The drama that opened in a Hamburg court on Tuesday actually began 16 months ago, when Stern magazine boasted that it had made ''the journalistic coup of the century.''
Stern paid 9.3 million marks (more than $3 million) for publication rights. The Sunday Times shelled out $400,000. Renowned historians and handwriting experts, most notably Prof. Hugh Trevor-Roper, gave their imprimatur to the probable authenticity of the documents.
But what was to have been the sensation of the century fizzled out into the (failed) swindle of the decade, as a simple paper analysis revealed that the note-books the ''Hitler diaries'' were written on had been produced after Hitler's death.
The put-on had a brief triumph, one that forger Konrad Kujau still relishes in giving interviews to journalists in his prison cell. It is followed by today's reckoning as the trial of Mr. Kujau, his companion Edith Lieblang, and Stern reporter Gerd Heidemann begins.
The charge is fraud. The prosecution case still to be proved - since Kujau readily admits that he hand-wrote the 60 notebooks - is that Mr. Heidemann was co-conspirator rather than just fall guy. The mystery is what happened to the remaining 6 million marks that Stern gave Heidemann after Kujau got a reported 1 .6 million marks and Heidemann himself took a reported 1.75 million marks.
Beyond these titillations the social indictment is against checkbook journalism and a public that is still so entranced by the evil genius of Adolf Hitler that it would make it worthwhile for Stern to pay such astronomical sums for the forgery.
The trial was adjourned for one week an hour after it began. The six judges will weigh a defense attorney's contention that publicity surrounding the case had prejudiced them.
Kujau's story is simple enough. It's the familiar one in German literature of the uneducated but street-smart swindler who revels in exploiting the pretensions of high society - in this case high intellectual society. Kujau came from East to West Germany as a 19-year-old. He dabbled a bit in painting, imitating old masters. He was a cook for awhile, then a restaurateur, then became an entrepreneur of a commercial cleaning firm. In his leisure time he began collecting military memorabilia, especially from the Nazi years.
On the side, for two prodigious years, he played Hitler, imitating the dictator's handwriting, imagining his everyday world. The hoax worked spectacularly, at the beginning.
Heidemann's involvement is more complex. The star reporter for Stern was himself a buff of Nazi memorabilia. He had once sold his house to raise the money to buy the yacht of Hermann Goring, the leader of the German Air Force during World War II.
Heidemann got to know Kujau as a fellow collector and a dealer in such trade. He was convinced, despite the official death record, that Hitler lieutenant Martin Bormann was still alive somewhere, incognito - and he therefore swallowed Kujau's tale of having acquired the diaries through Mr. Bormann, who had recovered them from an end-of-war plane crash in what is now East Germany.
Either that, or Heidemann was an accomplice in the ruse and helped Kujau polish his story and present it to a credulous public. The latter version is the one to be argued by the prosecution in the coming months of trial.
Unindicted in the trial is Stern magazine, a slick, often leftist, gadfly weekly that seems relatively unembarrassed by its humiliation. Two senior editors were sacked over the affair (and are said to have left with handsome farewell handshakes). A new, more conventional editor came in from outside, aroused perpetual rebellion from a staff that scorned him as too conservative, and gave up after a year or so. The end effect of the Hitler debacle on Stern's reporting style has turned out to be negligible.
For its part, the public may be slightly more chastened. It is following the Hamburg trial, at least so far, with a bit more skepticism than it displayed when the ''Hitler diaries'' first came into view.