The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book review

Selling Hitler

  • SELLING HITLER by Robert Harris. New York: Pantheon Books. First American edition, 1986, 402 pp., $18.95, ISBN 0-394-5533-5.

Reviewed by H. Keith Thompson

The quantities of Third-Reich-related forgeries in circulation can generally be divided into two categories. First, there are the forgeries made by the World War II Allies, and by various international pressure groups, for propaganda purposes, such as the masses of faked material introduced by the Allies at their various postwar “trials” of defeated Axis adherents, e.g., the Russian “evidence” conceming the Katyn Massacre. Most forgeries in the second category (documents, uniforms, medals, weapons and other memorabilia) are merely attempts to make money.

Selling Hitler tells the story of one of the most flagrant, crassly commercial attempts to cash in on the still intense memory of the Third Reich and its leaders. An important and highly entertaining work by a BBC television joumalist, it deals not only with controversy surrounding the forged purported “diaries” of Adolf Hitler, but also touches on the murky world of dealing in and collecting of so-called “Nazi memorabilia,” much of which is currently being faked on a considerable scale in England, Germany and the U.S.

A special issue of the IHR Newsletter, No. 18, April l983, dealt with the then breaking story of the Hitler “diaries,” revealing the facts and the assertions as they then stood and very intelligently advising that, “Ordinary prudence, as well as academic skepticism, would dictate that no opinion be given until the evidence is fully examined by experts and specialists of impeccable credentials.” It is a pity that historians of some stature, establishment as well as revisionist, did not heed that sage advice but instead jumped into the controversy, giving off the-cuff opinions to please those sharks of the publishing world who were prepared to pay very well for such opinions when favorable to them. The “anything for a buck” mentality gripped the historians involved when they knew full well that only forensic scientists, with knowledge of papers, inks, glue, bindings and the interaction of time on those elements, were qualified to rule in the matter. It is far more difficult to launch a fraud among scientists, for their work is physical, finite, and can be do double-checked by other qualified scientists.

Easily the most costly and most publicity-ridden fraud in modern times, 60 purported volumes of Hitler “diaries” brought — temporarily — over $2,000,000, only to be conclusively identified as forgeries within less than three weeks. Selling Hitler tells the whole story.

The chief villain in the affair was Gerd Heidemann, a reporter for the German publication, Stern, who worked with the forger himself, Konrad Kujau alias “Connie” Fischer, a dealer and middleman in Nazi memorabilia, some genuine and some fake. Aside from his work on the “diaries,” Kujau also forged more than 300 drawings and paintings attributed to Hitler, many of which ended up reproduced as genuine in a beautiful multi-colored edition of Adolf Hitler As Painter and Draftsman, published by Texas millionaire Billy F. Price, Printed in German, it was banned in West Germany but, in 1984, appeared in the U.S. as Adolf Hitler: The Unknown Artist. Robert Harris relates,

A large section of it was the work of Konrad Kujau, but it would have cost a fortune to rip out the fakes and reprint the book. The Kujaus therefore were left sprinkled amongst the Hitlers, and nobody, apparently, cared. “Even the suspect pictures,” claimed a limp note of explanation in the book’s introduction, “generally reflect Hitler’s known style.” That remark echoes that made by Newsweek about the Hitler diaries; “Genuine or not, it almost doesn’t matter in the end.”

Frankly, the Kujau Hitlers were not very good. Some of them might be said to reflect Hitler’s style, but most of them did not. Hitler was a skilled but very conservative artist. He was not good at human figures, and he preferred to do landscapes. The market is glutted with forgeries and any prospective buyer of Hitler art had best be on guard, particularly since one of the “art experts” involved is ready to authenticate anything as a Hitler for an appropriate fee. The same is true of much other “Nazi memorabilia.” A village in West Germany thrives on the cottage industry of reproducing Hitler silverware, knives, forks, spoons, dishes, etc. It is impossible to determine the age of an element like silver and all that is needed is a good set of engraving dies for the simple monogrammed design of the silver used in Hitler’s various residences and many officers' messes. Another popular item is SS silverware, even simpler to reproduce, adorned as it is with merely the SS runes. And Brooklyn, N.Y. a metalworking firm is busily making modern reproductions of copper busts and statuary. A special formula has even been developed to produce a convincing age patina.

The group of so-called handwriting experts and historians summoned — for large fees — for the purpose of authenticating the Hitler diaries proved to be a pitiful lot. The first was Ordway Hilton of South Carolina, a name not widely known in the field of handwriting analysis. As author Harris writes, “Hilton s report, couched in five pages of professional gobbledy-gook, was conclusive. But, based as it was on the assumption that all the documents he had been given for comparison were authentic, it was also completely wrong…they were all forged by Kujau.” The West German police were similarly tricked, as was similarly tricked, as was another handwriting expert, one Frei-Sulzer of West Germany. Their “comparison examples” came from the Heidemann archive and were Kujau forgeries. But it provided sufficient “evidence” for the “Stern gang” to begin the international marketing of publication rights. Never before in publishing have such greed and double-dealing been witnessed. Bidding and counter-offers, the repudiation of agreements by the West Germans involved and the aggressive attitude of Rupert Murdoch combined to skyrocket prices. The American editors of Newsweek and the London Sunday Times typified the essentially mercenary role of the press. “Genuine or not, let’s publish the diaries and make money.” That became the order of the day.

