on 28 November 2000
'Selling Hitler' relates the story of the fraudulent Hitler diaries, from their conception to the aftermath of destroyed reputations when the con was revealed. Harris' achievement with this book is to create a marvellously gripping and tense read despite the fact that the reader is aware of the outcome all along. A number of conspiracy theories about the purpose of the forgeries sprung up and continue to do so, but this story is interesting precisely because of the surprising lack of conspiracy. It would appear that nothing more than human carelessness, greed and vanity enabled the forger and led to the massive scale of the humiliation.
'Selling Hitler' also provides a chilling insight into the unhealthy fascination that Adolf Hitler continues to hold for a surprisingly large number of people. In tracing the origins of the diaries, Harris investigates sinsister ex-SS men and peculiar millionaires obsessed with Nazi memoribilia. The strong reaction to the diaries all over the world proved that Hitler and the Nazis still have the power to unsettle and disturb. The book also has interesting insights into how Germany and the Germans have coped with the legacy of the Nazis.
Above all, 'Selling Hitler' is an engrossing and fascinating read; I found myself literally unable to put it down as I got closer to the climax. It is extremely well crafted - like other well written non-fiction books such as 'Schindlers Ark', the writer refrains from any writerly showing off and tells the story in a straightforward and engaging manner. Highly recommended.
Robert Harris's fast moving and journalistic account of the forged Hitler Diaries which appeared in the 1980s is outstanding. He notes that selling Hitler is easy because Hitler sells. "There are twice as many biographies of Hitler as there are of Winston Churchill; three times as many as there are of Roosevelt and Stalin. Only Jesus Christ has had more words devoted to hom than Hitler. The public appetite for these books is enormous." Hitler never revealed his innermost thoughts to anyone including his closest advisers such as Von Ribbentrop, Goering and General Jodl. "He was utterly self-contained, mysterious, unpredictable, secretive, awesome." It was the aim of many historians to penetrate the public Hitler and reveal his hidden personality.
On April Fools' Day 1983 Hugh Trevor-Roper, distinguished historian and Independent National Director of the Times, was told the German magazine, Stern, had discovered the private diaries of Adolph Hitler. Trevor-Roper was sceptical they were genuine but agreed to travel to Zurich on behalf of the Times to examine the material. When provided with copies of the documents he decided they were authentic. Trevor-Roper's opinion was important because he had produced several books on Hitler and, working on behalf of British Intelligence, demonstrated that claims Hitler outlived the war were without foundation. He turned his findings into a book, "The Last Days of Hitler", which was published in 1947. In 1953 he published "Hitler's Table Talk" which captured "the authentic voice of Hitler." This and his penchant for aggressive debate did not endear him to his fellow historians some of whom were delighted when the diaries proved to be forgeries.
Trevor-Roper believed the diaries would lead to new interpretations of history. They suggested Hess flew to Britain in 1941 to negotiate a peace plan. They also suggested that Hitler had allowed the British to escape at Dunkirk. As Hitler did not commit pen to paper the diary entries were clearly false. Many other mundane matters, which formed a large part of the diaries, revealed nothing about Hitler the man. When the diaries were finally published in The Sunday Times Trevor-Roper expressed doubts about their authenticity. The journalists working on the story for The Sunday Times wondered if the presses should be stopped. A phone call to Rupert Murdoch was given short shrift by the newspaper's owner. When Trevor-Roper attended a Stern press conference, David Irving called the diaries a forgery pointing out that Hitler did not have use of his right arm immediately after the July Plot making the entry for that day a certain fake. Irving quickly made enough money to pay off his overdraft.
