When Frank Giles was appointed editor of The Sunday Times in 1981, he was warned that he would keep his job for only two years. This was not a very Sunday Times way of doing things. Giles’s predecessor, Harold Evans, had the job for 14 years, and only four editors had served before him throughout the entire 20th century.
But Frank Giles was different, because he was the first Sunday Times editor appointed under its new owner, Rupert Murdoch. Brash, and possessing a cavalier attitude to his publications’ editorial independence, Murdoch had amassed a not entirely unreasonable reputation for ruthlessness. True to his word, Murdoch did remove Giles from the post after two years. But that’s only thanks to a little thing like the biggest forgery scandal ever to rock the press.
Frank Giles died in October at the age of 100. He accomplished many spectacular feats during his life. He reported on the postwar reconstruction of Europe. He became foreign editor of The Sunday Times after a recommendation from Ian Fleming. He interviewed three American presidents. His life was full and rich. However, Giles is destined to be known for only one thing; he was the Sunday Times editor who published Hitler’s fake diaries.
Looking back at it now, it seems incredible that anyone could have been suckered by a collection of notebooks that were so obviously bogus. It wasn’t so much that the contents of the diaries were spurious—“Must not forget tickets for the Olympic Games for Eva,” one entry read, another “Because of the new pills I have violent flatulence”—it was more that it was completely scientifically impossible for Hitler to have written them. This is partly because he had injured his writing arm while the entries continued as normal, but also because the diaries were bound with polyester, a substance that was first manufactured eight years after the Führer died.
The story of how the diaries came to be published is little short of a riot. It does not deserve to die with Giles.
First, let’s travel back to 1945. Hitler, on the brink of death and defeat, had ordered an evacuation of his inner circle from the Führerbunker to his Berghof in the Bavarian Alps. In total, 10 planes made the journey, carrying doctors and secretaries and aides. The 10th and final plane carried 10 chests, flown under the tight supervision of one of Hitler’s personal valets, Sergeant Wilhelm Arndt. The plane did not reach its destination, instead crashing into the Heidenholz forest on the edge of the Czech border. Luggage and debris were strewn across the forest floor, and locals were the first on scene to loot it all. One man used the plane’s cockpit window to build his garden shed, for example.
On learning of the crash, Hitler was incensed, raging that the plane had contained “extremely valuable documents which would show posterity the truth of my actions!” The nature of these documents, now apparently lost forever, would soon slip into legend. Perhaps they were destroyed in the crash—eyewitness reports suggest that the heat from the ensuing fire was easily enough to render human corpses unrecognizable—or perhaps they also were looted. After all, one man’s trash is another’s shed window.
Three decades later, a journalist bought a yacht. It wasn’t just any yacht, however; it was the Carin II, a 90-foot vessel described by some as “the last Nazi treasure.” Named after Hermann Göring’s first wife, but presented to him by the German motor industry as he wed his second, the Carin II hosted lavish dinners with Nazi top brass until the end of the war. Soon after, it was discovered by Field Marshal Montgomery, who gave it to the British royal family, who in turn vacationed with it for 15 years. Rightly wary of the association with its past, the family eventually sold it to a printer from Bonn, who held on to it for 12 years before selling it to Gerd Heidemann, the journalist in question.
Heidemann, a staff writer for the German magazine Stern and an enthusiastic Nazi-memorabilia collector, had grand plans for the Carin II. He took a mortgage on his apartment in order to restore the boat’s interior—including a toilet seat upon which Göring himself sat—and used it to host prominent Nazis such as Karl Wolff and Wilhelm Mohnke. Heidemann did such a good job restoring the Carin II, in fact, that he ended up having a five-year affair with Göring’s daughter, Edda, known as the Shirley Temple of the Third Reich.
But operating a boat was an expensive job. First Heidemann tried to offset the cost with proceeds from a book based on conversations with his Nazi guests. But when that fell through, Mohnke suggested selling the Carin II to another Nazi-memorabilia collector named Fritz Stiefel. Heidemann and Stiefel met; Stiefel didn’t want the boat, but did mention something that Heidemann might find interesting: the lost diaries of Adolf Hitler.
