Nothing is as central to the way the British view themselves as the telling and retelling of their gallant fight against the Nazis. Perhaps the colossal figure of Winston Churchill is taken for granted now, his boozy final years remembered with an indulgent chuckle, his elitist views and nostalgia for Empire taken as a slight embarrassment. But no one pokes fun at the underlying tale: the bull's-eye accuracy of his ignored early warnings about Hitler's intent, the real-time impact of his oratory once he became prime minister, the nation's banding together during the Blitz, the bravery of the pilots who fought the Battle of Britain and the core belief that Britain's stout heart turned the tide against fascism for decades to come.
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So it was a something of a shock when a handful of books over the last decade implicated Churchill's government in the cold-blooded killing of the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler—who was long believed to have killed himself with a hidden cyanide capsule after the British captured him—and showed that Churchill's government had held secret peace negotiations with the Nazis in betrayal of its alliance with the Americans and the Russians.
"That was one of the key issues between the Allies during the war," says Sir Max Hastings, a historian specializing in the history of World War II. "There was profound suspicion on all sides that one party or another might seek unilaterally to procure a peace with Hitler. Right into 1942, the British and Americans were extremely nervous that Russia might seek to make a deal, and the Russians were absolutely paranoid about this throughout the war."
In reporting the plot against Himmler, the books relied on newly uncovered documents at Britain's National Archives; the documents suggested that Himmler had to be killed to keep him out of the hands of American interrogators and off the witness stand in any war crimes prosecutions. The assertions, if true, would require the history of the war be rewritten.
But no revision is necessary; the documents are forgeries.
Any relief among historians, however, has been tempered by outrage at how the episode has progressed: British investigators identified a likely forger—then declined to prosecute him. It was "not in the public's interest," because of the suspect's ill health, the Crown Prosecution Service said in May 2008. But historians and others are still asking: where does the public's interest lie?
The forgeries were uncovered by Ben Fenton, a British journalist with long experience working with original documents from that era. He believed the revisionist books based on them were perverting history. He also had what he called a "patriotic, almost jingoistic" hope that British officials had not carried out the deeds described in the suspect documents.
"Murdering senior members of a foreign regime was not what you expected at that stage in the war," he says of the idea of government-approved assassination. "It was my hope that the British hadn't behaved like that. It would have meant Britain was not much better than the Nazis."
By the time Fenton went to the beautifully landscaped National Archives complex near the Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew to study the files in June 2005, he had already gotten an e-mail from a colleague questioning the documents' authenticity. As soon as he saw them for himself, Fenton felt in his gut that they were fakes.
It wasn't any one thing. There were pencil lines beneath some of the signatures, indicating that someone may have been trying to trace the signature from an original.