The important question about the diaries is why anyone gave them credence in the first instance. It was known that just before Hitler's death a Luftwaffe transport plane left Berlin. It was allegedly carrying secret papers belonging to Hitler himself. Less than an hour later it crashed in flames and its crew burned to death. In Hitler's bunker both Allied and Soviet soldiers took anything to which they took a shine. In 1984 a family in British Columbia discovered personal papers belonging to Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler's photographer, in their attic where their father had put them on his return from the war and which he had forgotten about. The idea that there may be other relics of the Nazi era created an environment in which conspiracy and other theories, including sitings of Hitler, Bormann and various war criminals, were easily believed. One confidence trickster claimed to be in touch with Bormann who, he said, was willing to fly from South America in a Lear jet to authenticate the diaries. His pretence was revealed when he was told a Lear lacked the range to travel across the Atlantic.
The 1970s saw a boom in the market for Nazi memorabilia and a media thirst for any snippet of the regime's time in power. The Stern journalist who "found" the diaries was Gerd Heidemann whose interest was aroused when he bought Goering's yacht. It was a poor investment and all attempts to sell it ended in failure. However, one potential buyer claimed to own the Hitler Diaries which he said had survived the plane crash in 945 and been held in East Germany. Heidemann obtained permission from one of Stern's editors to pursue the matter and met with Konrad Fischer, one of many aliases used by Konrad Kujau a man with a criminal record and a brilliant forger who produced thousands of paintings, drawings and documents which he attributed to Hitler, including the Hitler Diaries. The existence of the latter was kept secret from all but a handful of people in Stern which made verification difficult. Handwriting experts were called in but, as Harris points out, they were under pressure to provide a definitive, preferably affirmative, answer. Heidemann made it difficult by insisting on keeping the name of the alleged supplier of the diaries, an East German general, confidential.
Forensic analysis of ink, glue and paper proved the diaries were post-war in origin. Stern and The Sunday Times were accused of cheque-book journalism. Rupert Murdoch was unabashed pointing out that newspapers were in the entertainment business, circulation went up, stayed up and the company did not lose money as a result. Trevor-Roper's reputation was badly damaged. Heidemann and Kujau were sentenced to four and a half years each, while the judge accused Stern of acting recklessly. Heidemann's wife left him in 1986, his son died of Aids and his daughter emigrated to Australia. Heidemann lives in poverty, still potesting his innocence. Kujau became a minor celebrity when he left prison but died of cancer in 2000. Several editors were sacked and millions of marks remained untraced. History was not re-written, Hitler and the Nazis remain an attractive subject for historians. Perhaps their predecessors should have gone to Specsavers. Five stars for this enthralling account.
A very exciting account of the Hitler diaries forgery case. The front cover Observer quote "impossible to stop reading" was quite true and I raced through this at an unprecedented pace for non-fiction. The story says a lot (by which I mean not much) about human gullibility and the ability of people to see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe despite contrary evidence.
This is a first class account of the fake Hitler diaries by Robert Harris - if it was a work of fiction you'd think it was far fetched. The pace never relents and it is at times genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. A story of greed, deception, naivety and stupidity, this is the sort of book that will keep you up until the early hours - it really is unputdownable.
It's quite staggering how small time forger Konrad Kujau managed not only to produce 61 volumes of fake Hitler diaries over an 18 month period, but to fool publishing houses, handwriting experts and historians (including Hugh Trevor-Roper) into believing they were genuine. And Harris tells the tale perfectly and in great detail and the humour of the sorry saga is not lost on him for one moment. Highly recommended - I've read this book three times in the past 15 years.
on 1 December 2011
I bought this being a fan of the work of Robert Harris, and when it arrived was amazed that it was as thick as a standard paperback novel. I wondered that surely there wasn't that much to say about the Hitler diaries? Indeed there is, and Harris' book reads like a thriller and covers the entire story and back-stories of the main players and events.
Harris has written this very well. It's very accessible and quick to read, but is still well researched and thorough. This book should be good for readers interested in the Second World War and/or the work of Robert Harris. It should also be good for people who have heard of the whole Hitler diaries scandal, but know no more beyond the headlines. With a story that involved many players including politicians, journalists, forgers and even former generals of the Army, it is oddly quite a gripping read, even if we know how it turned out.
