In April, 1983, the German magazine Stern proudly presented its title story to the world, 'Hitler's Diary Discovered'. Major newspapers around the world, such as the London Sunday Times, New York Times and Newsweek, also covered this sensational find, stating something along the lines of 'Major parts of German history have to be rewritten'. Even credited historians believed the Hitler diaries to be genuine. Within two weeks after their publication however, it was clear that this was nothing but a hoax; the Hitler diaries were a forgery. The whole incident is sometimes regarded as the 20th Century's most infamous forgery.
About 10 years later, the German director Helmut Dietl made a film on this, named Schtonk, dubbed 'The film on the book of the Führer'1. The name 'Schtonk' is a reference to Charlie Chaplin's 1941 classic The Great Dictator2. Of course, the whole affair about the Hitler diaries deserved nothing but a comedy, especially if you know the background of the hoax...
The Real Story
The man who actually forged the diaries was Konrad Kujau. He worked as a forger since his youth, and studied art in East Germany before he fled to the West. He owned a shop near Stuttgart, where he sold (and manufactured) Nazi paraphernalia and mementoes. This included 'guaranteed genuine' poems, writings, paintings, and even an opera of the Führer himself. The first volume of the diaries he wrote were simply some private notes and scribblings, dated January to June, 1935. All in all, the diary contained 62 volumes, dated from 1932 to 1945, thus covering the complete Third Reich.
To explain where he got the diaries from, Kujau made up a story that Hitler's personal belongings were flown out of Berlin in 1945 in an airplane that was shot down near Dresden. The cargo survived the crash unharmed, so the story went, and was eventually under lock and key of an East German General, from whom Kujau got the diaries one volume at a time. Actually, there had indeed been a plane crash in that village (Börnersdorf) and some large cargo boxes had been cleared away afterwards, so the first part sounded credible, and, East Germany being behind the Iron Curtain at that time, the rest of the story couldn't easily be verified.
The man who 'discovered' the Hitler diaries for the German magazine Stern was staff reporter Gerd Heidemann. Reportedly, he was obsessed with everything concerning the Third Reich and Germany's Nazi past, and went on to collect artefacts and personal belongings of the Third Reich's elite. He even bought Hermann Göring's decaying private yacht which nearly bankrupted him.
For him and his stalling career at the Stern it was a bit of luck when he got to know Konrad Kujau, who offered him the first volume of the Hitler diaries. Heidemann was fascinated by the prospect of getting hold of the diaries and publishing them, giving his career a new push. With this sensational material, it was easy for him to get the funding from the Stern to pay for the rest of the volumes; in total, the Stern paid DM9.3 million (at that time £2.3 million), which Heidemann mostly kept to himself.
Considering that even reputable historians believed the diaries to be genuine, one should think that books were outstanding masterpieces of forgery. This, however, is not the case. Even visible to the layman, the most obvious flaw is that the plastic monogram on the front of one diary read 'FH' in gothic letters, rather than 'AH'. Either Kujau had mistaken the 'F' for an 'A', as the letters are somewhat similar, or he simply didn't had an 'A' handy and took an 'F' instead. To prove the diaries to be genuine and to dispel initial doubts of the origin, a handwriting analysis was made, but that was useless because the handwriting in the books was compared with another 'guaranteed genuine' Hitler document - also made by Kujau. Crucial for the discovery of the hoax was that the note books Kujau used were made after the war and contained material not available in the 1930s, and the ink was new as well.
As for the content of the diaries, Kujau made it up from a variety of history books, Hitler biographies and other material, often copying their inaccuracies. In addition, he added rather trite private remarks, such as 'I have violent flatulence, and Eva says I have a bad breath', which supposedly say more about Kujau's condition while writing the books than the Führer's private life. As a lot of the books he plagiarised were written by old Nazis, it is not really surprising that the diaries uncovered rather disturbing historical 'facts'. For instance, according to the diaries, Hess's flight to Scotland3 was approved by Hitler, and furthermore, Hitler hadn't known anything of the genocide of the Jews, but rather wanted them to be resettled in the East.
One could only guess that the Hitler diaries, as Kujau had written them, delivered exactly the mix of facts and trivia that people wanted to hear about the Führer, and so practically nobody subjected the books to close scrutiny.
After the discovery of the hoax, Heidemann and Kujau were arrested (Kujau tried to run away but was caught at the Austrian border), brought to court and both sentenced to four years in jail, for forgery and fraud, respectively. After Kujau was released from prison, he enjoyed considerable public attention which allowed him to sell his 'genuine forgeries' of famous paintings at a good price4; there were even forged Kujau forgeries in circulation. Konrad Kujau died of cancer in September 2000, aged 62. Concerning Gerd Heidemann, little is known about him and his whereabouts apart from him telling a reporter that he had 'enough of this Nazi sh*t'.
Schtonk - the Film
Writer and director Helmut Dietl invested a couple of years in investigating the affair and interviewing involved people while he planned the film. Reportedly, he left out several of his discoveries because they were so outrageous that nobody would ever believe them.
In short, the film depicts the affair of the Hitler diaries just as the story is described above. Nothing more, nothing less, witty dialogues with an excellent cast. It centres around the forger Fritz Knobel (Uwe Ochsenknecht) and the smarmy journalist Hermann Willié (Götz George).
The story begins with Knobel selling a 'genuine', but to this date unknown Hitler painting of Eva Braun5 in the nude, to a South German industrialist. An expert (an old Nazi who knew Hitler personally) is present, and to Knobel's amazement, the expert reports that he not only knows this painting, but, furthermore, that he himself witnessed Hitler painting it. Astonishing. The expert goes on to recount the story of the shot-down plane with Hitler's personal belongings, one of which is the Eva Braun painting. In a flash of inspiration, Knobel decides to produce more of Hitler's estate, starting with the first volume of the diaries.
One of the funniest scenes is where, at the Stern, three people try to figure out the deeper meaning of the gothic letters 'FH' on the first book:
- 'What, FH? That's AH.. no, FH!'
- 'But why FH? His name wasn't Freddy Hitler, was it?'
- 'Let's see, F..., F..., Führer..., Führer's Hund!' (Führer's Dog)
- 'Führer Hitler?'
- 'Führer Hitler? Führerhauptquartier!' (Führer's Headquarters)
- 'Ah, of course, Führerhauptquartier!'
As the story develops, more books are written and Knobel gets somewhat obsessed with it. He adopts more and more the personality of Hitler, speaking like him, starting to look like him and in the end writes better in Hitler's hand than in his own. It's the characterisation of the Knobel character, and of course that of the sleazy journalist Willié that makes this film really worth seeing. Apart, of course, from the Hitler Diary Hoax.