• Weird History

12 Fake Documents That Changed History - For A While, Anyway

List RulesVote up the forgeries that changed history the most.

The practice of forgery is much older than it might seem. History is full of literary hoaxes, literary forgery, fake documents, and even supposedly real historical documents that were later proven to be fake.  

Paper documents have been used in nearly every aspect of society for millennia, from governing to communication to literature, to the point that a document can change the course of history. Or it can be worth a lot of money. Or, both. 

For as long as there have been documents, there have also been people willing to create duplicate versions of famous documents to reap the rewards - or sometimes invent a new document entirely. There are many different types of forgeries, and many types of forgers, as well.

Here are stories about historical forgeries, why they were created, how they were used, and how they were eventually exposed as frauds.

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  • Photo: Sergei Nilus / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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    The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

    Not all forgeries are created for financial or personal gain; sadly, documents have been forged by those who would use them to commit some of the worst crimes against humanity. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is perhaps the most infamous of these documents, and its effects continue to resonate more than a century after it was published. 

    It claims to be the meeting minutes of a secret cabal of Jewish leaders, in which they formulate their plan for world domination. It was first published in Russia in 1903 and edited by a government official named Serge Nilus. Eight years later, Nilus claimed to have stolen the meeting notes from the First Zionist Council, which was held in Switzerland in 1897. In reality, Nilus compiled the document by plagiarizing several existing sources, many explicitly anti-Semitic. 

    After the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian émigrés sympathetic to the tsar publicized the forgery, and they spread around the world. The book was exposed as a fraud as early as 1920, but millions still found it persuasive anyway. Hitler frequently used it to justify his anti-Jewish policies before and during WWII, but Nazi Germany was just one nation where the book found a receptive audience. Automobile pioneer Henry Ford was one of the most prominent Americans to endorse the book. Ford regularly featured it in his anti-Semitic newspaper The Dearborn Independent, and later published a book based on it that would sell over 500,000 copies

    Even today, anti-Semitic groups continue to promote the book and its ideals, a century after it was exposed as a forgery. It's a disturbing reminder of the power that some ideas can have - even ones that have been debunked. 

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  • Photo: Unknown medieval artist in Rome / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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    The Donation of Constantine

    One of the earliest examples of a historical forgery is the Donation of Constantine. This was essentially a legal document from the fifth-century AD Roman Empire that claimed to show Emperor Constantine voluntarily giving up his authority to the pope. Only this never happened, and the document was entirely made up in the middle of the eighth century. 

    It all started with some political maneuvering by the man who would become Pepin the Short, King of the Franks. Sometime between 751 and 756 AD, Pepin was a Frankish nobleman who was in effect running the country while the actual king, Childeric III, got all the wealth and benefits. Pepin wrote to Pope Zachary, asking him to depose Childeric and elevate him to the throne. The pope didn't want to delegitimize a king, but Zachary was in a weak position. The Papal States had recently lost territory near Ravenna to the Lombards. Needing an ally, he agreed and made Pepin king in exchange for Pepin's loyalty. 

    Pepin recaptured the land that Zachary had lost. But just one year after elevating Pepin, Zachary passed. In 752, Pepin had no agreement with the next pope, Stephen II, so he declined to give back the territory. 

    So, Stephen had the Donation of Constantine created. Pepin the Short, who was illiterate, accepted this supposed precedent and handed over the land. Meanwhile, the Donation of Constantine remained in effect until the 15th century, when Lorenzo Valla proved it was a fake. 

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    Richard Penn Smith's Alamo 'Davy Crockett' Hoax

    Most modern Americans probably know Davy Crockett as a larger-than-life frontiersman who loved a good time and did things his own way. And there's his iconic raccoon skin cap, too. Many Americans probably got that version of Davy Crockett from his autobiography titled Col. Crockett's Exploits and Adventures in Texas, Written by Himself. Which is to say that most Americans are unfamiliar with the real-life Davy Crockett, because his "autobiography" was created by an obscure author and playwright named Richard Penn Smith. 

    In reality, Crockett was born to a poor pioneer family and spent his early years as a hunter and soldier, and he participated in at least one massacre of a Native American population at Tallushatchee. When Crockett was elected to the US Congress in 1827, he often played up and exaggerated his frontier past to project a folksy persona for his constituents. Many of the myths about Crockett began with Crockett himself. 

    Crockett passed in 1836 at the Battle of the Alamo, and the book of his exploits was published shortly after. It would cement many of the false notions about who Crockett was for generations. The fraud wasn't discovered until 1884. Richard Penn Smith had created it by compiling both accurate and fictional sources and making up the rest. The entire effort took him 24 hours. 

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  • Photo: Lafayette/National Portrait Gallery / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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    Martin Allen's WWII Documents

    WWII is still one of the most controversial wars ever fought, and its events and their implications are still being debated today. So when British author Martin Allen began publishing histories of WWII that contained explosive revelations about the conduct of the British government, his writing could have redefined how history interprets the war entirely - if the documents hadn't all been fake. 

    Allen published three books in his career that claimed to show both the British government and the royal family in a completely different light. In Hidden Agenda, Allen claimed that the Duke of Windsor, AKA Edward VIII (who was a known Nazi sympathizer), passed information to Nazi Germany that aided in the capture of France. In his final book, 2002's Himmler's Secret War, Allen claimed that the demise of the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, wasn't a suicide but an assassination carried out by Winston Churchill's government. 

    Allen based all of his claims on 29 documents he allegedly uncovered in Britain's National Archives. But in 2005, journalist Ben Fenton examined the documents and claimed they were fakes, which prompted a Scotland Yard investigation. The inquiry found several indicators that Allen had created the documents himself. Most of the clues were the kind of anachronisms found in many forgeries, but there were also more obvious signs - one of the documents had been printed on a laser printer, for example. After the fraud was exposed, the Crown declined to prosecute Allen due to his poor health. 

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