The Hitler Diaries, Brian MacArthur recounts the Hitler diaries scandal on its 25th anniversary
Over a long career in journalism, I have been involved in two scoops that were literally jaw-dropping, but only one was true – the relationship of Edwina Currie and John Major.
The other was printed 25 years ago today, after the London correspondent of the German news magazine Stern told The Sunday Times that it had acquired 62 handwritten volumes of secret diaries written by Adolf Hitler.
When such a scoop is offered, you don’t really want to hear anything that would cast doubt on its veracity.
What’s more, extracts from the Führer’s account of the Second World War – a multi-volume work spanning the years from 1932 to 1945 that had supposedly been rescued from a crashed plane in East Germany at the end of the war – would undoubtedly help sell thousands of extra copies of a newspaper that Rupert Murdoch had just acquired.
So, over the weeks that followed, it was decided that the diaries would be serialised in the Times and Sunday Times (of which I was deputy editor). Hugh Trevor-Roper, the eminent historian and author of The Last Days of Hitler, was asked to go to Germany to read and authenticate the diaries.
What impressed him most, he told Philip Knightley, the seasoned Sunday Times reporter assigned to cover the story, was the sheer volume of the material. It was written in an old Germanic script that few could decipher and mind-numbingly banal in parts.
He decided that it could not have been constructed out of the imagination and incidental sources. Moreover, he knew Hitler’s handwriting. A forgery on that scale would be “heroic and unnecessary”.
Meanwhile, Stern brought forward publication so that it wasn’t scooped by America’s Newsweek, which had also bought the diaries. An equally anxious Murdoch decided to start the serialisation in The Sunday Times and I was dispatched overnight to the magazine’s offices in Hamburg to ensure we got the full story. Stern flatly refused to let us see the diaries.
Its editor insisted that he was satisfied and that we must trust him. That became increasingly difficult once we ran our “world exclusive”, reporting the finding of the diaries but without quoting from them.