The chase that led to Goebbels: In Moscow, in secret, for the Sunday Times, a Hitler apologist lays his hands on a find. Peter Pringle trailed him

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On Smolensky Boulevard, clogged at 9.30 by rush-hour traffic, a man emerged from a tourist hotel carrying a black briefcase and wearing white trousers, which only foreigners or the rich do in Moscow, and was whisked away in a black Volga saloon of the kind once reserved under Communism for government officials.

At a rapid pace, weaving through the traffic, the man was driven for 20 minutes north to a much nicer part of Moscow, where the side streets are tree- lined, the noise of traffic is low and which was chosen in the Thirties as the site of the Central Government Archives of the Soviet Union. At 10am precisely, the man disappeared behind the large wooden doors of the archives.

This was part of the Sunday Times's top-secret summer project. The man in the white trousers was David Irving, the British historian, who was on a mission for Andrew Neil, editor of the Sunday Times. His goal: the missing Goebbels wartime diaries that, Irving had been told, German historians had discovered in a forgotten Moscow archive.

At one level Irving was suited to the task. He is an indefatigable researcher of the Third Reich, turning up diaries of its henchmen from Europe to the Middle East to South America. By his own account, this rugged son of a Royal Navy officer speaks German better than he speaks English, and can decipher German manuscripts more easily than fellow historians. He is a man obsessed by his work and shrewd, and at the age of 54 still has boundless energy. But he is no ordinary tenacious, hard-working historian.

Irving is a hero of the far right on at least two continents for his writings, and a hero among some of the nastiest of the non-reading classes for his appearances as a public campaigner. The thesis of his book Hitler's War (first published in 1977) is that Himmler had the Jews murdered without Hitler's knowledge, and that Hitler therefore is much maligned. In order to support this he tendentiously edited extracts from the very diaries a version of which he is now studying: he quotes Goebbels' comments on the 'barbaric and indescribable method' in which the Jews in the area of Lublin were killed; but he leaves out a long section a few lines below: 'The prophecy the Fuhrer made to them is thus beginning to be fulfilled in the most dreadful manner . . . here, too, the Fuhrer is the unflinching pioneer and spokesman for a radical solution.' Irving's selective editing was vividly exposed by Gitta Sereny and Lewis Chester in the Sunday Times in 1977.

A prodigious amount of Irving's prodigious energy has been spent in attempting to discredit the whole idea of the Holocaust. He has travelled far and wide to get across his message. Last winter, for example, he travelled to Toronto to talk in support of a man who was facing a prison sentence for distributing false information disputing the Holocaust. In Hamburg he told an audience that in two years 'this myth of mass murderers in the death factories of Auschwitz, Majdenek and Treblinka etc, which in fact never took place . . . will be laid'. He sometimes addresses the sort of crowds that register their enthusiasm not with applause but with Sieg Heil salutes.

Last November he organised a meeting at the Chelsea Town Hall. He told those gathered that they would not find one line on the Holocaust in the revised edition of his book; he had published the new edition himself in order to disseminate 'truths other people are too scared to print'.

Is this the man you would support in getting access to previously unseen personal diaries from Hitler's closest aide? Would such a man not be tempted to use that material to bolster his own extreme views, rather than produce an objective study of what may yet turn out to add greatly to the knowledge of the wartime activities of the Third Reich? These must be big questions for the Sunday Times.

And another question: where is the newspaper's institutional memory? In 1983, Irving tipped off the same newspaper about the 'Hitler diaries', which the Sunday Times subsequently published but which turned out to be fake. Irving excuses his involvement in this embarrassing episode by saying that he soon came to the conclusion that the diaries were a fake and claims that he told the newspaper so. Surely, though, a prudent newspaper would be loath to engage him again.

Andrew Neil's editorship postdates the 'Hitler diaries' affair; he has reconnected the Sunday Times with Irving via a handsome six-figure sum and dispatched him with all haste to Moscow to beg and barter his way into the archives. Irving has succeeded. He is the first British historian to examine the missing, but presumed genuine, war diaries of the former German propaganda chief.

