Hoaxes are falsehoods deliberately concocted to masquerade as the truth and can range from the trivial, amounting to little more than practical jokes, to criminal cons or ruses of war. Susceptibility to hoaxes is not limited to the casual Joe Public, with limited access to information, and lacking sufficient time and resources to examine questionable claims. Even people whom we think should know better and be impervious to hoaxes, because of greater experience or specialized training or access to information not readily available to the rest of us, get hoaxed.
Investigative journalists are among those we least expect to fall for a hoax, yet they are not immune. Indeed, one of history’s most remarkable hoaxes, the 1983 publication of the Hitler Diary, revolved around investigative journalists getting hoaxed in a big way. In that debacle, a conman fooled the editors of the respectable German Stern magazine, as well as the British Sunday Times newspaper, into believing that the erstwhile Fuhrer had kept a secret diary. To great fanfare, the magazine and newspaper went ahead published, only to get humiliated when it turned out that their scoop had been created by a master forger.
Following are ten of history’s more remarkable hoaxes and successful forgeries.
Respectable Publications Get Hoaxed Into Publishing Fake Hitler Diary
It began in April of 1983, when Stern magazine held a press conference to announce that their star reporter, Gerd Heidemann, had discovered Hitler’s diaries. They had been recovered in 1945 from the wreckage of a plane crash, and languished in obscurity until Heidemann tracked them down. The documents abounded with juicy tidbits, ranging from the Fuhrer’s sensitivity about his bad breath, to his surprising ignorance about what had been happening to the Jews. Stern’s jubilant editors declared that their scoop, which shed light on the Fuhrer’s innermost thoughts, would lead to a major rewrite of WWII’s history and Hitler’s biography.
The magazine, which had paid $6 million for the documents, sent them to three handwriting experts, all of whom declared the diary authentic. Hugh-Trevor Roper, a prominent British historian who reviewed the diary on behalf of the Sunday Times, Stern’s publication partner, concurred. However, Stern’s editors, fearing a leak, had refused to allow any German WWII experts to examine the diary. It would prove a huge mistake.
Once the diary was published, and German WWII experts finally got the chance to take a look, it did not take them long to spot signs of obvious forgery. The paper used was modern, and so was the ink. Moreover, the diaries were riddled with glaring historical inaccuracies, concerning events and dates that Hitler could not have possibly gotten wrong. Particularly dated entries in which the Fuhrer described events before they had actually happened in real life – an impossibility unless Hitler had access to a time machine.
An investigation revealed that the diary had been created by a notorious German forger named Konrad Kujau, who teamed up with Stern’s reporter, Gerd Heidemann, to rip off the magazine. In the fallout, historian Hugh-Trevor Roper’s reputation was ruined, and editors at Stern, the Sunday Times, and Newsweek, ended up getting fired. As to Kujau and Heidemann, they were tried and convicted of forgery and embezzlement, and sentenced to 42 months in prison.