Former FBI agent details long search for ‘Devil’s Diary’

Former FBI agent details long search for ‘Devil’s Diary’

Nazis’ ‘minister of hate’ planted ‘seed’ of ideology

Robert Wittman signs copies of his book detailing his search and recovery of the diary of Alfred Rosenberg, a leading architect of the Third Reich who “in some respects turned Hitler into Hitler.”
Robert Wittman signs copies of his book detailing his search and recovery of the diary of Alfred Rosenberg, a leading architect of the Third Reich who “in some respects turned Hitler into Hitler.”

Many consider Alfred Rosenberg the “architect” of the Third Reich, whose views influenced Hitler and who rose to become one of the fuehrer’s top advisers.

Rosenberg was found guilty of war crimes at the Nuremberg trials and hanged in 1946. Shortly afterward, his 400-page handwritten diary, which was referenced by Nuremberg prosecutors, mysteriously disappeared.

It was Robert K. Wittman, the founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team and a national expert on cultural property crime, who finally recovered the journal — which had been seized by members of “Patton’s Army” along with thousands of other items from the basement of a Bavarian castle — in 2013; it is now at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. 

Wittman’s 13-year search for the elusive journal with its harrowing contents is recounted in The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich, which he coauthored with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Kinney.

On Jan. 8, Wittman spoke at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick about his career investigating art and cultural theft — he is now a private consultant in the field — and the efforts to find the diary in partnership with the Holocaust museum’s chief archivist, Henry Mayer.

“We didn’t know what the diary said, but we knew it was priceless,” said Wittman. He said that Rosenberg “in some respects turned Hitler into Hitler” by giving him his twisted beliefs, including that Jews were responsible for the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Germany’s debacle in World War I, “and all the bad things that happened to Germany.”

When it was published, Rosenberg’s book, The Myth of the Twentieth Century, which laid out the idea of Aryan supremacy and anti-Semitic beliefs, was second in sales in Germany only to Hitler’s Mein Kampf

After Hitler’s appointment as Reich chancellor, Rosenberg was placed in charge of the Nazi Party’s foreign policy office. Other appointments followed, including Reich minister for the occupied eastern territories. 

“Rosenberg was not as well-known as Goebbels or Eichmann, but he was the seed,” said Wittman. “He was their ideological minister, their minister of hate.”

Wittman said the diary, written from 1934 to ’44, speaks glowingly of Hitler. Rosenberg wrote that one of the proudest moments of his life was having Hitler show up at his 50th birthday party. It also documents infighting among the Third Reich’s leadership, and Rosenberg’s role in organizing the deportation of German, Czech, and Austrian Jews.

Nowhere is there a mention of the extermination of the Jews, said Wittman, but rather the more sanitized “removing them from Europe” language.

The diary’s disappearance was traced to Robert Kempner, a German-Jewish lawyer who worked for the Prussian Ministry of Justice before the war and had served in the German Army in World War I. He was sent to a concentration camp early on, and released, ending up at the University of Pennsylvania as a political scientist, said Wittman.

Kempner served as assistant chief counsel at the Nuremberg trials, remaining in Germany until 1948. Wittman described him as a hoarder and “something of a ladies’ man,” both characteristics that would figure in the diary’s disappearance and recovery.

By 1948 Americans were focused on the Cold War with the Soviet Union, said Wittman, and Kempner was told he could keep non-classified documents. He decided to take every document — all 6,000 pounds of them — including the diary, and put them in his suburban Philadelphia home, where he lived with his wife, two sons, and two legal secretaries (who were more than just secretaries, according to Wittman).

The documents “languished” until Kempner’s death in 1993, when his sons donated the cache to the Holocaust museum after an estate fight with the secretaries. 

Mayer was among the museum staff members who inspected and documented the stockpile. He did not find the diary, although he suspected Kempner had it because the Holocaust survivor had revealed information about it over the years. Adding to the intrigue, a contractor later hired to clean out Kempner’s house contacted the museum after finding 40 boxes of new documents that had mysteriously appeared. The FBI was called and seized the papers.

Wittman said he was in contact with Mayer about the whereabouts of the diary for the next 10 years. Their big break came when one of the secretaries, now living in a nursing home, told a reporter from the German magazine Der Spiegel that she had given the diary to a publisher in Lewiston, NY, near Niagara Falls, for safekeeping. The secretary’s sister overheard the interview and contacted the authorities. 

Since the diary was considered stolen government property a federal subpoena was issued, but the publisher told investigators he did not know where the diary might be. Wittman and his son decided to drive to the publisher’s office to speak with him, but the publisher wasn’t in. While waiting for him to return, the pair decided to cross the border to see Niagara Falls from the Canadian side; they were stopped, and their car was searched by Canadian authorities for unknown reasons. 

The incident gave Wittman an idea: Having learned that the publisher lived in Toronto, Wittman, who believed that the man kept the diary with him, arranged with Homeland Security to have the publisher’s car “tossed” by American customs agents every time he crossed over the border. The diary was discovered and Wittman received it several weeks later. 

Although an English translation is not yet available, the museum has placed the entire original diary on its website.

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