The diaries were reclaimed from the Heidenholz forest, Steifel said, hidden by a farmer and safeguarded by a G.D.R. officer who now wanted to sell them—Heidemann’s explanation of how the diaries came into his possession is straight out of a spy film. On an East German highway, he threw the money into another car, from which the six notebooks were tossed into his Mercedes. The story thrummed with the spirit of adventure. It was a caper with an incredible historical document at the center. It was all too easy for Heidemann, and his bosses at Stern, to get caught up in the excitement.
Heidemann continued to buy more and more volumes from his mysterious seller. First there were 27 of them. And then, once Stern demonstrated a willingness to buy them, more started to appear. And more. In total, Stern ended up paying 9.3 million Deutsche Marks ($9.7 million today) for 60 volumes of diaries. But prior to publishing, the magazine asked a team of historians to verify their authenticity.
Again, let’s pause here to explain exactly how ridiculous these diaries were. Forget the magical way that their numbers kept growing whenever money appeared. Forget again the contents—which failed to make a single mention of the Holocaust, plus were routinely cribbed, copied word for word from the Max Domarus anthology, Hitler: Speeches and Proclamations 1932-1945, The Chronicle of a Dictatorship—or all the polyester. These diaries were forged in exactly the same way that you, an amateur forger at best, would try to forge a diary. Ink was watered down to make it look old. Tea was spattered into the pages to discolor them. The insignia on the front of each diary read ‘FH,’ because the forger was so new to Gothic script that he couldn’t tell the letter A from the letter F.
And yet, amazingly, they were deemed to be real. To verify the purchases, Heidemann hired the services of the German Federal Archive’s Josef Henke and Klaus Oldenhage along with a former head of the Zurich police forensic department. Ordway Hilton, former president of the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners, was brought in to further the testing despite not being able to read German. All of them determined that the diaries were genuine. This is because they were only given copies of pages from the diaries to examine, and asked to compare them with a handwritten telegraph draft from Hitler that Heidemann also owned. The experts declared that the forged diaries were written by the same person as the writer of the telegraph draft because, in fact, they were. They were both forgeries, and the same man was responsible for the lot.
Konrad Kujau was a petty thief from near Dresden. His one overriding personality trait was that he simply wasn’t a very good one. In 1957 he stole a microphone, and a warrant was made out for his arrest. In 1959 he was fined for stealing tobacco. He went to prison in 1960 for stealing Cognac, and again the following year for stealing fruit. By 1963, however, he had traded theft for forgery. Again, this was less than successful, since his racket making counterfeit luncheon vouchers saw him return to prison once more.
Kujau set up an operation where he’d illegally smuggle war memorabilia from East Germany and sell it at a bumped-up price in the West. He bumped up the prices with—you guessed it—forged documents, covered in tea. He started producing paintings that he said were by Hitler, war poems that he said were by Hitler, an opera named Wieland the Blacksmith that he said was written by Hitler. He even began to handwrite a third volume of Mein Kampf, which he sold to Fritz Stiefel, the collector who would later meet Gerd Heidemann.
Whether intentionally or not, Kujau’s Hitler was a bit more user-friendly than the actual Hitler. He’s thankful that Eva Braun owns puppies, because it means she will stop nagging him. He views Stalin with the same level of affection that a teenage girl might, wondering, “How on Earth does [he] manage it?” He’s weirdly relatable, too, responding to a 1935 munitions explosion in the same way that you or I would respond to a dropped cake: “The explosion catastrophe in Reinsdorf is all I need.” At one point he wrote, “The English are driving me crazy”; a sentiment that still holds true to this day, even to the English.
