World of Forensic Science. Editor: K Lee Lerner & Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2005.
In April 1983 Gruner and Jahr, the parent company of the West German publisher of the popular magazine Stern,announced that it had purchased for $2.3 million an astonishing set of documents: sixty-two notebooks that purported to be the handwritten diaries of Adolf Hitler, as well as an unpublished third volume of Mein Kampf (My Struggle), Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto written while he was incarcerated in Landsberg prison in the 1920s. Stern began to serialize the diaries, which covered the period 1935-45, and sold publication rights to Newsweek in the United States and to the London Times.
The story surrounding the documents supposed that they had been on a plane carrying the Führer’s personal archives out of Berlin when it was shot down in April 1945 near the village of Börnersdorf, in what would later become East Germany. The documents, which escaped destruction because they were housed in a metal box, were recovered by local farmers, who hid them until they were smuggled out of the country and came into the hands of a document collector and World War II enthusiast named Konrad Kujau.
The diaries sent shock waves throughout the world and touched off a historical controversy, for they portrayed a Hitler who was very different from the man who haunted the history books. In particular, they suggested that Hitler had no involvement in the 1938 riot against the Jews called Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), that he knew nothing of the “final solution,” or plans to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population, and that his goal was simply to resettle western Europe’s Jews in eastern Europe. If the diaries were authentic, they were the most significant historical find in decades, and the history of the Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s would have to be entirely rewritten.
Stern had initially been skeptical and reluctant to purchase the documents. In time, skepticism and reluctance turned into an almost fevered excitement about this apparent historical discovery. Stern’s eventual willingness to accept the authenticity of the documents rested on two foundations. First were the memoirs of Lieutenant General Hans Baur, Hitler’s chief SS pilot, who confirmed that a plane flown by one Major Friedrich Gundlfinger was indeed ferrying Hitler’s private papers out of the country the month when his plane was shot down. Second, Stern sought confirmation from other sources. It submitted the papers to three handwriting experts: Dr. Max Frei-Sulzer, a former head of the policeforensic science department in Zurich, Switzerland; American document verification expert Ordway Hilton; and a third expert in the employ of the German police. Comparing the writing in the diaries with known samples of Hitler’s handwriting retrieved from Germany’s Federal Archives, these experts concluded that both the diaries and the samples were written by the same hand, that of Adolf Hitler. Backing up their claims were prominent historians such as Britain’s Hugh Trevor-Roper, although other historians noted historical inconsistencies in the diaries and denounced them as hoaxes.
The controversy prompted the German Federal Archives to conduct its own independent tests, focusing not on the handwriting, but on the physical documents themselves. On May 6, 1983, the archives held a press conference and announced that the diaries were forgeries.
The forensics evidence used to reach this conclusion was based on examination of the ink and paper, as well as seals affixed to the documents. Modern ink has different varieties of chemical composition, or “fingerprints,” that fall into four groupings: (1) inks in which gallic acid is used to hold iron salts in suspension; (2) those in which gum arabic is used to hold carbon particles in suspension; (3) those that contain synthetic dyes, as well as a range of polymers and acids; (4) those that contain various solvents and additives such as chloride to hold synthetic dyes or pigments.
Ink samples, like any substance, can be tested using chromatography, a process by which the ingredients in the substance are held in a solution, then separated as they flow over a medium such as paper or silica gel that absorbs compounds at different rates. The bands created are then examined through micro-spectro photometry, a process of identifying substances from the light transmitted from the minute samples of them. In the case of ink, the results are then compared with a database of three thousand different inks maintained by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. The ink from the Hitler Diaries was subjected to these tests.
The chloride that was identified in the Hitler Diaries ink proved that the documents could have been written only in the previous year. Further, the paper, which had been “aged” by beating on it with a hammer and staining it with tea leaves, was examined under ultraviolet light. This examination showed that the paper contained an additive that had not been used in the papermaking process until 1954. The threads used to affix the seals to the documents, too, were suspect because they contained materials that were not available until after World War II. The physical evidence was conclusive: The documents were an elaborate forgery.
How could such a hoax be perpetrated on millions of people? At the center of the hoax was a sometime artist named Konrad Kujau (1938-2000), who was born into a middle-class family in Löbau, Germany. His father was an enthusiastic Hitler supporter, and the younger Kujau, who showed early promise as an artist, expressed his admiration for his father’s hero by drawing sketches of the Führer. Kujau’s early years are shrouded in some mystery; he worked in a number of short-lived jobs, and he later claimed to have studied at the Dresden Academy of Art. He surfaced near Stuttgart, West Germany, in 1957, where he had numerous brushes with the law and spent time in jail.
In the 1960s, Kujau decided to put his artistic skill to work as a forger, and he earned pocket change forging and selling the autographs of famous people. (In a bizarre footnote, it turned out that at least one of the documents the handwriting experts relied on was itself a Kujau forgery.) By the 1970s, Kujau was buying and selling Nazi memorabilia. He soon realized that he could enhance the value of the items in his collection by forging the signatures of prominent Nazi officials, as well as bogus documentation for them. Collectors snapped up the helmets, uniforms, flags, medals, and letters he sold in this way. Especially popular with collectors were paintings Kujau sold as Hitler’s, but that were his own forgeries.
In the late 1970s, Kujau’s criminal career took a more elaborate direction when he produced a handwritten manuscript purporting to be the third volume of Hitler’s two-volume Mein Kampf (even though Hitler was known to have written the first two volumes with a typewriter). He went on to forge additional documents, including poems he sold to collectors by claiming they were from the pen of Hitler himself. Finally, he began producing the Hitler Diaries, which became a source of fascination among his gullible, but wealthy, clients.
The Stern saga began in 1979, when a journalist who worked for the magazine, Gerd Heidemann, himself a Hitler enthusiast, went to the home of one Fritz Stiefel to see his collection of Nazi memorabilia, including not just paintings and letters, but also a volume of Hitler’s diary, supposedly one of six volumes extant. Heidemann smelled a major news story, but he knew that his editors would have interest only if he did further background work. He traveled to Börnersdorf, where he learned about the mysterious airplane crash and the metal box containing papers that was retrieved from the wreckage. There Heidemann learned that there were not six but twenty-seven volumes of the diary, all in the hands of one Konrad Fischer, an alias Kujau commonly used. Based on his findings, Heidemann pitched the story to his editors, who agreed to pay two million German marks for the twenty-seven volumes. Kujau feared that selling the notebooks would lead to his exposure, but the money was just too much to refuse, so he began work on the diaries in earnest. Over a two-year period, Kujau wrote the diaries out in longhand Gothic script, sealing each notebook with special seals and black ribbon. For content, he relied on newspaper stories, medical documents, and reference books, including a book of Hitler’s speeches.
After the documents were exposed as forgeries, Kujau fled, but he was arrested at the German border and tried in Hamburg in August of 1984. Kujau confessed to the forgeries, and during the trial he made no attempt to hide his guilt. Heidemann was tried as an accomplice, although he protested that he had also been duped. The pair was found guilty and sentenced to four and a half years in prison. The judge criticized Stern, stating the magazine “acted with such naïveté and negligence that it was virtually an accomplice in the fraud.” After serving about three years of his sentence, Kujau was released. In the years that followed he created and sold art reproductions, ran unsuccessfully for public office, and was arrested in 1999 for forging his own driver’s license. Kujau died in 2000. It has never been determined what happened to the total of five million marks Stern allegedly paid out for the Hitler Diaries.