"Hitler's Diaries Discovered!" How Hoax Documents Became The Most Infamous Fake News Ever
Updated: Sep 26
"Hitler's Diaries Discovered!" screamed the front page of the German magazine Stern on April 25th, 1983. More conservatively, the Sunday Times in London – which had agreed to pay paid Stern £600,000 to share in the glory of this stunning story – offered its readers a "world exclusive" on "The Secrets of Hitler's War."
German journalist Gerd Heinemann had told Stern that 62 volumes of diaries written by the Führer between 1932 and 1945 had been recovered from a plane crash in East Germany at the end of the war. The magazine paid out £2.5 million for them.
But it turned out they were fake – created by Konrad Kajau, a notorious Stuttgart forger and antiques dealer calling himself Herr Fischer.
Before paying out, Stern had employed experts to compare handwriting in the "diaries" with other examples of Hitler's writing. They concluded, to Stern's initial great satisfaction, that all were written by the same person. They were right, but it later turned out that the "genuine" Hitler handwriting they looked at had also been forged by Kajau!
In London, Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times had turned for assurance to historian Hugh Trevor-Roper who enjoyed huge academic prestige after publication in 1947 of his book, "The Last Days of Hitler".
He told bosses at the newspaper he was satisfied that the "diaries" were genuine.
Trevor-Roper later became skeptical, however, and expressed his doubts when Stern admitted it did not know the identity of the East German source supplying the volumes.
With suspicion mounting, and amid fears of possibly facing charges of illegally circulating Nazi propaganda, Stern submitted three of the volumes to West German police for examination.
Forensic analysis quickly revealed that they were fakes, the paper and ink used for the "diaries" not being available until well after the war. They had actually been produced between 1981–83 by Kujau, who had previously forged and sold paintings which he also claimed were the work of Hitler.
Heidemann, making the most of his opportunities, had been creaming off money from Stern by inflating the sums that he claimed had been demanded by Kujau.
In 1985 Heidemann and Kujau were both sentenced to four years and eight months in jail. When Kujau was released after three years, he became a celebrity. He opened a gallery of forgeries in Stuttgart, although he did get fined £2,000 for doing a little driving licence counterfeiting on the side.
When he relocated to Majorca, German tourists would seek him out to ask for demonstrations of the art of forgery. He died in 2000, although The Guardian‘s obituary did warn that “he might still be around somewhere, having pulled off his last grand sting”.
Heidemann fared less well. In 2008 reporters found him aged 76, living alone in a cramped Hamburg apartment on £280 a month, and still bitter about the way he had been treated.
The historian Trevor-Roper was also left badly damaged. For all his glorious academic achievements, it was the Hitler Diaries for which he was remembered. When he died in 2003, the headline on The Independent’s obituary called him “The Hitler Diaries historian”.
Rupert Murdoch, though, is still in “the entertainment business”. In respect of the Hitler Diaries, he has also been credited with the blithe statement: “Circulation went up and it stayed up. We didn’t lose money or anything like that.”
Robert Harris later wrote that the statement itself was accurate, even if Murdoch might not have been the one who made it. Harris wrote that Stern returned to News International all the money it had paid for the British rights, and The Sunday Times retained 20,000 of the 60,000 new readers it acquired when it published its “scoop”.
Mr Murdoch lost an editor, but in monetary terms, that particular bit of fake news cost the billionaire nothing.