Eventually the diaries reached Hugh Trevor-Roper, Lord Dacre of Glanton, arguably the leading historian of his time. Trevor-Roper had spent the end of the war traveling around Germany, interviewing Hitler’s associates in an attempt to build the definitive account of his regime and death. The subsequent book, The Last Days of Hitler, would go on to become a classic, as would much of his later work. But he too claimed the diaries were the real deal. This is partly due to miscommunication—he’d been told that the paper had been chemically tested, and that Stern knew the identity of the G.D.R. officer who had kept watch over the diaries when no such man had existed—and partly because his innate common sense couldn’t fathom the level of Konrad Kujau’s greed. “Who, I asked myself, would forge 60 volumes when six would have served his purpose?” he later said.
Trevor-Roper’s word was enough to send the Brinks trucks backing up to Stern’s offices. The very next day Rupert Murdoch arrived in Zurich to discuss international serialization. The Hitler diaries couldn’t have come at a better time for him. Fifteen years into his career as British-newspaper owner, and most famous for transforming a struggling broadsheet called The Sun into what he called “a tearaway paper with lots of tits in it,” he finally had legitimacy in his sights. Under owner Lord Thomson, The Sunday Times had been losing money. It was still struggling to regain its reputation after union disputes forced it out of print for a year in the late 1970s. For its owner, it was more trouble than it was worth; a sad end for a publication steeped in such history. So it was off-loaded, fast, to Murdoch. At the time, he signed legally binding guarantees to preserve the paper’s independence.
But the Hitler diaries were irresistible. Murdoch wanted them, even on the proviso that his paper was not allowed to conduct an independent investigation into them. Sure, the paper had been stung before—just a few years earlier, it almost got caught in the exact same ruse when it came dangerously close to publishing Mussolini’s fake diaries—but this was his chance to put The Sunday Times back on the map.
A handshake deal for U.S. rights was reached for $2.5 million, but then Newsweek, eager to scoop its chief competitor, Time, offered $3 million. Murdoch then returned to Zurich with Newsweek’s president, Mark Edmiston, where they were both told that the price was now $4.25 million, a figure that made each of them leave at once. In the end, Murdoch won the rights, but after driving the price down to $1.2 million. Newsweek settled for a cover story, which included this head-scratcher: “Hitler’s diaries—genuine or not, it almost doesn’t matter in the end.” At last, the stage was set for the diaries to see the light of day.
On Friday, April 22, 1983, Stern issued a press release announcing the existence of the diaries. A press conference was organized for the following Monday. The news provoked a wave of something that Stern had failed to entertain from the get-go: skepticism. Historian Eberhard Jäckel, who had previously seen some of Kujau’s forged Hitler poems, expressed disbelief at the news. Fellow historian David Irving—who would later rise to infamy as a Holocaust denier—told as many news organizations as possible that the diaries were fake. Even Hugh Trevor-Roper was beginning to have doubts. These doubts became so grave that he eventually told the editor of The Times. That’s The Times, the Monday-to-Saturday paper, and not The Sunday Times, the paper that actually had the serialization rights.
Here begins one of the more comic moments of miscommunication in recent history. The Times’s editor, Charles Douglas-Home, assumed that Trevor-Roper would inform Sunday Times editor Frank Giles of his misgivings. Trevor-Roper assumed that Douglas-Home would tell Giles. In the end neither did, and on the evening of April 23, The Sunday Times took its serialization to press, screaming THE SECRETS OF HITLER’S WAR from the front page. “Look at that,” said Giles’s deputy editor, Brian MacArthur, holding the cover aloft. “You’ll never see another front page like that as long as you live.”
That same evening, The Sunday Times’s editors met to discuss where to take the Hitler diaries next. Giles struck upon the idea of hiring Hugh Trevor-Roper to write a long essay debunking the growing claims that the diaries were fake. He telephoned Trevor-Roper. MacArthur was in the room and would later write about exactly what happened next:
“As Giles was speaking on the phone to him there was a marked change in his tone of voice. The office fell silent. ‘Well, naturally, Hugh, one has doubts … but I take it that these doubts aren’t strong enough to make you do a complete 180-degree turn on that? Oh. Oh. I see. You are doing a 180-degree turn.’”
