Konrad Kujau was born in 1938 in Löbau, Germany, in the midst of a burgeoning NSDAP-mania. His parents were proud Nazis and he, too, would grow up idolizing Adolf Hitler, even after the war was over. As any neighborhood Hannah Arendt will tell you, Nazi idolatry was more common in postwar divided Germany than anyone wanted to admit at the time—the flourishing black market of memorabilia on both sides of the Berlin Wall was proof positive just on its own. And that is how, in the late 1970s, Konrad Kujau—by this time an experienced small-time grifter and semi-talented handwriting imitator who was already selling fake Nazi memorabilia in his Stuttgart shop—decided to write a sloppy, poorly researched fake diary of the Führer and see who would be interested in it.
He taught himself the old Gothic script that Hitler favored, and then he used watered-down ink on modern paper that he stained with tea and whacked against furniture to age. He bound the whole mess up with a Nazi-era ribbon and a red wax seal, and as a final detail he had Hitler’s initials stamped on the cover in gold. Well, he tried to, at least. In addition to teaching himself Gothic script, he’d also taught himself to read Fraktur type—poorly. Apparently when he was buying the Hong Kong-made Fraktur printer’s type, he mistook a Fraktur “F” for an “A.”
And yet. This was a detail that, as Sally McGrane writes in her fascinating 2013 New Yorker piece on the then-recently-published mea culpa of then-Stern editor Felix Schmidt, “failed to put anyone on alert.” Instead, in 1980, one Gerd Heidemann—a notoriously reclusive investigative reporter for the magazine Stern, whose own voluminous collection of Nazi paraphernalia was concerning to his colleagues, albeit not enough to get him fired—got his mitts on Kujau’s fake through an intermediary. And apparently, he was too blinded by the cartoon Deutsche Mark signs his eyes had turned into to see that it was a bad fake. (The origin story fed to Heidemann was that they’d first been in a plane crash toward the end of the war; then hoarded by a Hitler-sympathetic East German general.)
Ditto for the entire editorial staff of Stern at the time, and the multiple alleged experts they had vet what were now dozens of volumes. (“Hitler” was, apparently, very prolific.) Kujau was writing them as fast as he could; eventually, they would number 60, and Stern’s publisher would pay 9.3 million Deutsche Marks (over $4 million) for the blockbuster Hitler Diaries, the first excerpts of which appeared in the magazine in early April of 1983.
Kujau, meanwhile, was living it up. According to The Times of London’s 2000 obituary (this link is to a reproduction; maybe it’s fake!) after Kujau’s death at 63 of stomach cancer, he had started making “frequent, ostentatious visits to local nightclubs, often spending more than £2,500 per evening.” (If you think this is the stuff of a very ridiculous movie, you are correct: I bring you Selling Hitler, a 1991 UK comedy miniseries starring High Sparrow from Game of Thrones as Gerd Heidemann and the Sultan from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as Kujau.)
And then, in late April of 1983, just weeks after the first excerpts were printed in Germany and the UK—and after lengthy and unsuccessful questionings of Heidemann about the mysterious “source” he at one point claimed tossed the diaries from one open window of a moving vehicle on the Autobahn into another—the German Federal Archive, summarily declared the diaries not just forgeries, but, as McGrane writes, “clumsy fakes.”
The paper, the ink, even the binding glue were quickly sniffed out as postwar; the content—rife with hackneyed descriptions of teary-eyed SS soldiers and strange digressions into halitosis—was often-direct plagiarism from Max Domarus’s, 1945 anthology, Hitler: Speeches and Proclamations, 1932-1945—The Chronicle of a Dictatorship, currently yours to be had on Amazon for $2,500.
Most of the Stern staff quickly resigned in disgrace; Heidemann and Kujau were both prosecuted for fraud, though each claimed ignorance of the other’s motives; Heidemann swore he believed the diaries were real until the very end; according to The Times, Kujau swore Heidemann new they were fake and was just buying them…for fun? For millions of Marks? All right, sure. In the end, Heidemann got off and Kujau served three of his four-and-a-half-year prison sentence, before being released in 1988 as a minor celebrity.
And things hadn’t even gotten weird yet.
Now, had this whole kerfuffle taken place in the United States, Kujau’s entreé into the world of gleeful open forgery writ large would not have seemed strange in the least. We Americans love a fourth (or fifth, or sixth) act, and what better way to leverage one’s fuck-ups than to become a fuck-upreneur? Not so in Germany, where one must demonstrate hard-copy evidence of a 30-month training course in shoe sales before getting a job at a shoe store, and where one then sells footwear stern-faced and highly-qualified for thirty hours per week until retirement.
Sure, the career choices of petty-to-major criminals must be slightly less orthodox—but even in his turn toward legitimacy, Konrad Kujau couldn’t quite shake the lure of crime, finding himself until the end of his life on the wrong side of multiple weapons charges and even a few light forgeries, such as the fake driver’s licenses recovered at his home shortly before his death, according to his New York Times obituary.
So what was Kujau’s claim to legitimacy? A rather ingenious use of all of his talents at once: A talented if unoriginal painter, Kujau decided to open a Stuttgart gallery in 1990. He billed himself an “honest forger” and called the place his “fakes gallery,” where he then sold replicas of the Old Masters: Van Gogh; Franz Marc; Monet. They bore his signature next to his own forgery of the original artists’, and during his lifetime, according to the The Times, they commanded respectable prices of as much as £42,000.
After Kujau’s death, however, those prices spiked—and this is where it gets legitimately weird, folding in on itself into so many orders of fakery that I can no longer keep track. According to this 2010 article in Der Spiegel, Kujau’s great-niece Petra was arrested in 2010, for carrying on the family trade in the best possible way—that is, selling fakes of “genuine” Kujau fakes of real old paintings, for as much as EUR 300,000. This is truly the kind of thing you can’t make up.
In 1998, two years before he died, a book called The Originality of Forgery appeared with Konrad Kujau’s byline. He claimed he hadn’t written a single line of it—it was, instead, a clumsy fake.
FAKES is The Awl’s year-end holiday series for 2017. You can read the whole collection here.