Proof that truth is funnier than fiction. Harris's "Selling Hitler" is one of the funniest books you'll ever read. A brilliantly written account populated by amazing characters and astounding stupidity which must bring many other scholastic theories and historical research into question. The story is so well told in simple narrative form and the scale of the breathtaking fraud is steadily built up into epic proportions. It's cry out loud funny in places; you really can't believe how such an inept counterfeiter could escape detection for so long although you are really rooting for him by the end. Hilarious, fascinating and challenging in turn, this is a joy to read and always reminds me of Mel Brooks' film "The Producers".
on 29 December 2001
After a recommendation from a friend I purchased this book. Overall, it is an excellent account of the fake hitler diaries which came to light in the early 1980's. Harris gives a detailed background of those involved before moving on to the actual circumstances surrounding the affair. I had read Fatherland and Engima (fiction novels by Harris) before reading this, and even though this is factual the quality of the book equals them in every way.
on 29 December 2011
I first bought the paperback edition of this book in 1991. I've re-read it so many times over the years the book is now battered. So I've bought a new copy. Despite inflation etc it's cost me £4.50p here on Amazon - only 51p more than it did in 1991! It's not been updated in any way, but I'm prepared to live with that as it's a classic. It's also been printed in a larger format with a bigger typeface so it's easier to read.
No Less a person than Sir Richard Evans - Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University - described this book as 'excellent' in his book "In defence of History". I've just re-read Robert Harris's extraordinary account of the ultimate publishing fraud and the book is as fresh, fast-moving, funny and informative as when I first read it. It's a complex story moving backwards and forwards in time, with numerous characters and locations. But Robert Harris handles the complexities effortlessly so you always know where you are. Indeed, he builds in a tension so this book reads like a thriller. What, you wonder, is going to happen next? It's great entertainment, a real page-turner.
But the book contains a serious message - an awful warning to people who write about Hitler - get your facts right. If you fail the roof will fall in. In the case of the Hitler diaries fiasco the whole house collapsed burying large numbers of people in the rubble.
Since then - 1983 - more and more Hitler books have poured off the presses. The controversial historian, David Irving, wrote at the time that 'Adolf Hitler is still big box office'. That's true 30 years later. It's one reason why authors want to write about the Nazi dictator. He sells books. But the perils are many, as Robert Harris demonstrates, and only the foolhardy would ignore them. If you do you're courting trouble - big trouble!
Having praised this book can I make a plea for an updated edition? The text can stay the same, but perhaps Robert Harris could add a couple of chapters telling us about other Hitler publishing misadventures that have happened since. An historian said to me there are two markets for Hitler books - those for people with a serious interest in history and those that appeal to fantasists and conspiracy theorists.
Sadly, innocent people are still being fooled. Hard to believe? Then take a look at a book published in 2011 called "Grey Wolf - the escape of Adolf Hitler." The authors argue Hitler never died in the bunker in Berlin in 1945. Instead they claim he escaped to Argentina with Eva Braun, two daughters, Martin Bormann and Hitler's favourite dog Blondi. There the world's most wanted man lived in luxury undiscovered by anyone! The book has become a best seller despite critical reviews by me and other people. Just look at the number gullible customers who have written comments praising it to the skies. Perhaps Robert Harris might like to include some comments on this latest example of publishing stupidity in an updated edition of "Selling Hitler." Bizarre things have been going on - enough to delight any author with an eye for the absurd.
Many people will have a good laugh at the Hitler diaries saga. Some may ask if it really matters? I think it does. Truth matters. Polluting the wells of knowledge matters. In an angry editorial the "New York Times" argued it was important to know what drove one of the century's most diabolical tryrannies. It mattered that Hitler should be seen in the light of truth and not reincarnated and redefined by forgeries. Modern authors should bear that in mind before publishing books that trample over people's feelings.
