It was almost—but not quite—one of those overnight literary success stories that keeps aspiring authors banging away at their typewriters. For more than three years Konrad Kujau (pronounced coo-yeow), 45, an obscure military relics dealer in Stuttgart, West Germany, obsessively spent his nights laboring over an epic historical work set in the Nazi era—a kind of docudrama written in diary form. After much painstaking research he laboriously wrote his masterpiece longhand. The work eventually grew to fill 60 bulky imitation leather-bound volumes. "It was a maddening task," he recalls. "To write one single page in the diary, I sometimes had to read nine books and dozens of articles."

Last April, though, Kujau saw his efforts rewarded. Stern, West Germany's largest weekly newsmagazine, published excerpts from his volumes, attracting unprecedented international attention—and controversy. Kujau was paid about $1 million (estimates vary widely) for his magnum opus, but his success was short-lived. Within weeks of his triumph in Stern, he found himself in a jail cell, accused of fraud. That charge arose from his somewhat misleading choice of a pen name—Adolf Hitler.

Kujau's bogus Hitler diaries were so skillfully penned that he managed to fool Hugh Trevor-Roper, the eminent Cambridge historian, who declared that "the documents are authentic." Trevor-Roper's imprimatur sent publishers from around the world—including The Sunday Times of London and Paris Match—scurrying to buy reprint rights. Then the bubble burst. West German government officials who tested the diaries' paper, ink and bindings revealed them to be "grotesque, superficial" forgeries.

When his hoax collapsed Kujau surrendered to West German police, claiming that he was merely a middleman who bought the diaries from East Germans and sold them to a top Stern reporter, Gerd Heidemann, 52. After their arrests the two soon fell to squabbling. Kujau changed his story, admitting he wrote the diaries but claiming that Heidemann knew they were forgeries. Perhaps the truth will emerge at Kujau's trial next summer.

Born in what is now East Germany in 1938, Kujau, once a member of a Communist youth organization, was trained as a blacksmith. He immigrated to West Germany in 1957, working as a window washer and a waiter. A few years later he met Edith Lieblang, who became his common-law wife. Always he had a need to seem grander than he was. He reportedly told friends he really was an artist and a calligrapher. He bought and wore a tuxedo to impress his neighbors. He told others that his brother, in reality an assistant policeman at a railway station, was "a general in the East German army."

Then, in the 1970s, he embarked on a successful career as a dealer in Nazi artifacts. The enterprise allowed Kujau to embellish his local reputation as an eccentric who enjoyed swaggering into Stuttgart nightclubs clad in an SS uniform, regaling acquaintances with "inside" stories of the Hitler circle, and spending thousands of marks on champagne and women. Kujau, in fact, claims he agreed to sell Heidemann the diaries only when the reporter made him an offer he couldn't refuse—the gift of one of Luftwaffe chief Hermann Gbring's ornate outfits, completing Kujau's collection of uniforms worn by top Nazi officials, including Hitler. "He is a passionate collector of military relics, and he is fascinated by the Nazi big shots." says Kujau's lawyer, Kurt Groenewold.

Kujau has made his attorney's work infinitely more difficult by continuing his literary career in his jail cell. First he wrote a series of articles for the sensationalist West German daily Bild (which paid him $45,000), admitting his guilt in the forgery and detailing exactly how he did it. Then he continued writing the diaries, completing the volume that ends with the Fuhrer's 1945 suicide. "The war is lost," Kujau's Hitler scribbles, as Russian troops close in on the Fuhrer's bunker. "I am finished." Those words may now apply to Kujau himself.