superiority of air-cooled engines, the inability of the English to perform Shakespeare and the legends of ancient Greece—the Fuhrer had a view on everything; and these frenzied, semi-deranged soliloquies were recorded verbatim by the slavish Martin Bormann.) When Rupert Murdoch became interested in the Hitler diaries, Trevor-Roper was asked to fly to Switzerland (where, in the vault of a bank, Stern, whose paranoia about the material leaking out had reached unprecedented levels, had kept the diaries) and give his views on whether the diaries were authentic. Trevor-Roper, who was not known for his trusting nature, confirmed that the diaries were genuine. Trevor-Roper wrote in the Times:

‘When I entered the back room in the Swiss bank, and turned the pages of those volumes, my doubts gradually dissolved. I am now satisfied that the documents are authentic; that the history of their wanderings since 1945 is true; and that the standard accounts of Hitler’s writing habits, of his personality, and even, perhaps, some public events may, in consequence, have to be revised.’

Trevor-Roper would begin to have doubts about his own judgment fairly soon after this and he would partially recant his opinion in the news-conference Stern arranged to convince the world that the diaries were genuine, after allegations were levelledthat the diaries were not genuine; however, it would be too little too late and Trevor-Roper’s reputation would be severely damaged.

The other British historian, who (unlike Trevor-Roper) did not have a reputation to lose, was the right wing David Irving. In 2006 Irving went to prison because of his views on the Holocaust; in the 1980s he was regarded in Britain—in a kind of grotesque euphemism that only the British seem capable of—as a ‘maverick’ because of the very same views. Irving had published a book entitled Hitler’s War which was widely criticised (and consequently sold well) because of his portrayal of Hitler. (Irving’s stated purpose was to portray Hitler as an ordinary man and not as a diabolical figure.) Needless to say the book and its author were very popular amongst the neo-Nazis and the Holocaust-deniers. Irving, who routinely met with right-wing, neo-Nazi groups, was approached in the 1980s by a German man called August Priesack. Priesack—‘Professor’ Priesack as he called himself—had reached the pinnacle of his career in the 1930s when he was employed by the Nazi party to track down Hitler’s paintings. (His task was to buy up as many paintings as he could and then sort out the genuine from the fake; it would appear that fake Hitler paintings were flooding the markets even then.) After the Second World War Priesack’s fortunes had predictably nosedived. And now he wanted Irving’s help because he was in trouble. The previous year Priesack had brought out a book containing hitherto unpublished photographs of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies. The Bavarian authorities had charged Priesack with contravening anti-Nazi legislation. Priesack, who had greatly admired Hitler’s War, was hoping that Irving would provide him with a character reference! It was in his meeting with Priesack that Irving first became aware of the story of Hitler’s diaries. How did Priesack know about their existence? Because Fritz Stiefel had earlier approached the ‘professor’ to seek his views on the authenticity of the Hitler’s diary Kujau had sold him. Priesack had seen the Hitler’s diary at Stiefel’s residence where he had also met Konrad Kujau. The content of the diary in Stiefel’s possession was (like the diaries Kujau would later sell to Heidmann) utterly trivial and banal. Despite this the ‘professor’ had no doubt that the diary was genuine. He had even paid an emotional tribute to Kujau. ‘You,’ Priesack told Kujau, ‘are our salvation. You must find more documents. History will thank you.’ (Kujau did ‘find’ several more documents—27 more volumes of Hitler’s diary to be exact—and went to prison for his efforts. History did not thank him.) It was this story that Priesack passed on to Irving during their meeting. (By this time Kujau was passing himself as a middleman, and had invented a brother in the East German army who, ‘at great personal risk’ and ‘bribing several Communist officials’, was helping to smuggle the diaries out of East Germany). Priesack had made photocopies of a few pages of the Hitler diary he had seen at Stiefel’s residence. He passed them on to Irving. The day after his meeting with Priesack, Irving sat down to examine the photocopies. Although he was no hand-writing expert or a Forensic analyst, Irving reached the inescapable conclusion in less than 3 hours: the diary was a forgery. Irving came to this conclusion simply by reading the diary carefully and discovering that several words were written differently in different documents (which suggests that Kujau was not a particularly accomplished forger, after all) and a number of words were misspelt. Irving noted in his personal diary:

‘By lunch-time I was unfortunately satisfied that the Priesack collection was stuffed with fake documents.’

