For weeks the West German magazine Stern had trumpeted its sensational discovery of Adolf Hitler’s “secret diaries” and, in the ensuing controversy, remained adamant: their authenticity was beyond doubt. The Sunday Times of London scurried to purchase its own “world exclusive” and proclaimed that the diaries had been submitted to the “most rigorous tests” to establish validity. The prestigious newspaper announced that es-
teemed British historian Lord Dacre—Hugh Trevor-Roper, who, as a Times Newspapers national director, is
charged with upholding journalistic standards— had staked his academic reputation on his conclusion that the find was legitimate. But last week the claims were all proven wrong. After investigations by federal archivists and two other official bodies, West German Interior Minister Friederich Zimmermann branded the diaries a fake.
The federal investigators did not merely discredit the diaries; they deftly demolished the reputations of all who had swallowed the bait. A mere 48 hours after beginning the examination of seven of the 62 volumes, they were able to announce that the diaries had been written on cheap paper manufactured at least a decade after Hitler’s death. The bindings contained synthetic materials not available before 1945, and the glue used to affix top secret stickers, allegedly signed by Nazi deputy leader Rudolf Hess, did not even exist until after the war. As if that were not enough, Federal Archives President Hans Booms noted that the diaries contained whole sentences— “even the mistakes”— from a 1964 book, Hitler’s Speeches and Proclamations, compiled by German historian Max Domarus. The diaries, said Booms caustically, were “a grotesque and superficial forgery.”
For The Sunday Times, which immediately announced that it was suspending publication of the diaries, the verdict was a double embarrassment. For one thing, no paper likes to be taken in. For another, it was too late to prevent circulation of last Sunday’s Colour Magazine, with its cover title, The Hitler Chronicle, and a record in words and pictures of Hitler’s rise and fall inside. For Stern Publisher Henri Nannen, who until last week had rejected calls for international authentication of the diaries, the verdict was a ruinous blow. Said the humiliated publisher: “We have some reason to be ashamed, especially toward our readers, that this has happened.” What Nannen did not offer his hoodwinked readers was an explanation of why the fake had happened. But the affair of the forged diaries
pointed to a moral that journalists around the world were quick to recognize. As the London-based publishing trade weekly U.K Press Gazette summed up: “Anyone who has been there will tell you that excitement at ‘discovery’ is compounded by office demands for secrecy. This is intended to ‘protect our scoop’ and retain the initiative of when to publish. Red faces might have been avoided if the order had been ‘Back to the grapevine’ before ‘Onto the drawing board.’ ”
However, having made the wrong choice, Nannen did what he could to make amends. He promised to scrap Stern’s upcoming edition containing further extracts from the diaries and to reveal the name of the magazine’s source this week. Said the publisher simply: “We have no reason to protect a swindler.” Not only that, but on Saturday Stern announced the resignations of two of its three chief editors—Peter Koch and Felix Schmidt. But Koch was not at the magazine’s Hamburg headquarters. He was in South America with 52-year-old reporter Gerd Heidemann, whose story of the diaries, discovery went around the world. The two men were believed to be urgently seeking the mysterious source of the documents. Reports in Hamburg said that Heidemann had first made contact
with the source through former SS colonel Wilhelm Höttl, who was in charge of a wartime Nazi project to forge British £5 notes. Two years ago Höttl, who now lives in Austria, allegedly put Heidemann in touch with someone peddling “old Nazi documents” in South America.
In contrast to Nannen’s chastened acceptance of blame, a “nothing ventured, nothing gained” disclaimer by Times Newspapers Director of Corporate Affairs Arthur Brittenden seemed almost flippant. Brittenden acknowledged that the group had made a mistake but rebuffed a questioner’s suggestion that it was not the sort of error readers expected of The Sunday Times. “It is not a matter in which we feel a sense of shame,” retorted Brittenden. “We shall go on publishing the newspapers and we think people will retain their loyalty.”
Indeed, it was clear that senior executives at Times Newspapers felt the blame belonged elsewhere. Brittenden said that there would be “no inquests” within the paper itself, and Times Newspapers owner and publishing tycoon Rupert Murdoch was emphatic about where the responsibility lay. After flying to New York by Concorde at week’s end, he claimed: “We said to Trevor-Roper from the beginning that if there was a two-per-cent chance of the
diaries being fakes, he should let us know. He did not.” The historian himself seemed to concur. “It was my fault,” he said. “I should have refused to give my opinion so soon.”
Murdoch’s vehemence and TrevorRoper’s humility, however, did not altogether jibe with reports that some senior Sunday Times staff members had expressed their skepticism about the diaries’ authenticity from the start. Their doubts stemmed from an incident last December when Features Editor Magnus Linklater reportedly turned down an offer of material from a Hitler “diary.” A Times Newspapers staffer told Maclean’s that Murdoch had dumped the series on the paper because he believed he had struck a bargain. Explained the Times man, who asked to remain anonymous: “You could say that whatever the cost to The Sunday Times’ prestige, there is almost a sense of relief among editorial staffers over the fraud verdict—they are off the hook now.” There is also a sense of irony. Insiders recall that the night before the first story was published, Deputy Editor Brian MacArthur proudly announced to the newsroom: “There will never be another front page like it.” He was right. -LINDA DIEBEL in Toronto, with Edward Daly in London, Peter Lewis in Brussels and Horst Peters in Hamburg.
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