The Führer Follies

UPDATED 05/23/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/23/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

When the Great Hitler Scam collapsed, West German journalist Gerd Heidemann, 51, stood alone in the crumbling ruins of his reputation. With shattering speed, he had rocketed from comfortable obscurity to worldwide fame to international scorn. Just three weeks ago the German news magazine Stern praised its "bloodhound" for unearthing a mammoth scoop—the personal diaries of Adolf Hitler. After the journals were debunked as crude forgeries—using facts stolen from a 1962 book and ink and paper manufactured years after Hitler's 1945 death—publisher Henri Nannen turned viciously critical of his former protégé. "We have kicked him out. I am now convinced he knew the diaries were forgeries," said Nannen. Not content with branding Heidemann a liar, Stern filed a fraud lawsuit against him, apparently believing he kept some of the $4.1 million the magazine paid for the fakes.

In the days after the scandal broke Heidemann was still steadfastly refusing to identify the source of the phony documents. Whether or not the trail eventually leads through him to a larger conspiracy, a curious portrait emerged of the man caught in the middle. Friends say the baby-faced, soft-spoken reporter is fascinated with the Nazi era and almost obsessively collects Hitler memorabilia. "He's a little loony about it," says Frank Müller-May, a colleague at Stern. "He went crazy on this whole thing. He lost his professional instincts and went bananas."

As a member of the Hitler Youth during World War II, Heidemann, the son of a policeman, was brought up to worship the Führer. At age 21, he joined Stern, and his absorption with Hitler grew as his career prospered. In 1973 he sold his house to buy Luftwaffe leader Hermann Göring's yacht, Carin II. Soon after, Heidemann was flattered by visits from two former high-ranking officers in the notorious SS, Wilhelm Mohnke and Karl Wolff, both of whom had been imprisoned after the war. The former Nazis preyed on Heidemann's cloying nostalgia for the Third Reich, teasing him over long evenings of drinking aboard the yacht with insider tales from Hitler's bunker. The trio became so friendly that Heidemann invited Wolff and Mohnke to be official witnesses when he took his fourth wife, Gina. Close Jewish friends were consulted beforehand and raised no objections. "They were all very interested in talking to each other," recalls Gina.

The ties with the influential Nazi veterans proved professionally rewarding. Stern's investigative ace was able to land interviews with ex-SS officer Klaus Barbie, the "Butcher of Lyons" now facing trial on war crimes in France, and with the infamous Josef Mengele, prison doctor at Auschwitz. Wolff traveled to South America with Heidemann and engineered his meetings with other former Nazis. Controversial right-wing historian David Irving even claims that Heidemann obtained Göring's diaries after having seduced the Nazi's daughter and that he also purchased the personal papers of SS chief Heinrich Himmler from an Israeli agent.

Stern encouraged Heidemann's Nazi investigations by appointing him to the Hitler "beat" in 1979. The thirst for scoops led the magazine to overlook the increasingly bizarre and morbid nature of Heidemann's Nazi fixation. He was well-known as an enthusiastic buyer of Hitleriana who stashed his acquisitions in an office-museum above his spacious Hamburg apartment. Hitler historian Werner Maser was consulted on one purchase: "He claims to own the pistol with which Hitler committed suicide. I told him there was a suitcase of these pistols on the market, but Heidemann insisted his was authentic." According to Irving, the reporter also led a fruitless search for Nazi gold rumored to lie in northern Italian lakes.

With the discredited Hitler diaries, was Heidemann again a dupe or something more sinister? A marathon grilling by Stern editors drew conflicting stories from the journalist and his wife on how the vanished cash was delivered to a mysterious intermediary who could not be traced. Stern's purported verification of the papers, it turned out, was based on separate samples of Hitler's handwriting, supplied mainly by Heidemann. These apparently also were forgeries. Unknowingly, the magazine's experts were comparing fakes to fakes.

Some of the journalist's friends suggest he may have deluded himself into believing the diaries because he supported the generally sympathetic portrayal of Hitler they depicted. Gina Heidemann has alluded to Nazi émigrés as "nice old men living in South America," and once said of the diaries, "It would have been a joy to tell the world the reality about the Führer."

