The fraud builds with reporter, Gerd Heidemann, obsessed with Goering. He is facing financial ruin from buying and starting to restore Goering’s yacht. Heidemann enters the circle of the “Mountain People”, the survivors of those who served Hitler such as his secretaries, searching for stories. He ends up buying memorabilia and documents and ultimately is given the opportunity to buy Hitler’s diaries.
The forger, Konrad Kujau, is a good conman but no historian. He does have the facility of being an adequate painter who can paint forgeries of Hitler’s paintings. His real skill is being able to forge handwriting. He can produce more than competent forgeries of several leading Nazis including Hess and Bormann. He proves very skilled at forging Hitler’s writing and signature. He has the skill to write rather than copy Hitler’s writing. (The most intriguing unknown fact to me was that Hitler wrote in the old German Gothic script.)
When Heidemann offers the diaries to the Stern his editors are dismissive but executives above are entranced by this huge scoop. Blinded by their desire for this great coup and constrained by the need for secrecy to preserve the exclusivity of their find they start spending large sums to get the diaries with no effective analysis of them.
When eventually handwriting analysis is done 3 different experts authenticate the diaries. Partly, they are fooled by Kujau’s skill and partly by being given some comparison material that was actually forged by Kujau.
Stern does no forensic analysis, for no valid reason, until very late in the process.
The magazine does bring in Hugh Trevor-Roper, noted Hitler biographer and English historian, who, after a superficial examination of a small portion of the diaries, allows himself to be pushed into a hasty opinion. He forever regrets his opinion they are genuine.
When the diaries are published simple scientific analysis conclusively proves the diaries are not only fakes they are crude fakes. Stern has spent 9 million marks, almost $US4 million.
I was reminded of Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler when Harris sets out part of the excitement and allure of the diaries was the public and academic interest in hoping to understand better the decisions made by Hitler.
The aftermath was dominated by conspiracy theorists as East and West attributed the forgeries to opposing intelligence agencies. Even when it was clearly proven that Kujau acted alone there were theories someone or some agency helped him. I thought of the conspiracy theories around Lee Harvey Oswald. Academics and professionals have a hard time accepting a “primitive” like Kujau could create convincing fakes and dupe them.
The saga of the diaries is an excellent demonstration to experts to insist on the information you need for an opinion, verify the information provided and resist being pressured into giving any opinion, even a preliminary opinion, until you are ready.
Harris may be even better at non-fiction than he is at writing fiction. (May 23/10)