The plot of selling Hitler is a dramatisation of the events leading up to and surrounding the 1983 "Hitler Diaries" affair, albeit changed in places to add more comedic and satirical overtones, however despite these changes, the events shown actually happened exactly as they are presented.
In the late 1970s, journalist Gerd Heidermann (Jonathan Pryce ), a down on his luck German journalist with a burgeoning obsession for Nazi memorabilia (despite ownership of such items generally being illegal in Germany) comes across the rotting hulk of the Carin II, Hermann Gorings personal yacht , moored in a harbour. Although the vessel requires extensive repairs in order to make it seaworthy again, he somehow manages to get the money together to buy and restore it.
His employers, the well respected German news magazine "Der Stern" ("The Star") are skeptical when he states that his purchase and restoration of the vessel will allow him to coax former Nazis to come out of the woodwork in order for him to interview them, the results of which interviews will form the basis of articles and possibly books about the Third Reich which Sterns parent company can market worldwide, cashing in on the bizarre obsession the world seems to have with Nazism. Sterns management reluctantly agrees to this and advances him several thousand Deutschmarks.
Years pass and Heidermann restores the Carin II and interviews many old Nazi military officers, albeit while they are under the influence of drink while at parties hosted by Heidermann on the ship, however the material he produces for Stern is of extremely poor quality, and not worth publishing in any form. Heidermann finds himself almost bankrupt when Stern pulls his funding for the Nazi project, however Heidermann, whose interest in Nazi memorabilia has now become more of an obsession, refuses to give up on finding some sort of story relating to Nazis. A chance meeting with one of his Nazi contacts brings Heidermann into contact with a relic that he believes will give him the story he is looking for, as amongst his contacts extensive (and illegal) Nazi memorabilia collection is a diary, reportedly one of several volumes penned by Hitler himself in the years between 1932 and 1945.
Heidermann becomes fascinated by the idea that there are more of these books hidden somewhere, and immediately begins a painstaking investigation to firstly authenticate whether the diaries are real, and secondly to track down the source of these diaries, so that he can acquire them for himself.
His searches reveal that in the final days of the war, the German high command organised for planes to carry documents from Berlin to Hitlers alpine retreat. The ninth plane in this flight carried the Fuhrers personal archives, however, this plane crashed en route, its cargo presumably lost.
In 1981, Heidermann tracks down and visits the crash site and is overjoyed to find that it actually existed, and there is a strong possibility that some of the planes cargo survived, including the diaries which he covets so much. Further investigation leads him to the home of a "Dr. Konrad Fischer" (Alexei Sayle ), who is the source of the diary he had seen some months previously.
Heidermann is delighted that Fischer says that he can get him more diaries, but their cost is substantial, due to them having to be smuggled into West Germany by his brother who is a general in the East German army. Heidermann, eager to get his hands on the books whilst making a substantial profit at the same time, returns to the offices of Stern and gets the CEO of publishing, Manfreid Fischer ( Tom Baker ) to agree to give him 200,000 DM in cash in order to buy the first three volumes.
By the beginning of 1983, Stern has made nearly 3 million marks worth of cash payments to Heidermann, of which a sizable portion he has kept for himself, using it to purchase more Nazi memorabilia for his own personal collection, as well as spending it on an extravagant lifestyle, however, problems start to occur when the secrecy of the arrangement that exists between him, Fischer and the new CEO of publishing at Stern is threatened when it is requested that the documents he has bought thus far be authenticated.
Copies of several documents are sent to handwriting experts who state that the handwriting (written in almost unreadable Gothic script) is definitely Hitlers, however forensic tests on the documents begin to show anomalies, such as the paper containing bleaching agents which weren't used until the 1950s.
As it turns out, the "Hitler Diaries" are in fact not smuggled out of East Germany by Fischers brother, they are in fact crudely forged by Fischer himself (His real name being "Konrad Kujau") simply by writing in books bought from Woolworths, which are then artificially aged by soaking the pages in cold tea and battering them on his desk before adding embellishments such as official looking seals and lettering, again, made by using cheap plastic items. Kujau pretty much copied everything written in the diaries from other source texts, occasionally embellishing them with bits of his own personal opinions, many of which ended up being anachronistic.
After being given limited access to the books (as well as being told outright lies by Stern staff) the books are authenticated by noted historian Hugh Trevor-Roper ( Alan Bennett ), however another noted but disliked (due to his antisemitic views and holocaust denial) expert on Nazism, David Irving ( Roger Lloyd-Pack ) casts doubt on the books authenticity when he sees copies of some materials purchased from Kujau from the collection of one of his neo-Nazi contacts and finds them to be fakes, thus casting doubt on the veracity of Trevor-Ropers authentication.
Everything comes to a head when three separate forensic experts finally get to fully test the documents, and find them all to be bare faced forgeries of pretty low quality.
Both Heidermann and Kujau are arrested, the senior staff at Stern, The Sunday Times and Newsweek are forced to resign in shame, Hugh Trevor-Roper is branded an idiot by the press and Rupert Murdoch ( Barry Humphries ) enjoys a field day with "I told you so" style headlines (despite himself bidding nearly $5 million for the international rights to Sterns "scoop").
In the end, Heidermann was ruined and spent four and a half years in prison for fraud (owing to his use of monies given to him by Stern to buy property and memorabilia, most of which were fakes made by Kujau), Kujau served two years for forgery, which was cut down due to his openness and co-operation with police once he was arrested.
"Selling Hitler" is a wonderfully crafted bit of satirical-docu-comedy-drama (its getting harder to classify things these days innit?) , with the "Best actor" award going to Alexei Sayle in his portrayal of Fischer/Kujau as a drunken buffoon who gets so wrapped up in enjoying the money he is getting paid for his forgeries that he doesn't realise the consequences of such a large scale fraud.
Many themes are touched on throughout the series, such as:-
- Sterns naive eagerness to acquire the diaries on a no questions asked basis without checking their authenticity.
- Heidermanns obsession with Nazi memorabilia, despite living in a country where the ownership and trade in such materials is pretty much illegal for private collectors.
- The eagerness in which all concerned have to use the forged materials to get the history books rewritten in order to portray Hitler in a much more flattering light, thus ignoring and/or excusing the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the war.
- The eagerness of all concerned to use the diaries to make ridiculous amounts of profit.
- The casual attitude which nearly all concerned show towards Nazism.
Id well recommend watching this series, which is available on DVD, although it is hard to come by, it can be viewed by other means.