TV Review: Hitler diaries show fake news didn't begin with the internet

Adolf Hitler did not produce any known diaries. Picture by British Pathe
Adolf Hitler did not produce any known diaries. Picture by British Pathe

Faking Hitler, Channel 4 Sundays and on demand on All 4

So, you think fake news is a new phenomenon invented by the Russians, propagated by social media and brought into our lexicon by Donald Trump?

Think again. Forty years ago, some very serious publications bought a monumental lie about a collection of diaries said to be written by Adolf Hitler. This was proper deep fake stuff.

After initial success selling Nazi memorabilia smuggled in from East Germany, Konrad Kujau decided he could increase his profit margin by a bit of counterfeiting.

He sold fake paintings and other imagined artefacts connected to senior Nazis to gullible collectors, but by the early 1980s he was ready to make some serious money.

There was a myth at the time that Hitler’s personal diaries had been smuggled out of Berlin shortly before the arrival of the Russians.

One of the Fuhrer’s closest aides died in a plane crash in what was then the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) around this time and he was said to be carrying personal documents for Hitler.

Kujau set about his plan with a beat-up notebook, a fountain pen, cold tea to age the pages and an SS ribbon to wax to the front.

But the deep fake also needed a fool to make it work. In this case it was journalist Gerd Heidemann.

Heidemann was a greedy fool, under pressure at Stern magazine (which had a circulation of more than 1.5 million copies at the time) to produce a sensational story, and a not-so-secret Nazi sympathiser.

He had bought a boat that belonged to Hermann Goering and was having an affair with his daughter Edda.

When he heard about the diaries he was desperate for it to be true, dismissing any evidence that didn’t support his case.

From German television station RTL, Faking Hitler is a brilliant retelling of the con over eight episodes.

It’s told through Heidemann (Lars Eidinger), Kujau (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Elisabeth Stockel (Sinje Irslinger).

Stockel is a cub reporter who is assigned to a small team at Stern investigating public figures suspected of being closet Nazis.

Her life is turned upside down when her research brings up the name of an SS member she knows.

She is devastated to discover that her kind and loving father had been a member of the Waffen-SS in his youth.

The SS was dedicated to the protection of Hitler and was instrumental in the organisation and prosecution of the Holocaust.

Faking Hitler opens at the end of matters in 1983 with a devastated Heidemann crashing his car on the autobahn.

He gets his Mercedes to its top speed, takes his hands off the wheel and closes his eyes, but tries to back out at the last minute.

The car somersaults and the moment is brilliantly captured in slow motion.

Meanwhile, Kujau is also on the motorway, on the run, and is angered when a radio news segment describes the 60 Hitler diaries – “the biggest scandal in German media history” – as a “clumsy forgery”.

“Are they for real, a clumsy forgery? Try forging that many diaries that quickly,” says Kujau.

It’s a gorgeous start and emblematic of the touch of farce in Faking Hitler.

Kujau’s diaries were declared genuine by some historians but quickly inaccuracies in dates and events led to suspicion and forensic examination showed that the paper was post-war and that the ink was fresh.

Stern had paid 9 million Deutsche Marks for the forgeries and Heidemann and Kujau went to jail.

Stern’s reputation was trashed and another con entered the annals of fake news.