Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Literary Forensics

The Hitler Diaries

A German publishing company, Gruner and Jahr, was persuaded in the early 1980s that a collection of 60 hand-written notebooks comprised the diaries of Adolph Hitler, and they paid a sum of $2.3 million for the lot. They also bought a heretofore undiscovered third volume of his two-volume book, Mein Kampf. The most shocking revelation found in all of this material was that Hitler seemed to have been oblivious to "the final solution" that was used to exterminate millions of people. Apparently he had wanted the Jews to be resettled in the East. That meant that history books would have to be dramatically revised.

Konrad Kujau (CORBIS)
Konrad Kujau
(CORBIS)

The story was passed around that the papers had been taken out of Berlin toward the end of WWII on board an airplane that had crashed. They were found by farmers and eventually came into the hands of a Nazi document collector, Konrad Kujau, via an unnamed general in East Germany. Kujau had taken them to a journalist, Gerd Heidemann, who was on the staff of Stern, a newspaper owned by Gruner and Jahr. Then Stern quickly began serializing the diaries, and sold publication rights to Newsweek in America and to The London Times.

It was the owner of the Times, after having serious doubts, who insisted that tests be performed to establish the authenticity of the diaries, but the experts were divided.

There were samples of handwriting available that were known to be Hitler's, and three experts compared these with the documents. Max Frei-Sultzer was the former head of the forensic science department for the police in Zurich, Switzerland, and Ordway Hilton was a specialist in document verification. The third man worked with the German police. All of them agreed that all of the texts had been written by the same person, and that person's handwriting was the same as that in the comparison sample. Astonishingly enough, the Hitler diaries appeared to be authentic.

However, forensics tests on the paper and ink showed otherwise.

Paper is generally classified according to the materials in its composition. They differ according to additives, the presence or absence of watermarks, and the surface treatments used, such as heat or resins. Specialists can determine the date when a particular type of paper was introduced.

Modern ink can be one of four basic types:

  1. Iron salts in a suspension of gallic acid, with dyes
  2. Carbon particles suspended in gum Arabic
  3. Synthetic dyes with a range of polymers and acids
  4. Synthetic dyes or pigments in a range of solvents and additives

The ink under question is tested with microspectrophotometry to determine the absorption spectrum or thin-layer chromatography to reveal the exact composition, and is then compared to the data base of over 3,000 ink profiles at the U. S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

The West German police put the paper under ultraviolet light and found that it contained an additive that had only been put into paper since 1954. The threads attaching the seals contained material manufactured after the war, and the type of ink used had not been available at the time the diaries were purportedly written. Then a test was used on the ink that involved the evaporation of chloride, and this proved that the documents had been written within the past year.

In addition, an analysis of the contents revealed a host of historical inaccuracies, apparently overlooked in the magazine's attempt to keep the scoop a secret until publication. One distinguished historian of Hitler's regime, Hugh Trevor-Roper, had actually vouched for their authenticity.

That meant they were on the lookout for a forger and swindler.

Yet how were the handwriting experts fooled? They'd had an actual sample of Hitler's handwriting, and all three had confirmed the striking similarities.

They ought to have looked into Kujau's background. As a child he'd sold the forged autographs of famous politicians for pocket change. Later he manufactured so-called Nazi mementos, including an introduction to a sequel to Mein Kampf and poems by Adolph Hitler. As it turned out, the clever forger had actually managed to forge the sample that the experts had relied on, too!

Forgery detection is a skill often used for document examination. Document forgery is the fraudulent reproduction of someone else's writing or signature. Generally forgers use tracing, freehand copying, or mechanical placement (generally used just for signatures).

Tracing over someone's words can generally be detected because it is difficult to follow the outline precisely. Hesitations or "forger's tremor" are noted, and erasures are easily detected. There may also be unnatural pen lifts or an unnatural evenness to the flow of writing.

Freehand forgery, such as that which Kujau used, is much harder to detect because it has a smooth flow. However, the forger's own traits are bound to affect the writing and an experienced expert can point them out.

When the forgery of the Hitler diaries was exposed, Kujau ran, but was arrested and tried in Hamburg in 1984. Having fully confessed, he was found guilty and he served three years in prison. Heidemann was tried as his accomplice, despite his protests that he was duped, and ended up serving some jail time.

It soon came out that over the two years in which he had worked on the diaries, one of the techniques he'd devised for making the diaries appear authentic was to smash them with a hammer and to stain the paper with tea-leaves. The whole thing had begun with only one book, ostensibly written in 1935. Heidemann had taken an interest in political personalities of the Third Reich, and he wanted to believe the diary was authentic. When he took it to {Stern}, he got them excited over the possibility that this was the real thing. He believed there were more volumes, so the magazine gave him money to secure them. That's when Kujau set to work writing more. Using Gothic script, he wrote out Hitler's daily thoughts into black notebooks, each sealed with special seals and a black ribbon. By the time he was finished, the diary ran from 1935 until 1945, relying for content on newspapers, medical reports, and reference books specifically a book that contained Hitler's speeches. For the most part, the notations were fairly banal.

Once Kujau got out of prison, he made the round of talk shows to say how shocked he was that Heidemann had actually published the diaries, and he even ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor of Stuttgart. In addition, he falsified driver's licenses, for which he received a hefty fine. His only legitimate business was to sell Old Masters painting as certified fakes. He also kept on a wall in his home a framed copy of a forged letter from Hitler giving him authority to compile the diaries for posterity. Kujau died at the age of 62 from cancer, having never finished his memoir, I was Hitler.

While questioned document examination comes under fire in the courtroom for its subjective manner of interpretation, rigorous training, certification and other corrective measures are giving the discipline more respect. The document examiners are working toward making their results reproducible so as to gain increasingly more credibility for their interpretations in court.

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