The Churchill-Roosevelt Forgeries

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RECENTLY, ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS, the American public has been made aware of evidence of plagiarism practiced, alas, by celebrated American historians. This is regrettable, but nothing new. All kinds of writers have borrowed and, worse, stolen from others through the ages. Plagiarism is a forgery of sorts, a little like the forging of a signature on a work of art. Other forgeries are less easily detectable. Moreover, the purposes of a historian’s plagiarism and of a historical forgery are different. The purpose of the first is personal: the attribution of another person’s work to oneself. The purpose of the latter is far broader: to revise accepted notions of history, for political or ideological reasons.

There is nothing wrong in revising accepted notions or versions of history. History is revisionist by its very nature. What matters is the purpose of the revisionists. There are umpteen examples of revisionist historians employing documents out of context, citing them only in part, or ignoring or omitting evidence contrary to their theses. Such practices, too, are not new. But what about actual forgeries of documents? Alas, they exist too, and some of them are not easily detectable.

More than a half-century after its ending, there has been less “revisionism” about World War II than about World War I, and, more than a half-century after their deaths, Hitler has fewer defenders than had Napoleon. There have been attempts, here and there, to rehabilitate Hitler (and also Mussolini), most by obsessive revisionists—but some by forgers. There was the 1983 discovery of Hitler’s “diaries,” whose authenticity was soon proved completely false (even though a few eminent historians were briefly taken in by the forgery). There exists another Hitler document that is still questionable. Fragments of his table talk in early 1945, only a few weeks before the collapse of his Reich, and his suicide, were supposed to have been recorded by his minion Martin Bormann. They reflect a Hitler who is not only intelligent but prophetic. They also sound considerably authentic. Yet there is the question of their provenance. They ended up in the hands of François Genoud, a now-deceased Swiss lawyer whose shrewdness, as well as his unflagging admiration for Hitler and for the Third Reich, was truly exceptional. But Genoud would not reveal who had made the typescript, or who had brought it to him, or when and whether it had been edited, so there is some reason to think that these documents were at least partially altered for the purpose of elevating Hitler’s posthumous reputation.

There exist, however, other forgeries whose nature is different. They are meant to exonerate, or at least to revise, Hitler’s reputation by documenting all kinds of disreputable, indeed maleficent, plans on the part of his opponents. This is a shift, one aimed not so much at a whitening of Hitler as at the blackening of Churchill and Roosevelt. (It is detectable in the career of the “revisionist” David Irving, who followed his Hitler’s War with, 10 years later, Churchill’s War, the first exonerating Hitler from villainy, the second attributing to Churchill all kinds of villainies.) An outstanding example of this new kind of “revisionism” is the relatively recent publication of a forgery whose provenance is startling in itself. It involves the transcript—the verbatim record—of telephone conversations between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 and 1943.

Sometime in late 1941 British and American technicians established a radiotelephone link (as it was called by the very few who knew about it) that they believed made it possible to have untappable conversations between London and Washington, usually going through New York. The British, not sure this line was 100 percent safe, appointed special telephone operators, so-called censors, to listen in on it. These were very intelligent and well-trained young women who were authorized to break into the line and warn the conversants—even Winston Churchill himself—when they seemed not careful enough in talking about highly secret matters. Churchill was not a particular telephone enthusiast, believing as he did in the primacy of the written word, but on several occasions he used the transatlantic radiotelephone link to speak with Roosevelt.

 

These conversations were not recorded in London or Washington. But the German Ministry of Posts had constructed a radiotelephone listening post in a house on the North Sea shore of Holland, where German technicians were able, on occasion, to break into the link. We know that on July 29, 1943, they listened to an entire telephone conversation between Churchill and Roosevelt. A transcript of this, of course in English but then translated into German, was sent to the German Army High Command and to Hitler. A German summary of that transcript (the army copy) does exist; it has been reprinted in at least two collections of documents. This summary has the marks of authenticity. It is historically interesting since Churchill and Roosevelt were talking only four days after Mussolini had been removed from power by the King of Italy and Marshal Pietro Badoglio. But a few years ago, not this summary but a full English transcript of that conversation was printed —together with another full transcript of a Churchill-Roosevelt conversation, on November 26, 1941—in a book published in California and thus made available to any researcher or historian or indeed visitor to American libraries or to any nimble user of the Internet. How did this happen?