A quarter of a century ago, a German reporter called Gerd Heidemann shocked the world when he claimed he had unearthed the diaries of Adolf Hitler.
It was a great story – and would have been even greater had it been true. Now, still licking his wounds, the former Stern magazine journalist is living in poverty in Hamburg. He has debts exceeding €700,000 (£560,000) and exists on state handouts.
Heidemann, now aged 76, remains bitter about his fall from grace. He claims he was the scapegoat for the entire affair and the object of great Schadenfreude among his journalistic peers.
The 60 volumes he acquired for $5m from Konrad Kujau – an antiques dealer, painter and forger – on behalf of Stern magazine turned out to be fakes. They took in eminent historians, including Hugh Trevor-Roper, who announced them authentic before tests were completed to determine the age of the paper.
Rarely has a story crashed and burnt in such spectacular fashion. Mr Heidemann, who dreamed of a life of wealth and fame, found himself instead the pariah of publishing and soon had more than irate editors to deal with.
He was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to four years and eight months in jail; a term, he points out, that was longer than that given to Kujau.
"Almost everyone who wanted to finish me is dead," he told the tabloid newspaper Bild this week. "But I'm still alive. I was the big scapegoat for them."
He now lives in a 35sq metre apartment, crammed with box files of his cuttings from the glory years as a globetrotting Stern reporter before the big fall.
It was 25 years ago tomorrow, 25 April 1983, that Stern announced that the history of the Third Reich would have to be rewritten following the discovery of the diaries of the Führer. The world was desperate to believe in their authenticity.
Over the two years before the first excerpts were published, Stern paid £3.3m to a mysterious "Dr Fischer" through the Nazi-obsessed journalist, who, prosecutors later found, skimmed a lot of the cash into his own bank accounts.
Fischer, the world was told, was having the diaries smuggled in from a secret location in East Germany. But Mr Heidemann was actually in cahoots with Kujau, who made basic mistakes such as writing Hitler's supposed words in diaries made with materials not in manufacture before 1950. The ink was also modern and the extracts were riddled with modern-day phrases.
Mr Heidemann, who travelled Germany with bags of cash from his masters, living in expensive hotels, now lives in a flat with two rooms, a kitchenette and a bathroom. He sleeps on a fold-out bed in his study and spends 10 hours a day sorting through his files – to what ultimate purpose, only he knows.
"I am healthy," he pronounces. "I am a pensioner and get €350 [£280] a month from the social security office. They also pay the rent, my health insurance and my old-age care insurance."
His €700,000-plus debt includes €150,000 in shipyard bills dating back to when he owned Hermann Goering's yacht, Carin II.
His wife left him in 1986, his son, Ronald, died of Aids, his daughter, Susanne, emigrated to Australia to forge a new life away from her scandal-racked father.
"The Stern editors in chief received millions in compensation but I lost everything," he says. "Kujau falsified the books and he got two years less than me because he had allegedly co-operated. He lied daily in court." It is clear that Mr Heidemann lives, breathes, eats and sleeps the diaries and what they did to his reputation and his life.
"I hold myself to be an innocent man," he said.Reuse content