Among the historians who had rejected the diaries from the outset were the West Germans Dr. Eberhard Jäckel and Dr. Werner Maser. The American historian Dr. Gerhard Weinberg, of the University of North Carolina, was on the wrong side. After a quick flight (between classes) to Germay, he found certain passages in the diary which coincided with his “own theories,” and he endorsed the authenticity of the manuscripts.

The historian who causes the most trouble was Trevor-Roper (now Lord Dacre), an Englishman who had built a career on his opportunistic book, The Last Days of Hitler, but who was in fact a specialist in the 16th and 17th centuries. Harris notes:

He was not a German scholar. He was not fluent in the language and had admitted as much in a review of Mein Kampf published a decade earlier: “I do not read German,” he confessed, “with great ease or pleasure.” Written in an archaic script, impenetrable to most Germans, the diaries might as well have been composed of Egyptian hieroglyphics for all the sense Trevor-Roper could make of them. He had to rely on the Stern men for translation. The conversation was entirely in English …

Trevor Roper and Murdoch were not friends. Murdoch regarded him as a “typical English establishment waxwork … Harold Evans described the historian at board meetings of Times Newspapers sitting with 'eyes screwed up behind pebble glasses … permanently sniffing the air for non sequiturs …'” For his part, Trevor-Roper considered Murdoch, “an awful cad.” But Trevor Roper did Murdoch’s work and endorsed the Hitler forgeries, creating the biggest stir of all, only to begin within a few days to backtrack and try to wiggle out. What kind of “historians” are these? They had ventured into a field for which they possessed no qualifications.

The forged diaries were, remarkably, rather poor productions. The initials on the binders, taken by Germans to be “AH” but in fact “FH” (for Führerhauptquartier), were made of Hong Kong plastic bought by Kujau in a department store. The “text” was in large measure copied directly from a 1962 work by Max Domarus, Hitler’s Speeches and Proclamations, and Kujau meticulously copied the dated entries, even transcribing errors made by Domarus in dates and acts. Harris notes, “One such mistake was an entry by 'Hitler' recording that he had received a telegram from General Ritter von Epp congratulating him on the fiftieth anniversary of his joining the army; in reality, the telegram was from Hitler to Epp. Kujau had copied the error word-for-word into the diary.”

If there were any heroes in the whole sordid business, who were they? Above all, they were the circle of surviving old Nazis, particularly Hitler’s adjutants, staff, and secretaries. Many of these people had literally lived with Hitler and knew his every movement. He was not a diarist. Heidemann made every effort to infilitrate this group of elderly “keepers of the flame.” He tried to buy his way into their confidence for motives of his own, certainly not political but exclusively financial. SS General Wilhelm Mohnke, a Bunker survivor who led one of the escape groups after Hitler’s death in 1945, notes that at a social occasion in his home, with two of Hitler’s adjutants present, Heidemann announced that a set of Hitler’s diaries had survived. “… the three old SS men were skeptical. 'That was thought by the people there to be impossible,' declared Mohnke.” On another occasion, Mohnke informed Heidemann,

Several things in these diaries were simply not true. First the SS Standarte never had their barracks in Lichterfeld. I belonged to that troop and in March and April 1933 we were in the Friesenstraße…Secondly, at that time this troop of men did not have the name Liebstandarte. Thirdly, the entry for 18 March 1933 was false. Adolf Hitler never visited this troop in the Friesenstraße…

Another major hero was the Bundesarchiv and its forensic scientists. The paper was found to be a type that had not existed before 1955. The bindings contained viscose and polyester, not in use at the time alleged. “And by measuring the evaporation of chloride from the ink, the scientists established that the Hess 'volume had been written within the last two years, whilst the writing in the 1943 diary was less than twelve months old.”

Still another hero was Kenneth Rendell, an autograph dealer and handwriting expert from Massachusetts. He was retained by Newsweek to evaluate the diaries. He used forensic methods and an valid system of analysis, quickly reaching the conclusion that the diaries were forgeries and not particularly good ones. He probably could have counted on a more generous honorarium had he endorsed the diaries. Another autograph dealer sought to interject himself into the controversy for publicity purposes, but ends up in Selling Hitler with an appropriately brief mention.

Robert Harris has written a definitive book on the Hitler diaries hoax. His research is detailed and impeccable. The style of writing, peppered with wit, holds the reader’s attention. This is a book one cannot put down without reading to the last line. It is a valuable reference work and belongs in the library of Revisionists and of others interested in the history of the Third Reich.