Looking back at the 'Hitler diaries' in an age of fake news

May 2, 1983, cover of Newsweek. “Hitler’s Secret Diaries.” (Photo-illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Newsweek, Getty Images [2])
May 2, 1983, cover of Newsweek. “Hitler’s Secret Diaries.” (Photo-illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Newsweek, Getty Images [2])

Last week there was a memorial service for Russell Watson, a much-admired writer and editor at Newsweek magazine, where he and I both worked for sizable chunks of our lives. Like most newsmagazine journalists, we did our jobs in obscurity, in the era before Twitter could bestow instant fame, or infamy, on wretches who sometimes were, literally, ink-stained from fiddling with the ribbons on our manual typewriters. But Russ had a particular claim on the memories of his colleagues, based, for better or worse, on just one of the thousands of stories he wrote and edited. Not even an entire story, actually, but a single sentence — in fact, just a phrase.

I can imagine Russ, with his gimlet-eyed aversion to sloppy, lazy writing, running a pencil through “better” in the sentence I just wrote. It occurred at one of the low points of the history of Newsweek, which for most of the second half of the 20th century was a cultural and intellectual fixture of middle-class American life second to … well, second to Time.

I was probably the last person to talk to Russ before he typed the fateful words, late on a Saturday night in April 1983. A German magazine had obtained what it claimed were 60 volumes of the original, handwritten diaries of Adolf Hitler from the early 1930s almost until his death in 1945 and was offering reprint rights for sale. Newsweek had been very much in the bidding, before the editors pulled out at the last minute, in a disagreement over the terms of the deal, not out of ethical or journalistic qualms. Hoping to capitalize on the publicity about the sensational find without actually committing either cash or its editorial imprimatur, the editors decided to run a cover story on the “controversy” over the diaries, based mainly on what other people were saying about them.

Watson was handed the thankless task of explaining the whole impossibly confusing, still-evolving tale to Newsweek’s millions of readers, who hadn’t been following the story on the internet, because it didn’t exist yet.

I had a small role in the project, writing a “sidebar,” or secondary story, on the topic of “Hitler and the Jews.” (He hated them, but there was a surprising absence of direct evidence that he personally ordered the Holocaust.) On my way home, a few hours before the presses were to start churning out 3.3 million copies of the next issue, I passed by Russ’s office, where he had been spending a succession of 14-hour days, to say good night.

“I’m at the point,” he said, with a grim smile, “where I just need one more thought, one last conceit, to wrap this up, and then I’m out of here.”

I wished him luck.

When I arrived home and logged on to Newsweek.com — excuse me, I mean, 36 hours later, when I picked up a copy of the magazine — I saw what he had come up with.

At the very end of his brilliant, arduous exercise in balancing credulity with skepticism, prurient fascination with earnest moral condemnation, selling the reader on the tantalizing possibilities this was the real thing while allowing for the likelihood that it was a gigantic hoax, Russ had written this (italics added):

“Now the appearance of Hitler’s diaries — genuine or not, it almost doesn’t matter in the end — reminds us of the horrible reality on which our doubts about ourselves, and each other, are based.”

I have often thought, in the years since: There but for the grace of God go any of us who write on deadline. Russ might well have been the smartest guy at the magazine, certainly one of the hardest to fool, and he must have suspected that this story could blow up at any time. As, indeed, it did just a week later, when the German government, on the basis of a few simple forensic tests, definitively proclaimed the entire project a forgery. The forger, a petty criminal and dealer in fake Nazi memorabilia, eventually was charged in the case and went to prison.

But the press deadline couldn’t wait until all this was sorted out. Nor could the story just peter out into ever-smaller factlets, the way a newspaper story written on the “inverted pyramid” model could. A newsmagazine story, especially a cover story, had to make some kind of point at the end — in the jargon of journalism, a “kicker.” Faced with the need to extract some meaning from this farrago of duplicity, Russ decided his kicker would be about the potential for evil that lurks in each of us — a lesson that, as he correctly noted, doesn’t have to depend on the authenticity of a bunch of old notebooks.

Still, the sentence, as written, practically begged to be taken out of context. As a journalist, Russ knew perfectly well that it certainly did matter if the diaries were genuine or not.

At least in 1983, it did matter.

Almost from the beginning of the story, there were skeptics who assumed the diaries were a hoax, leading to speculation about possible motives. Some noted that the fake Hitler, in tens of thousands of words on subjects ranging from the progress of the war he started to his mistress’s new puppies, had nothing to say about the extermination camps and the Holocaust, central aspects of Nazi ideology. Were the forgers neo- (or original) Nazis, attempting some perverted rehabilitation of their hero? Or — in a foreshadowing of today’s fake news — could the diaries have been the product of a Soviet-bloc disinformation campaign, with the aim of sowing discord between West Germany and the United States?

As the world quickly learned, they were nothing of the sort, just a scam by a petty crook hoping to make a quick Deutschmark.

And in the world of 1983, that was sufficient to put an end to it. People accepted they had been played for fools, or they congratulated themselves on having known better all along, but there were no “alternative facts” to confuse the public discussion. There were no Hitler-diary truthers claiming the German government was falsely discrediting the diaries, or that the confessed forger was a CIA plant or a Mossad agent. No one made T-shirts with Hitler diary quotations (sample excerpt: “The English are driving me crazy!”). Alex Jones, the future Infowars provocateur, was only 9 years old; no one had a worldwide platform to argue, say, that the diaries were a hoax by George Soros to hide his responsibility for starting World War II. In the presidential election the following year, the candidates weren’t asked to take a position on the Hitler diaries, or Hitler himself.

And the criticism of Newsweek had to do with its opportunism in rushing the story into print, not ideological bad faith. It was generally accepted that it was trying to sell magazines, not advance a liberal internationalist agenda.

Would that still be true today? As I said my goodbyes to my friend, who was leaving a world that would have been unrecognizable from the viewpoint of just a few decades ago, I had to wonder.


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