Holy Relics

Alan Milward

  • Selling Hitler: The story of the Hitler Diaries by Robert Harris
    Faber, 402 pp, £10.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 571 13557 9

Whose is the second most valuable signature on the American autograph market after that of Abraham Lincoln? Which is the better investment, the penis of Napoleon or the handwriting of Hitler? The answer in both cases is Adolf Hitler. If you can buy them, Nazi memorabilia are your best hedge against inflation. Their value increases by about 20 per cent a year. But they are probably too expensive for you. A standard-issue SS dress dagger is worth at least $1500. A lock of Eva Braun’s hair will cost you $3500. A small watercolour possibly by Hitler will cost you roughly $4500. The 1938 Mercedes which he gave to Eva Braun may cost you $350,000. You can find the trade prices in Der Gauleiter, a magazine published in Arkansas. The annual turnover is estimated at $50 million.

As the economic function of the villages of Western Europe and the United States gradually becomes that of retail outlets for urban raiders in search of ‘antiques’, it is understandable that Nazi ‘antiques’ should become up-market commodities. Few other objects make so wide a variety of emotional appeals. They are associated with strange, dramatic events, with great personal power, with military pomp, with racial supremacy, with male supremacy, with magic, and with torture and massacre. There should not be many of them, for the Third Reich lasted only 12 years and the Nazi Party before that was very small. Add to this the fact that their trade is illegal in two Western countries, and has to be carried out with a certain discretion in others, and the mixture becomes unbeatable. To the greed and vanity of the collectors are joined one or some of the emotions to be derived from the contemplation of this vanquished world.

The Nazis are big money. The publications and media multinational, Bertelsmann AG, paid about nine million marks, roughly two and a half million pounds, over four years, to accumulate in strictest secrecy the diaries of Adolf Hitler for eventual publication in its magazine Stern. It took so long because they had to wait for each volume to be written by Konrad Kujau, who was not always doing a full-time job. He was busy at the same time painting Hitler paintings and drawing Hitler drawings. You will find some of his best work in Billy F. Price’s Adolf Hitler, the Unknown Artist (Houston, 1984). He was also writing Hitler mottoes, postcards and poems. Many of these you may find in the immense compilation, E. Jäckel and A. Kuhn (eds), HitlerSämtliche Aufzeichnungen 1905-1924 (Stuttgart, 1980). ‘He who believes in his heart has the greatest strength in the world. Signed: Adolf Hitler,’ item 667, page 1248.

The diaries were written in modern ink on only slightly old-fashioned paper over which Kujau poured modern tea. The headings were in Lettraset. On the cover of each diary were the plastic initials AH, except where he ran out of A’s and had to put F’s instead. He did this on the volume illustrated on its front cover by Stern on the day when the magazine finally launched on the world the greatest scoop of all time, Fred Hitler’s diary. The diaries were mostly copied, not always accurately, from dry official proclamations and from the postwar chronicle of Hitler’s official activities compiled by Max Domarus, to which, occasionally, Kujau added a personal touch (‘Eva Braun had to endure much suffering’). It was inconceivable that a man as busy as Hitler would have wasted his time writing such piffle. There were only about a thousand words in each diary, at fifty pounds a word.

Kujau, though, was getting only about thirty pounds a word from the Stern reporter, Gerd Heidemann, discoverer of the Hitler diary. Stern’s money was also going on other purposes. Heidemann bought a luxury cruise for his wife and himself in a Hamburg travel agency for £7400 in cash. The travel salesman had no difficulty in recalling this incident for the police two years later: he had struggled unavailingly for a long time to stuff the notes into the till. On other occasions the reporter flew first-class with his wife to New York for a New Year party and spent £10,000 in one day on furnishings. He spent £140,000 on restoring a yacht. He rented a gallery in central Hamburg as his personal museum. At one time or another he had been trusted with most of the £2,500,000 in bank notes which Bertelsmann paid.

Yet although Hitler diaries arriving in imaginary pianos from the DDR had the same effect on the lives of those who touched them as the discovery of an oil well in their garden there is more to the story than money, greed and vanity. While these crisp new notes were pouring out of Bertelsmann’s bank account no serious forensic test was made to find out whether the accumulating diaries were genuine.

At the beginning, in sworn secrecy, two handwriting experts had been asked to compare a page cut from the diaries, with no explanation of its origin, with a variety of other Hitler documents many of which Heidemann had also found. On these, too, Kujau had left his stamp (‘Respected Generalissimo Franco, Best wishes for the coming year. Signed: Adolf Hitler’). Both experts cautiously agreed that there was nothing to prove that these documents were not written by the same hand. This was enough for the Bertelsmann chiefs. Making money meant, of course, keeping the secret. But what faith they had in these relics, taking them from time to time from the safe, looking at them and feeling reassured. Only when the huge publicity campaign began to roll, and Rupert Murdoch and Newsweek had made up their minds to part with $3,750,000, were the German Police pushed by the Government into undertaking a proper forensic test. Mr Murdoch, though, relying on traditional British expertise, had meanwhile had the diaries authenticated by a great expert on 17th-century British history. When Lord Dacre later had doubts about what he had so boldly written about their authenticity in the Sunday Times, Murdoch swept him aside, according to Robert Harris, with the memorable line: ‘Fuck Dacre, publish.’ Meanwhile the historian David Irving denounced the diaries as fakes, on the radio and television of three countries, although he had no sound evidence for saying so. Two weeks later, when everyone else was saying they were fakes, he made the front page of the Daily Express and the Times with his new opinion that they were genuine.

