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Selling Hitler by Robert Harris (Pantheon: $18.95; 387 pp.)

August 10, 1986|Kenneth Reich | Reich is a Times staff writer who has written frequently on espionage

This is more than just the story of how newspaper tycoon Rupert Murdoch, renowned historian Hugh Trevor-Roper and the editors of one of West Germany's leading magazines, Stern, were taken in by a crude forgery, by humdrum chronicles written on postwar paper by a petty crook and passed off as the diaries of Adolf Hitler.

It is also a depressing but fascinating account of how the traffic in Hitler and Nazi memorabilia has become big business in both the United States and Europe.

In this book, we travel through a strange world, where rich American businessmen are paying ever-higher prices for Hitler's undistinguished water colors, where Hermann Goering's yacht is reconditioned at vast expense and put on public display, where a supposedly respectable investigative journalist comes to believe incredible stories that Martin Bormann is still alive and where forgeries of Nazi relics command thousands of dollars.

It is truly bizarre that a Maryland military surplus dealer would sell locks of Eva Braun's hair for $3,500 and that such items as Heinrich Himmler's glasses and a tablecloth that once belonged to the commandant of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp would fetch good prices. Yet it is part and parcel of the morbid fascination that many still feel for Hitler.

In Britain the Bison Books publishing house was "built entirely on the strength of the public's fascination with the Nazis," writes author Robert Harris, a BBC journalist. He notes that the firm's founder, Sidney Mayer, was anything but apologetic about the reasons for his success, quoting him as saying, "I don't want to end up as Hitler's publisher. I would have thought the public was as sick of it as I am. But they are not. The booksellers always want more. Hitler sells. Nazis sell. Swastikas sell--and they sell better and better. It's the swastika on the cover that gets them. Nobody can out-swastika us. I've even thought of putting one on our vegetable cookbook because Hitler was a vegetarian."

So there is enough here to make one marvel at the perseverance of sordid tastes. And when the author gets down to telling the story of the manufacture of the Hitler diaries it is also a description of how some leading journalists pandered to those tastes.

The truth is that the editors of Stern, the editors of Newsweek, the editors of the Sunday Times of London seemed little concerned about the quality of the so-called diaries. They were not a whit dissuaded from publishing them because they were utterly banal. They exerted little effort to get them truly authenticated. They hardly questioned even where they had been for nearly 40 years. They rushed to publish them, and were willing to pay millions of dollars for the privilege, because they had Hitler's name on them. It is a sad commentary.

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