The potential value of the find should not be underestimated. Goebbels, about whom Irving is writing a biography, was permanently at Hitler's side from the late Twenties until Hitler committed suicide in his bunker on 30 April 1945. Goebbels kept a voluminous diary of the pre-war years and of the beginning of the war, four volumes of which have been published by the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich. The published diaries start in June 1924 and end in July 1941. Many of the documents from which these volumes were published were captured by the Soviet army at the end of the war.

How has this complete record of the diaries now come to light? A few weeks ago, a historian from the Munich institute came across 92 small yellow boxes on the Goebbels shelf in the Central Government Archives in Viborskaya Street, Moscow. The boxes contained three-inch by five-inch photographic plates carrying copies of what the experts from the institute identified as the complete Goebbels diaries.

Thrilled by the discovery, the Munich scholars were determined to secure rights to publish the missing sections of the diaries and so drew up a contract with the Russian State Archive Committee, the body now in charge of all the archives of the former Soviet Union. Representatives of the institute struck a deal for the right to publish the diaries. One account of what happened says that a draft contract gave the Germans exclusive rights to the material but was later amended by the Russians to allow other researchers access.

But Viktor Bondarev, director of the Central Government Archives, where the diaries are stored, simply told me: 'The contract with the institute allows parts of the diaries to be seen, and published, by other researchers besides those from the institute.'

This now includes Irving, of course, who used a simple but enterprising idea to secure access to the files. As he had done before with the 'Hitler diaries', he went to the Sunday Times, suggesting to them a resourceful way in.

Russian archives are in a terrible state. They lack space, staff to catalogue the billions of files left in storage houses all over the city, and computers and copying machines. Money is something they are crucially short of; whether and what money had changed hands before Irving entered we do not know.

The archives also need new technology. For years, German-speaking Soviet researchers at the archives had been trying in vain to decipher the handwritten pages of the diary by holding the glass plate up to the light and using a magnifying glass. The handwriting was so unclear - and sometimes broke into shorthand - that they gave up. What they needed was a microfiche reader. Neil agreed. The Sunday Times duly delivered one at a cost of pounds 2,500 and the Russians let Irving in. The fact that Irving has devoted decades to sanitising the history of their greatest enemy did not put them off.

Each day this week Irving has been poring over the plates in a small reading room next to Bondarev's office. Irving's allocation, under the terms of the contract, is 100 pages, or the equivalent of two glass plates. 'He chose two plates with 45 pages each and he has the right to publish them,' Bondarev said. In fact, Irving's research has been unsupervised and he has had access to all the plates. When I surprised him by finding him in the reading room, there was a box of 20 on his desk. 'Rules are meant to be broken,' he said.

As he is near to finishing a Goebbels biography, Irving is like a small boy with a new toy, dashing to the archives and spending the day trying to decipher the tiny, often illegible handwriting. He says he cannot comment on anything to do with the diaries because 'clause four of his contract with the Sunday Times forbids it'.

When I first met him, in his hotel having breakfast, he said his project had been so secret that he was astonished anyone had found him out. 'Only three people know about it,' he stammered. 'I simply cannot say anything about the diaries, and I cannot even tell you where they are kept . . . they are in a building with an unmarked front door'.

Indeed, the large wooden doors of the neo-classical building that houses the Central Government Archives give no indication of what treasures lie behind them. Once inside, a militia man prevents any unauthorised entry from the hall.

By contrast to Irving's secrecy, however, Bondarev is open and straightforward. He has nothing to hide, he says, and anyone can come to look at the glass plates, provided they are approved by the state committee; what is required to obtain that approval he did not say.

'Nobody is going to sell them,' he says. 'Researchers don't have to pay. . . . I just want the diaries to be published by anyone but, of course, they belong to Germany and that's why we are obliged to make a contract with the Munich institute - it's their history, not ours.'

Because of Irving's contract with the Sunday Times, he is now worried about being 'scooped', which is a good reason why he should stick to historical research and not be lured into sensational journalism. Hot on Irving's heels comes the Munich institute. Its representatives arrive next week with a huge photocopier, another essential machine the archives are lacking. They intend to spend several weeks copying the diaries, but they are uncomfortable that Irving got there first.

Their anxieties will not be allayed by news of Irving's research methods, nor of his sudden outbursts against his colleagues from Munich. Irving's parting shot was: 'They will find the diaries gutted and filleted by the time they arrive.' Perhaps he meant that he would have found the best bits and published them.

(Photograph omitted)