Authentic Fakes: The Hitler Diaries and History

Frauds in time become historical artefacts, objects of their own worth. As projects, they may not have succeeded in attaining the brand of authenticity – but that hardly matters. Their authenticity is merely of a different sort – the fake as real, the fake as its own genuine worth. And so the fate of the Hitler Diaries, 62 volumes in all, which made such a splash in 1983 as being the actual record of a dictator’s life, have now become part of the historical record.

Earlier in the week, the forged diaries were rendered official documents of history – at least of a certain type, finding their way into the vaults of the German Federal Archives. As its president Michael Hollmann explained, “The fake Hitler diaries are documents of the past.”

Without any trace of irony, Hollmann claimed that the documents were “in good hands at the Federal Archives.” This in itself is astonishing to ponder – fake documents that themselves assume a historical role, readjusting the parameters of debate, generating their own standard of what is genuine. But of course, the point here is that Hitler is but the shadow of the entire affair, the ghost of laughter riding the image portrayed by Stuttgart dealer and hoaxer Konrad Kujau.

Even as Kujau was writing the volumes, he felt that he had become Hitler, the forger becoming the subject, the fake article assuming the form of a genuine one. “Originally I copied Hitler’s life out of books but later I began to feel like Hitler. As I wrote about Stalingrad, my hand began to shake” (The Telegraph, Sep 14, 2000).

And what magic it was. The journalist Philip Knightley, working for the Sunday Times, sniffed something foul, but could not quite put his finger on what was reeking. He certainly had every right to – he had, after all, the recent forgery of the Mussolini diaries in the back of his mind. That story suggested to him that the experts could not be trusted in their judgment. When the diaries actually reached Knightley, he was appalled by the effort.

The entire forgery has itself become a historical feat, an episode that did not merely captivate one of the great historians of the day – Hugh-Trevor Roper – but also Germany’s respectable paper Stern. “The forged diaries are a part of Stern’s history,” the paper’s editor-in-chief Dominik Wichmann suggested on Tuesday. “We don’t want to push this away, but rather deal with it in an appropriate and factual manner.”

It would certainly have been a hard thing to push away. The paper itself had laden millions of marks on reporter Gerd Heidemann to buy the writings, something he would subsequently pay for by way of conviction for fraud. Many members of staff were appalled by the slapdash dictatorial manner of the board that had rushed the extracts into print. The Sunday Times would also pay dearly for the story, pressured by Rupert Murdoch to bring publications of extracts forward.

As for Trevor-Roper, who was by then Lord Dacre, the problem of being too close to the subject matter rather distorted perspective. History had come alive for a man who had been an intelligence officer during the war. He was himself intimately connected with the study of the Führer, writing even as the rubble was being cleared The Last Days of Hitler (1947).

He had all the credentials for examination bar distance – and the prospect that he was presiding over a remarkable historical testament addled his judgment. It is something he would always regret – not making any assessment provisional on actual testing. It is with some sadness that his obituaries proved clay-footed distortions, much like the bumbling headline of the Times of London: “Hitler Diaries Hoax Victim Lord Dacre dies at 89.”

The believers in authenticity are always the ones to end up with egg on their face. In a sense, they do end up “hoax” victims, undermined for their unquestioning fidelity, the assuredness expertise supposedly brings. Individuals like Kujau might well be convicted, but such a punitive approach detracts from the fact that they will always have the last laugh, revelling in the acts that made them infamous. Had Orson Welles had the chance, he would surely have included Kujau amongst his frauds and fakes, the Clifford Irvings and Elmyr de Horys. (Fittingly, Irving himself wrote a biography about de Hory, a forger’s account of a forger. The mind boggles.)

Deception can be such a rich thing – especially against the skilled yet majestically gullible. All that is left now is to see whether a forgery of the forgery will take place – for those diaries in the Federal archives have now become “authentic” works of history, genuine subjects of research.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.