At this time Irving (according to Selling Hitler) was in deep financial trouble, following a rancorous and costly divorce. When he got wind of the news that Stern was on the verge of announcing their sensational discovery of Hitler’s diaries, Irving swung into action. He went to rival newspapers as well as television channels (in West Germany), and gave a spree of interviews (at very handsome fees) in which he denounced the documents as fakes. (Selling Hitler informs that Irving earned £15,000 in less than a month.) He even turned up at the conference Stern organized (which Hugh Trevor-Roper also attended) when the scandal began snowballing, and disrupted the conference by waving the photocopies of the fake documents he had in his possession. Irving was however a man of altogether lesser moral fibre. His involvement in this affair was entirely dictated by self-interest. He wanted to string along the controversy for as long as he could (more television interviews and newspaper articles). When he realised, upon his return to England from West Germany, that the brouhaha was settling down (because most now believed that the documents were forgeries), Irving gave an interview to the BBC saying that he had changed his mind and now thought the diaries were genuine. It did not work, as the forensic tests (which Stern should have carried out at the beginning) proved beyond doubt that the diaries were fakes. However, as mentioned earlier, it wasn’t as if Irving (as observed bitterly by Peter Koch, the editor of Stern) had a reputation to lose.

Why would anyone give serious consideration to the notion that Adolf Hitler, during his years in power—his schedule crammed with murdering millions of Jews and invading countries and ushering Europe into a disastrous war—had the time to write diaries, especially when he was supposed to have remarked in the 1940s that he hated writing?

Selling Hitler provides two possible explanations. The first one is rooted in an anecdote recounted by Hans Baur, Hitler’s personal pilot, in his memoir, entitled Hitler’s Pilot, which was published in the 1950s. The anecdote in turn relates to a true historical event. On 20 April 1945, as Hitler ‘celebrated’ his 56th and final birthday, a mission codenamed ‘Operation Seraglio’ began. This involved evacuating about 80 members of Hitler’s entourage from his Berlin bunker to a destination in South Germany, where the Nazis had half-formulated a plan to form a new centre of command in the event of Berlin’s fall to the allied forces which, at this stage, was imminent. (Hitler himself had refused to leave, as had Eva Braun, his companion of several years. Braun would achieve her life-long ambition of becoming Mrs Hitler within the next 9 days, and would kill herself, along with Hitler, the day after the marriage.) Hans Baur had managed to make two planes available for the mission. In addition to people, a mass of official government documents, personal papers, personal properties and valuables—filling ten trunks—were loaded onto the two planes. One of the planes was to be flown by Major Friedrich Gundlfinger, a veteran of the Russian front. It was the plane Gudlfinger was flying that did not complete the journey. Gudlfinger’s plane crashed into the Heidenholz forest close to the Czech border, very near to a small German village of Boernersdorf. All the trunks, carrying documents, on the plane went missing—possibly destroyed, possibly stolen by the villagers who rushed to the spot after the plane crashed. The information that Gudlfinger’s plane had gone missing was relayed to General Baur in Berlin; and it fell to Baur to inform the Fuhrer that one of the planes in ‘operation Seraglio’ had gone missing. Ten years later, in his memoir (Hitler’s Pilot) Baur recorded Hitler’s reaction when he heard the news. Hitler, Baur recalled, ‘became very pale’, and asked which plane had gone missing. When informed that it was the plane Gudlfinger was flying, Hitler (according to Baur’s memoir) appeared ‘very upset’. He then uttered words (recorded in the memoir) that would cause much mischief forty years later. ‘In that plane,’ Hitler exclaimed, ‘were all my private archives that I had intended as a testament to posterity. It is a catastrophe!’ When Konrad Kujau invented a brother in the East German army who, he (Kujau) claimed had got his hands on the stash from this plane, the Nazi-obsessed Heidmann had no trouble in accepting the hypothesis that the trunks on Gundlfinger’s plane contained Hitler’s personal diaries, which had somehow survived the crash. Heidmann, with a colleague from Stern, even made a trip to the sleepy hamlet of Boernersdorf (at that time in East Germany) and confirmed from the older villagers that there indeed had been a plane crash in the dying days of the Third Reich. From this information Heidmann made the leap of faith that the diaries Kujau was passing on to him were genuine Hitler diaries that were on this plane. This is the second explanation Selling Hitler provides as to why Kujau’s improbable story was believed. Kujau was believed because people wanted to believe him; either because they had lost their perspective (Heidmann) in their mania for the Third Reich memorabilia, or because they were desperate for a sensational story (management of Stern)—which they thought would bring them fame and money—and had taken leave of their common sense.