As other reporters fanned out across Europe to hunt down perpetrators of the Hitler Hoax, Heidemann holed up in his apartment, emerging last Tuesday for a brief press conference. "Of course I was gullible," he said. "I am no Hitler researcher." Stern publisher Nannen had another view. "I personally think he's mad. I said to him, 'You will either end up in prison or in a psychiatric hospital.' "

HITLER'S MYSTIQUE FOOLS THE PRESS

For two frantic weeks following Stern's sensational announcement that it had uncovered Hitler's musings, editors of some of the world's most influential publications jumped happily on the Sand-wagon, eager to trade deutsche marks, dollars, pounds, francs and lire for reprint rights. They were driven by a high-minded desire to clarify history—but perhaps more compellingly by a low itch for cash. The skepticism that surrounded the diaries from the outset took a backseat to the expectation that Hitler would sell.

Before the bubble burst, the weekly Stern sold out two Hitler cover issues and hoped to recoup a substantial part of its $4.1 million investment through foreign-language rights. Italy's Panorama magazine got a deal—driving down a $1 million asking price to $50,000, then selling out two issues with press runs of 60,000 and 90,000 above normal. Stern asked a staggering $3 million for North American rights. Newsweek initially expressed keen interest but then backed out. The magazine managed to exploit the diaries anyway with a much-criticized May 2 cover that trumpeted the find as "shedding new light" on Hitler, while adding as an exculpatory afterthought that the diaries might not be genuine. (The Newsweek Hitler issue bumped a planned cover on screen idol Richard Gere and attracted an additional 100,000 newsstand buyers.)

Nearly every other credulous word printed in English about the diaries came from the presses of aggressive Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch, whose numerous holdings include the sensationalistic New York Post, the shlocky U.S. tabloid Star and one of the world's most prestigious newspapers, London's Sunday Times. On the shaky testimony of Hitler expert Hugh Trevor-Roper (PEOPLE, May 16), Murdoch paid a bargain $400,000 for British Commonwealth rights and splashed the forgeries across the staid pages of the Times. "Now we're the laughingstock of the entire media," sighed one Times editor, who accused his boss (known in England as "the Dirty Digger") of "prostituting" the newspaper's reputation. "He could have used one of his trashy rags like News of the World. That's where it belonged."

Murdoch did not pay the $3 million for North American rights to the diaries but excerpted them heavily in the New York Post and Star. Last week the ploy backfired. The Star, which usually specializes in Hollywood gossip and diet fads, printed two million additional copies of the May 17 issue containing a 12-page Hitler diary takeout, despite the fact that the paper hit the stands four days after the volumes were declared fraudulent. Star editors, in an emergency session, had determined not to yank the story. Instead they hastily put together an uncharacteristically sober TV ad which acknowledged the "ingenious forgery," but then invited Star readers "to judge for themselves."

No one will be surprised if, despite the Star's lame attempt to save face, the paper proves a sellout. For no other figure in history, with the possible exception of Jesus Christ, is as surefire a drawing card as the Führer. Bestsellers about Adolf Hitler—from thriller novels to pop psychoanalysis—spin off the presses with monotonous regularity. Such substantive works as historian John Toland's Adolf Hitler, William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich continue to sell thousands of copies a year.

By 1980 Hitler had been portrayed onscreen 55 times by actors as diverse as Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator and Billy Frick in Is Paris Burning? and his incarnations seem endless. "In movies and plays, the most fascinating characters are the villains," explains Toland. "Drama is conflict, and Hitler gave a horrible, but immensely dramatic, show. We are eager to believe something like these diaries could exist. They could bring us close to the man who changed all our lives."

Indeed, with the recent flood of Broadway and Off-Broadway plays (Bent, Good, The Fuehrer Bunker) and TV miniseries (The Winds of War, Holocaust) exploring the Nazi era and Hitler's psyche, the German dictator seems more fearsomely ubiquitous than ever. Of course, much Hitleriana falls painfully short of communicating his complexity. Perhaps the horror of his banality was best summed up in an arresting line of dialogue from the fiery end of the 1973 film Hitler: The Last Ten Days. Doris Kuntsmann as Adolf's mistress, Eva Braun, turns to Alec Guinness as Hitler. While Berlin collapses around them, she utters lovingly, "Adolf, you really are the most incredible person!"

Written by John Saar and Joshua Hammer, reported by Jerene Jones, Terry Smith and the Paris, London, Boston and New York bureaus

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