Forger of 'Hitler Diaries' making his name in fakes

August 29, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

STUTTGART, Germany -- Konrad Kujau will tell you that it wasn't easy slipping into the soul of Adolf Hitler.

For one thing it ruined his social life. Imagine trying to enjoy a dinner party while wondering, "Would Hitler have asked for seconds on the strudel?"

A bigger problem was the three-year prison term he got for his efforts. Mr. Kujau went to jail in 1985 after making more than $1 million by forging the 62-volume "Hitler Diaries," fooling several major magazines and a few prominent historians along the way.

Now, six years after his release, Mr. Kujau still isn't content with being himself. Last year he briefly ventured into the psyche of the late East German Communist leader, Erich Honecker, emerging with a short "diary" for the German magazine "Super Illu." (No prison term this time. The magazine never tried to pass off the work as Mr. Honecker's.)

More often these days he tries to enter the minds of artists, from Degas to Dali to Picasso. While doing so he has painted literally a gallery full of forgeries in oil, copies which fetch up to $4,000 apiece from a public still intrigued by his deeds.

"When I paint a picture I need to become the man who originally painted it. With the diaries it was the same thing," Mr. Kujau explains. "The fascination is in understanding how an artist painted, and in experiencing it. And I became famous as a forger, so people expect fakes from me. . . . There are some customers who want original Kujaus, but most of them want forgeries, although they explicitly want the name Kujau on the picture. A 'Kujau' has its worth."

Nowadays you can find Mr. Kujau behind the plate-glass window of his Gallerie Kujau on a busy street in downtown Stuttgart. At age 55, he is beefy and bald, with a ruddy complexion and large tattoos on either arm -- a woman's face on the right and palm trees and a heart pierced by a sword on the left.

Those, at least, weren't forged.

Mr. Kujau's most recent splash of publicity came when he agreed to run for a seat in the German parliament for the tiny Auto Drivers Party, an odd political movement concerned mostly with keeping slow drivers and environmental restrictions from clogging the nation's highways. He talks vaguely of forming his own centrist political party after the inevitable defeat of the Auto Drivers slate in this October's national elections.

But it's his penchant for copying that provides his income, and which earned him a permanent footnote in the annals of Third Reich historians.

No less an authority than Hugh Trevor-Roper, the British historian whose exhaustive research produced the acclaimed book, "The Last Days of Hitler," were convinced Mr. Kujau's efforts were the real thing before the age of the paper and ink exposed the diaries as a fraud.

Mr. Kujau's art work can be similarly convincing, although some pieces, such as his copies of impressionist painters, don't seem to hold up as well under a close look, even though they're his favorites.

'I do not copy'But the paintings were never intended as "copies," he says.

"I paint in the style of these painters, but I do not copy. I change smaller and bigger details, or I just paint a picture in the style of an art ist, but in a different motif."

In the case of "diaries," the research has been as important as the forged handwriting in making them seem authentic. The Hitler work took two years and three months, yet without all the research, he says, "I could have written them in four weeks. And every single detail was right. All the old generals confirmed that the entries were true."

Mr. Kujau got similar votes of confidence on his Honecker work. He pored over transcripts of Mr. Honecker's trial for crimes against the people of East Germany, trying to fathom the motivations of a stern man with simple tastes.

"He was a man who was accused of living much better than the rest of the people in the GDR [German Democratic Republic], but he said that he preferred to drink tap water to champagne, and his favorite meals were macaroni and ham, and mashed potatoes with wurst baked in a pan."

After the Honecker piece was published, he says, "a so-called junior communist visited and asked me to write Honecker's signature. I did, and he liked it. Then he said, my name is so and so, I come from Berlin, and I was in Chile recently with the Honecker family. He said they had talked about me for three days. I thought they wanted to make trouble for me because of the forged diaries, but he said they adored my work and wanted to know how I had known all the details."

Dark days for Hitler

In writing the Hitler diaries, the going got especially tough toward the end, as the going was getting tough for Hitler in the waning days of the war.

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