Willingness to be deceived isn’t uniquely American. In my last post, I examined the Clifford Irving scandal, in which that writer claimed to be helping the mysterious Howard Hughes in writing his autobiography. In But the gullibility of the public – and the press – is not just an American phenomenon.
In April 1983, the West German weekly magazine Der Stern, one of the most popular publications in Europe, announced that its star reporter, Gerd Heidemann, had “found”27 previously unknown diaries written by none other than Adolf Hitler from 1932 through 1945. No one had ever known these existed, but, according to Heidemann, they had miraculously been smuggled out of Hitler’s bunker shortly before his suicide, and even more miraculously, survived a plane crash in a farmer’s field. The farmer had then tucked the diaries away, until a mystery man had handed them off to Heidemann.
In a country still struggling to come to terms with its Nazi legacy, the news of these diaries was stunning. Even more surprising were some of the entries from what turned out to be sixty-two volumes: Hitler seemed to be much kinder, much gentler, than history had shown; while he appeared preoccupied with his health and appearance (complaining that Eva said he had bad breath), his diaries gave no evidence of his anti-Semitism or his genocidal tendencies. Well-respected historians quickly contacted the magazine’s offices to make appointments to examine the diaries themselves. If authentic, the diaries would demand massive revision of the historical record.
The diaries had been brought to Der Stern‘s attention two years earlier. So that there would be no dispute, before the announcement, the magazine had hired handwriting experts (recommended by a friend of Heidemann’s) to authenticate Hitler’s handwriting, which the experts had done. Still, when the magazine made its startling announcement, critics of the magazine pointed out that Heidemann was a known collector of Nazi memorabilia, had at one time dated Goering’s daughter Edda, and had been seen socializing with former Nazi officers. Was it just a coincidence that Heidemann had stumbled onto these diaries, or was it a hoax?
Within two weeks, the whole scam had unraveled. The West German government hired independent handwriting experts who disputed the authenticity of the diaries, and in fact were able to point to the real author, a master forger named Konrad Kujau. The reporter, Heidemann, claimed he had been duped by Kujau. Eventually, he, along with Kujau, was charged with fraud; Kujau was convicted, but Heidemann was not.
The magazine’s reputation was severely damaged after this affair, and it would take it years to recover. But to understand the willingness of educated people to embrace “The Hitler Diaries,” one must understand the legacy of the Hitler regime. By the early 1980s, the publishers and editors, at major German magazines were, like their readers, men (and some women) who had been born just before, or during, the Nazi regime. They had been taught Nazi ideology in schools. They had grown to adulthood in postwar Germany, and had spent decades trying to come to terms with their own families’ complicity in the Nazi’s atrocities. “The Hitler Diaries” demonstrated to them how they and their parents could have believed in Hitler and his policies.
Hitler remains an enduring source of fascination, even 70 years after his death. A younger generation of historians, many of them the offspring of those children indoctrinated with Nazi ideas, began, in the late 1980s, to delve into other sources, raiding old attics and storehouses for letters and diaries, but not those of Nazi leaders, but of ordinary people. In 1996, American historian Daniel Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust; he argued that anti-Semitism was not just a cornerstone of the Nazi’s philosophy, but was in fact engrained in the outlook of ordinary Germans by the early 20th century. While controversial, even today, Goldhagen’s book initiated a wave of historical articles and books scrutinizing the actions and thoughts of ordinary Germans.
Today, Hitler is as much the target of jokes and satires as a symbol of evil. But the scandal of “The Hitler Diaries” is a lesson in the difficulty a nation or a group can have in learning to accept its past.