Poor Heidemann, no matter what he did with the money, believed in the authenticity of the diaries with increasing fervour and hope the more the plausibility of the whole story diminished. Their genuineness had been confirmed to him by Martin Bormann. By the time of the publication he had paid at least £130,000 to meet Bormann, who was commuting between Argentina, Egypt, Paraguay, Spain and Switzerland. The difficult circumstances of Bormann’s life always made the meeting impossible, yet Heidemann believed that, on the day of Stern’s great press conference to reveal the scriptures to the public, Bormann would at last come among them and remove all doubts. Why not? Twelve years earlier the Daily Express had used up half of its front page with the headline MARTIN BORMANN FOUND. Heidemann lovingly preserved Goering’s yacht as a shrine and had his own museum in Hamburg of sacred relics, including the pistol with which Hitler shot himself (‘with this pistol the Führer took his own life. Signed: Martin Bormann’).

Against the many failures of his existence as reporter, husband and lover he had need of such comforts. It is for the many people like him, the sad or hopeless characters unearthed by this long trial, that Kujau and his like ply their trade. Somewhere the Russians have Hitler’s teeth, hidden lest they, too, become a relic. It may, though, still be possible to buy the Führer’s portrait of King Farouk, school of Kujau. And all those German historians kept so jealously away from despoiling the treasures with their sour disillusion, and who so darkly hinted that it was all a vast and complicated plot by the KGB or the CIA, may console themselves by visiting Konrad Kujau in his prison cell and obtaining their small personal relic (‘Best wishes from prison. Signed: Adolf Hitler’).

Do people who collect Nazi relics have any distinctive beliefs? When the great scoop was announced, leaders of several religious communities objected to so much publicity about the diaries even if they were genuine, and since the end of the war the opinion has been constantly expressed that it is dangerous to allow the sale or display of Nazi artefacts and their copies. This opinion has rested on the assumption that these relics are preferred to others because they stand for a dangerous pattern of belief, which is now disapproved of in equal measure by the Churches and by secular society, and of which it is socially necessary that we continue to disapprove. The reassurance people now derive from these artefacts may have nothing in common any longer with the beliefs which they symbolised in the Thirties, but did they in any case represent a distinctive pattern of belief then? They stood, of course, for a political movement of a highly distinctive and, in most people’s eyes, entirely unacceptable character. But once that movement had been so comprehensively overthrown and crushed could it leave behind an unacceptable strain of religious thought which might be kept alive by its physical debris? Were its swastikas crosses? Was the Führer himself, as many now argue, a religious figure?

It was fitting that Lord Dacre should have been the first to authenticate what might have been the greatest relic of them all. It was he who in The Last Days of Hitler, a work of undying popularity, in a brave attempt to explain what then seemed inexplicable, launched Hitler into his after-life as a demon Messiah. Since then, the counter-Messiah, the last Jew who ends transcendence and returns us to a pagan earth, has been perpetually rediscovered – in darkest Paraguay, in the jungles of Brazil, living as a Peruvian smallholder. He has had plastic surgery, even a body transplant. She is now a woman. He has been cloned. But the second coming is for ever imminent.

It is becoming almost commonplace to explain the immense horror of the Jewish massacres by the advent of this counter-Messiah. The enormity of Hitler’s actions is explained as the consequence of his fundamental religious commitment to political action. Rejecting in his unhappy childhood and adolescence all public religious orthodoxy, he was still able to mine an ancient, hidden vein of popular religious emotion in German crowds, commune with them in apocalyptic fervour and release a powerful motivation for political action beyond the frontiers accepted by other political parties, whether supported by public religion or otherwise. George Steiner’s The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. made the counter-Messiah better-known, and in one of the two latest works on the massacre Hitler now appears as the product of popular messianic Austrian Catholicism: ‘the task which Christ began but did not finish I will complete.’[1] The fervent rapport between Hitler and his hearers was ‘characteristic of the popular Christianity of the Middle Ages’. Rejecting the public Christian orthodoxies of governing élites, Hitler rediscovered the early Gnostic heresies and became the standard-bearer of a cosmic war against what he saw as the powers of evil. If we understand Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler as latter day millenarians and chiliasts, we shall, it is implied, finally comprehend Auschwitz.