Heidmann and Kujau’s worlds came crashing when the diaries were shown, beyond doubt, to be false, and Stern was forced to accept that they had made a monumental error of judgement. The Stern management forced Heidmann to finally reveal who his contact was. After that he was summarily fired and Stern announced that they would be pressing charges against him for fraud. Stern accepted that Heidmann genuinely believed that the forged diaries were genuine; the fraud charges related to the money (meant for the diaries) he had siphoned off. As the spokesperson for Stern said, ‘Heidmann has not just been deceived, he too is a deceiver.’ The name Heidmann supplied to Stern was Konrad Fischer (which was what Kujau had told his name was to Heidmann). Kujau realised the balloon was going up when he read in the newspapers (in Stuttgart) about the controversy. He phoned Heidmann, telling him that he was phoning from Czechoslovakia. A distraught Heidmann told him that the diaries were fakes. ‘Who could have forged so much?’ Heidmann demanded to know. ‘Oh my God,’ wailed Kujau, ‘oh my God!’ Heidmann told him that both of them were going to end up in prison. ‘Come on,’ pleaded Heidmann, ‘where did you get the books from?’ ‘They are from East Germany, man.’ Kujau replied.

Kujau was of course not in Czechoslovakia; but neither was he in Stuttgart. He was in the Austrian industrial town of Dornbirn, near the Bavarian border, holed up in the house of the parents of his mistress. His plan was to sit it out in Austria till things cooled off. That was not going to happen. Every day on the Austrian television was news about the fake diaries. It was Kujau’s turn to feel shocked and betrayed when he learned that Stern had given Heidmann a total of 9 million deutschmarks to buy the diaries. Kujau had received at most a quarter of the sum. The deceiver had been deceived. Kujau, bitterly upset, phoned his lawyer in Stuttgart and learned that the Hamburg State Prosecutors were looking for him. The police had broken into Kujau’s premises and, watched by a gaggle of reporters, had removed evidence: ten cartons and two sacks full of books about Hitler, correspondence, newspaper cuttings, a copy of Mein Kamfp and artists’ material. Kujau contacted the Hamburg prosecutor and told him that he was willing to surrender voluntarily. Kujau returned to Germany and, over the next ten days, stuck to his original story—that he was only a middleman and the diaries had indeed come from East Germany. But, true to form, he weaved another story. It was not his brother but another man, called ‘Mirdorf’, whom Kujau had known when he was living in East Germany, who had supplied Kujau with the diary, which Kujau had sold to Fritz Stiefel. Later, after Heidmann became aware of the diary and pressed Kujau to provide more diaries, Kujau contacted ‘Mirdorf’ and obtained more diaries. This was a wildly improbable story and the Hamburg prosecutors had no trouble demolishing it. The only part of Kujau’s story that was true was that he had not received 9 million deutschmarks from Heidmann.

As Heidmann had predicted both he and Kujau were charged with fraud; both were found guilty and were sent to prison for 4 and 3 years respectively. During the trial Heidmann went completely to pieces, while Kujau revelled in the notoriety and gave interviews to magazines from his cell.

At the time several theories floated about the origins of the diaries and possible conspiracy behind them. Communists saw a Capitalist plot to denigrate them; Capitalists saw a Communist plot to spread disinformation and destabilise the Federal Republic of Germany. To some historians it was fresh evidence of the continued hold of Hitler over the West German society. The truth, in all probability, was more prosaic. As mentioned at the beginning, a small time crook and a forger managed to hoodwink people because of the naivety, incompetence and greed of those whom he hoodwinked. That said, as Selling Hitler postulates, there are a few unanswered questions about Konrad Kujau. The foremost is when, how and why did he learn to forge Nazi documents which fooled a number of handwriting experts and ‘Hitler specialists’. Did he learn his craftsmanship by working for someone else? Although it is possible that Kujau might have had an accomplice to help him forge the diaries (although he denied it), the reason the fraud swelled to the level it did was the utter incompetence of Stern. Kujau probably did not guess (who could?) that the magazine would behave so foolishly.

Selling Hitler, first published in 1986, does not say what happened to the two protagonists of the story. WikiPedia informs that both Heidmann and Kujau served their sentences and were released after a few years. Heidmann’s career was destroyed and he never recovered from the debacle. Kujau, on the other hand, thrived. For a few years after his prison release Kujau became something of a minor celebrity and appeared on television show as a ‘forgery expert’.  Soon he set up a business selling ‘genuine Kujau fakes’. He even stood for the election of the Mayer of Stuttgart (he lost; you’d be relieved to know). He died in 2000 of cancer when he was 62. In 2006 his grand-niece was charged with selling ‘fake forgeries’, cheap Asian made copies of famous paintings, with forged signatures of Konrad Kujau. Heidmann is alive and apparently leads an impoverished existence. In 2002 it was alleged that Heidmann had worked for the dreaded East German secret service, Stasi, although he portrayed himself as a double agent. Heidmann vehemently denied that he had ever worked for Stasi.

When last interviewed a few years ago, Heidmann still believed that the diaries were original.

We can be persuaded to doubt our certainties but never our lies.