Photograph from Dr. Wilfried Bahnmüller, Imagebroker/Alamy

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Alfred Rosenberg (left) stands with Adolf Hitler during the inauguration of a war memorial in 1923.

Photograph from Dr. Wilfried Bahnmüller, Imagebroker/Alamy

Mysteries of the Lost (and Found) Nazi Diaries

What did Alfred Rosenberg say about his fellow Nazis? And will the man who hid the diaries be prosecuted?

The diaries of the top Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, which disappeared mysteriously after his 1946 hanging as a war criminal, are now in U.S. government custody. The pages have not all been read, but U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's senior archivist Henry Mayer believes the writings could turn out to be the most revealing Nazi documents ever found.

Mayer characterizes Rosenberg as "an unhappy man" disliked by top Nazi leaders including Hitler—and Rosenberg in turn disliked them. He suggests that Rosenberg was not German but was perhaps Estonian. Mayer agrees with the theory that Rosenberg tried to prove his German identity by advocating extreme racism in theory and practice.

The diaries were the focus of a crowded press conference on June 13 in Wilmington, Delaware. John Morton, who heads the Wilmington-based Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), announced HSI's lead role in the seizure of the documents. (Related: "Final Effort to Find Nazi War Criminals.")

Morton said that the volumes were removed from the Nuremberg international war crimes tribunal by an American member of the prosecutorial team, Robert Kempner, who "smuggled" them into the U.S. but evaded scholarly inquiries about their whereabouts.

After Kempner's death in 1993 at age 93, his heirs—his widow, their two sons, as well as other relatives and friends—resisted handing over the documents and disagreed over who inherited what and where the diaries might be stored. But now, after a 17-year search and frequent but fruitless negotiations with the heirs, police armed with search warrants seized the documents, which Mayer has authenticated as Rosenberg's diaries.

After a day of perusing some of the 400 pages handwritten in German, Mayer could see that Rosenberg focused on certain subjects, including  brutality against Jews and other ethnic groups and forcing the civilian population of occupied Russia to serve Germany. But Mayer believes that Rosenberg's hostile comments about Nazi leaders may be even more interesting and offer new insights. Addressing the press, Mayer characterized Rosenberg's evaluations of his fellow Nazi leaders as "unvarnished."

Mayer explained to this reporter that he was not given enough time to read any diary entry from beginning to end, but that he peeked into them and "arranged" them. He is convinced that scholars will find them "very important" and that the papers will open new avenues of research. He suggested that the documents will offer revelations.

But, Mayer noted to the press, it may take a long time, possibly years, for scholars to complete their analyses of the diaries.

The diaries were seized pursuant to a warrant issued by the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware. On June 13, they were rehoused in cartons and displayed in HSI headquarters in Wilmington. Morton explained to the press that they will be taken to the U.S. Department of Justice, which will come up with a precise legal definition of their status. Next, the documents will be delivered to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, which has agreed to present them to the Holocaust Museum for study and display.

According to HSI spokesperson Ross Feinstein, "some time ago" HSI took over from the FBI the case of the missing Rosenberg diaries, as well as the many pending investigations of Nazi art thefts. In the segments of the diaries that Mayer read, he learned that Rosenberg was deeply involved in organizing the expropriation of art owned by Jews. The diaries may give new clues to the ongoing investigations.

The recovery of the diaries may lead to investigations of another sort. Herbert Warren Richardson of Lewiston, N.Y., who says he is an academic and publisher, is suspected of hiding the documents, which were stolen from the U.S. government. He may be charged with a criminal act, but the speakers who addressed the press conference emphasized that they are not allowed to say a word about the case. Speaking with several officials, this reporter learned that much depends on what Richardson will disclose about the documents and whether he agrees to hand over additional documents he is suspected to have stashed away. One scholar who had contact with him suggests that he is a difficult eccentric.

"This is an ongoing investigation," Morton stressed, pointing out that delicate legal matters need to be settled, such as permissions from the courts.

Addressing the press, Morton called the diaries "a window" into Rosenberg's "dark soul." Mayer talked about the additional 350 feet of documents seized from the Kempner cache as possibly containing important new material. But, he suggested, at this stage we know very little.