Did Hitler actually show any interest when young in the chiliastic racial and religious movements which developed during the last years of the Habsburg Empire? There is some slight evidence that when he lived in deepening poverty in Vienna he sought out the renegade monk Lanz von Liebenfels, producer of the mystical magazine Ostara, because he admired the man’s ideas and wanted to get the back numbers. Lanz von Liebenfels had developed his own chiliastic vision in which the former race of Aryan god-men, now nearing extinction, reasserted themselves in triumph against the dark-haired, brown-eyed, non-Aryan forces of evil and degeneracy, the whole representing a remote, religious allegory of the struggle of Germans against non-Germans in the Empire. There is otherwise no evidence that Hitler was in any significant way at any time in contact with, or had any fellow-feeling for, any religious group, apart from a brief attendance at church school when a small child. Himmler, with his persistent interest in Armanism, is the only clear example of an important Nazi who was influenced by a religious view of politics.

The stories of young Adolf’s life in Vienna which have added spice to the biographies by Maser, Toland and others and helped to interpret him as a figure beyond our rational political understanding are just another version of Fred Hitler’s diary. Josef Greiner, who, two years after Hitler’s death, invented his life with him in a working-man’s hostel in Vienna, stands at the beginning of a great tradition.[2] He placed the tradition on a high level from the outset by inventing Joszef Grill, the renegade son of a Polish rabbi, who walks the streets of Vienna with Hitler elucidating for him the central, conspiratorial mysteries of the Jewish religion. Desperation and the respectability of age make Greiner’s work recur continually as a ‘source’ – unlike, for example, Gus Weill’s The Führer Seed (New York, 1979): ‘It’s who you are that turns me on! she whispered.’ Having traced in careful detail the chiliastic and occult movements in the Habsburg Empire whose beliefs seem to be reflected in the language of Hitler and the Nazis, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke was reduced last year to using Greiner as one of the only two shreds of evidence of a link between these movements and Hitler, even though he doubted whether Greiner really was a ‘source’.[3] It is Greiner who tells us that Hitler kept a pile of copies of Ostara by his bed. That this may not have been so Goodrick-Clarke accepts, but in the street where Hitler is said to have lived at that time there was a registered newspaper kiosk where, naturally, the future Führer may have been able ...

Greiner, like Kujau, was not exactly a master-craftsman. But with such a yearning for faith great talent is hardly needed. ‘The Nazi crusade,’ Goodrick-Clarke tells us, as do so many others, ‘was essentially religious.’ As, say, an indeterminate authoritarian element in a model of polycentric, neo-corporatist government, Hitler would have no literary after-life. It is not as easy to fathom the full political implications of the governmental system in Germany in the Thirties as it is to ascribe what we suppose to be its aberrations to apocalyptic religious traditions, to archaic, messianic and occult elements in popular religion, or to demonology. Nevertheless the importance of Hitler to us all is not as a religious figure but as a politician, and the importance of the National Socialist movement is that, not of a Christian crusade, but of a modern political organisation, embodying the same tendencies as can be found in many 20th-century societies. The occasional religious mannerisms perceptible in the Führer’s speech were no more than those vestigial traces of the past which are to be found in all contemporary politics, and his relapses into overt Catholicism were simply the crude local political appeals familiar to us all. It is a rational political understanding of the massacres to which we have to adhere. Over the last ten years, research has provided it. Seeking a religious interpretation of the Nazi movement may make the fact of its existence more bearable but will go no further to explaining it.

We are left, therefore, with a dichotomy. Artefacts once political have become religious. Whatever faith they now symbolise can have no organic connection with the Nazi past. There is no need for the Russians to hide Hitler’s teeth. Forty years of repetitive, ponderous warnings of a new Nazism, increasing in solemnity whenever a small group in Wolverhampton or Detroit is caught dressing up in swastikas and jackboots, have been so much misplaced vigilance. As symbols of an unacceptable political movement, there may be a case for suppressing such activities, although there are now more dangerous people to whom we would do better to pay attention. As symbols of an older faith which could again one day break out in ‘holy’ fury, they do not exist. Such phenomena are not pleasant. Neither is the fact that the Nazis and their gear have become an essential element of the pornographer’s business. But these objects have now only two functions beyond that of accumulating value. Either they have been absorbed into the pantheon of fashion and become ‘style’, or they are modern talismans for Heidemann and similar sad figures. The varied handicrafts of the school of Kujau help along the road those who would like to imagine themselves with the boldness, the will and the power to do things which they might none the less reject and condemn if there was any question of their being acted out. They are Saint Christophers for the non-traveller. The symbols of the cruellest of mankind have come to serve a charitable social function. For Kujau and his like, or for Rupert Murdoch, it all amounts to much bigger business than ‘What Today’s Stars Foretell’. And there is no reason to make it bigger still. If we did, Konrad (or Peter) Kujau, alias Dr Fischer, alias the Professor, ‘Conny’ to his friends, would have the last laugh. ‘This is the steel helmet worn by the Führer at the western front in 1917. Signed: Rudolf Hess’.

[1] Hitler’s Apocalypse: Jews and the Nazi Legacy by Robert Wistrich. Weidenfeld, 320 pp., £18.95, October 1985, 0 297 78719 5.

[2] Das Ende des Hitler-Mythos by J. Greiner. Zürich, 1947.

[3] The Occult Roots of Nazism: The Ariosophists of Austria and Germany 1890-1935 by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. Aquarian Press, 294 pp., £12.95, 24 October 1985, 0 85030 402 4.