April 29, 2013

German Federal Archives acquire forged Hitler diaries


The cover of Stern for April 22, 1983, announcing the find.

If you wait long enough, an epic scam becomes part of the historical record. At least, that’s what has happened to the famous forged “Hitler Diaries” which have just been acquired by the German Federal Archives. They were donated by Stern, the weekly news magazine that originally bought them in 1983 for a record nine million marks.

The diaries were the work of Konrad Kujau, a notorious and habitual forger of Nazi memorabilia who funneled them through journalist Gerd Heidemann. Peter Wyden’s history of the Hitler-obsessed, The Hitler Virus: The Insidious Legacy of Adolf Hitler, portrays Heidemann as easy bait: fascinated by the Nazi era, he bought Hermann Göring’s yacht in 1970s, carried on an affair with Göring’s daughter Edda, and used his contacts with former Nazi generals to get interviews with figures like Klaus Barbie. And at the time he was shopping the forged diaries to Stern, he was also working for the Stasi.

Of course, Stern weren’t the only ones who humiliated themselves over what were soon proved to be grade-F fakes, made of materials only available after the war, full of information obviously inconsistent with what was known about Hitler, and fundamentally far too big of scoop not to have warranted careful and serious analysis. Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s authentication of them would forever blight his reputation. And Rupert Murdoch bought the serial rights for the Sunday Times, allegedly overruling Trevor-Roper’s last-minute hesitation about the documents with the words “Fuck Dacre [Trevor-Roper’s title]. Publish.”

Both Stern and the Federal Archives now see the diaries as part of media history, a testament to the appetite for more and new information about the Third Reich, and the willingness of news outlets to profit from it. Stern’s editor in chief, Dominick Wichmann, was quoted in a New York Times article on the donation, saying:

“The forged diaries are a part of Stern’s history. We don’t want to push this away, but rather deal with it in an appropriate and factual manner. That’s why we decided to give the notebooks to the Federal Archives.”

Like the accession of the Arthur and Janet Freeman Collection of Literary and Historical Forgery by Johns Hopkins (discussed in this Moby post), the Federal Archives’s decision to accept this famous forgery demonstrates that libraries and archives are increasingly willing to view these types of documents as worthy of preservation. Perhaps it’s an acknowledgement that humans will believe lots of crazy things, and that those beliefs have significant influence on the course of events.

This isn’t exactly news, and you can’t really be absolved just by admitting your mistakes—though it happens all the time (I’m looking at you, Anthony Weiner/Reddit/Jonah Lehrer/others). But the Federal Archive’s calm willingness to preserve what could easily have been an archival hot potato seems like it might be the product of the German nation’s long experience over the course of the last sixty plus  years of admitting failure—a by-now institutional ability to say, without too much huffing and puffing, “Yep, we fucked up.”



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.