Leaving aside Hitler for a moment ... I think anyone interested in history - whatever period - should read this book - especially if they're a student. For the book demonstrates dramatically how important it is to evaluate evidence. You need to be on guard all the time, particularly when people make extravagant claims.
on 28 January 2013
In "Selling Hitler" Robert Harris has provided an enthralling, blow-by-blow account of one of the most infamous hoaxes in history, the alleged discovery of the Hitler diaries. A potentially convoluted plot with many actors, Harris has done a remarkable job in organising the story in a comprehensible manner, and in so doing has simultaneously written a turn-paging piece of investigative journalism, full of interesting nuggets and occasionally humourous asides.
History is always a work in progress. Sewing together the past from the scanty pieces left to posterity is a difficult task, and one which can never hope to fill all of the gaps and answer all of the questions. Hence when a new source comes to light, the potential to fill in a few holes in the jigsaw, to provide answers to some of the glaring question--even to essentially rewriting history--can be staggering. In the case of the Hitler diaries, of course, the potential was immense, not only in terms of offering a personal and uncensored glimpse into the world through his eyes, but for providing further information and evidence to solve mysteries like the 'miracle' of Dunkirk, Hess' flight to Scotland, or Hitler's role in the Holocaust.
Yet the diaries were fakes, and obvious ones. Written on post-war paper, with post-war ink, the content largely consisted of dull and banal headlines from the Völkischer Beobachter, or speeches sometimes copied verbatim, i.e. including errors, from Max Domarus' compilation Hitler: Speeches and Proclamations. So just how did such a media farce result from what ultimately proved to be such crude and unconvincing forgeries? What drove a respected magazine like Stern to spend 9 million DM on the diaries without once thoroughly checking the evidence? And how did other reputable newspapers like The Times and Newsweek similarly come to swallow the story?
Aside from being a report into this particular hoax, "Selling Hitler" tells a sobering tale of greed and ambition over rationality that could apply anywhere. The atmosphere of secrecy and conspiracy, combined with the promise of acknowledgement and riches, allowed a poor quality forgery to hoodwink a media corporation and ultimately tarnish or even destroy the reputations of the journalists and experts associated with the find. A surprisingly large number of people who heard of or came into contact with the diaries soon suspended their disbelief on hearing the most rudimentary supporting evidence. Even excluding the evidence of flawed handwriting tests, to most of the people asked to check the diaries' authenticity it simply didn't seem plausible that someone would go to the trouble of forging over 60 volumes of diaries and sundry other papers. Ironically enough, the whole episode rings like a quote from Hitler's Mein Kampf, often attributed to Joseph Goebbels, that the more colossal the lie, the more likely people are to believe it.
Harris' book is a superb summary of the whole affair, covering every angle and explaining each step as the fiasco house of cards was gradually built up, before being dashed to the ground. The lives of the chief culprits are portrayed, along with the roles played by people such as historians Hugh Trevor-Roper, David Irving and Gerhard Weinberg, as well as people like Rupert Murdoch (who has some amusing quotes). Whilst not totally devoid of personal opinion, Harris clearly showing sympathy for the Stern editors who were in his view forced to take the fall for the scandal, none of the characters are openly demonised, and the facts are objectively presented. The only small complaint to make would be that the book, first published in 1986, now feels incomplete and a little dated. My copy was printed in 2009, and it would have been nicer if a revised edition had been produced, if only with an extra chapter on what happened to such characters as the forger Konrad Kujau, the gullible and corrupt journalist Gerd Heidemann, or historians such as Irving, whose reputation gained a temporary boost by being one of the first to publicly denounce the diaries as forgeries.
on 17 May 2012
This is a compelling account of a hugely embarrassing episode in the history of journalism. No one comes out of it very well.
Harris is tremendous at building up the tension of a story to a peak - or a trough in this case!
We could have done with more about what happened to the main protagonists afterwards. I had to resort to Google.
Rupert Murdoch's still operating in his bunker of course. I liked his remark to Frank Giles, hapless Sunday Times editor, whom he appointed Editor Emeritus after the fiasco.
"It's Latin, Frank. E means you're out. Meritus means you deserve it!"