Rewriting History in Great Britain

Recently uncovered documents in the British archives reveal dark secrets from World War II. One problem: they are forgeries

The National Archives at Kew (Nick Cooper / Wikipedia)

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Some word choices—"devastating," for example—were inconsistent with period usage. Some diplomatic titles were incorrect—highly unusual in the precise world of British official parlance. And some assertions—notably that the government had killed Himmler—were so sensitive they would not have been written down.

"I didn't think it was a slam dunk," Fenton says. But he was sufficiently suspicious to take his concerns to David Thomas, then the National Archives' director of government and technologies.

Unbeknownst to Fenton, a German scholar had already alerted Thomas to the possibility that the documents were phony, but the scholar had provided little evidence at that time for Thomas to feel it necessary to launch an investigation. After Fenton contacted Thomas, however, the director agreed to let an outside forensics expert scrutinize the originals. As soon as the specialist concluded that the documents were fakes, Scotland Yard was called in.

Ultimately experts would identify 29 forged documents that are cited in three books by historian Martin Allen. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard moved slowly, building its case well out of the public eye, until May of this year, when Fenton reported in the Financial Times Weekend Magazine that police had identified a suspect.

But although the Crown Prosecution Service said there was "sufficient evidence to bring a prosecution for forgery and criminal damage," the Crown had decided not to press charges after the "reviewing lawyer carefully considered medical reports and all relevant public interest factors."

The matter was supposed to end there, but eight leading scholars sent a letter to the editor of the Financial Times demanding that an official report on the scandal be compiled and made public.

Sir Max Hastings helped lead the charge. He says he wants a criminal prosecution—or at least a public accounting—not for vengeance against the perpetrator but to deter anyone else from trying to plant fakes in the archives, "discover" them, and then cash in by writing a book based on them.

"It would be catastrophic if writers thought they could get away with a stunt like this by fabricating material," he said. "The Holy Grail for every writer of a new book is to discover some key piece of new information. Writers are always striving to try to discover this magic key to give them the terrific sales boost that comes with finding something new. If people think they can make a bundle by fabricating material, they will do it."

Andrew Roberts, author of Hitler & Churchill (which does not rely on the forgeries), says the planting of documents represents an ominous new tactic.

"We've never come across something that was entirely invented after the period itself," he says. "A lot has been invented at the time, and we've been dealing with forgeries for ages, but right now in the 21st century you don't expect people to make things up and place them in the National Archives as a way of selling a book. It's creating false memory syndromes about a very important part of our national story."


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