Unsure of his next move—recalling a newspaper at the eleventh hour would be horribly expensive, but perhaps the only way to salvage the title’s reputation—Giles called his proprietor for advice. Rupert Murdoch listened to his editor’s despair down the line, waited a single beat, and replied, “Fuck Dacre—publish.” Initially, at least, the diaries were a sensation. The Sunday Times added 60,000 copies to its circulation and was the talk of the English-speaking world. But then came Stern’s press conference, which was a disaster for the ages. Before 27 camera crews from around the world, Stern’s editor in chief, Peter Koch, angrily denied every claim of fakery, stating that “I am a hundred percent convinced that Hitler wrote every single word in these books.” A brief documentary was shown. Volumes of the diaries were produced. And then the press started asking questions, and everything fell apart.
Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was in attendance, quickly became the focus. For almost an hour he hemmed and hawed about the veracity of the diaries, in a way that The New Republic described as “rather like watching a Victorian gentleman trying to back peddle on a penny farthing.” Then David Irving stood up from the middle of the room, and angrily started to list all the ways that the diaries were forged. There was a stampede of reporters toward him. A Japanese crew were flattened in the rush. A fistfight broke out. Security removed Irving from the conference after he asked the Stern brass whether or not the diaries had been forensically tested. By the end of the two-hour debacle, Stern had agreed to the test. Needless to say, when the results came back in early May, they weren’t good. The world finally knew the truth. The Hitler diaries were fake.
Murdoch listened to his editor’s despair, waited a single beat, and replied, “Fuck Dacre—publish.”
The repercussions were vast. When Konrad Kujau discovered how much money Stern had paid for the diaries, he turned himself in. Not due to his sense of moral duty, but because the figure was much higher than what he’d been paid. Gerd Heidemann, it turned out, had been skimming from the payments and keeping much of it for himself. Heidemann was arrested that same evening. After Kujau confessed (in Hitler’s handwriting), they were both sentenced to jail—four years and eight months for Heidemann, four years and six months for Kujau—which would have been longer, the judge said, were it not for “the negligence of Stern” in the acquisition of the diaries. In turn, Stern’s two senior editors were forced to resign and the magazine itself was forced to confront its part in the biggest scandal ever to hit the German media. Its reputation was eventually re-won, but the battle was hard fought and involved more than a little soul-searching.
Which is more than can be said for Rupert Murdoch. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” was his shrugged-off assessment of the hoax. In his mind he paid less than the asking price for the diaries, and the ensuing mêlée had boosted circulation beyond all recognition. He needed a fall guy, though, and that was Frank Giles. Murdoch moved him to the position of “editor emeritus.” “The ‘E’ means you’re out,” he reportedly told Giles, “and the ‘Meritus’ means you deserved it.” But time passes and things die down. At the 2012 Leveson inquiry, which was prompted by the phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch’s News of the World, he admitted responsibility for the publication of the diaries, saying, “It was a massive mistake I made, and I will have to live with for the rest of my life.” William Broyles Jr., the editor in chief at Newsweek resigned “to pursue new entrepreneurial ventures,” which in his case proved true; he went on to achieve success as a screenwriter in Hollywood.
Konrad Kujau was released from prison and started a business selling Kujau-branded fake artworks. He ran for mayor of Stuttgart and died in 2000. The Carin II, which is now owned by a German businessman, has been renamed the Prince Charles and counts its home port as Valletta. “Nearly everyone who wanted to do me in is dead now,” Gerd Heidemann, now in his late 80s, told the German tabloid Bild in 2008. “But I’m still alive.” According to the paper, Heidemann was living in poverty in Hamburg, with debts running to hundreds of thousands of dollars, sleeping on a fold-out bed, his tiny apartment filled with clippings about the scandal, after which he never again worked as a journalist. And the diaries themselves? Six years ago the German Federal Archives accepted them into their collection as being of “great significance to past history and the history of the press.” It just goes to show that even fake news can be news, so long as it makes a big enough splash.
Stuart Heritage is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL based in Kent, U.K.