How did Anne’s diary become so famous?

On 25 June 1947, Anne Frank's Het Achterhuis (The Secret Annex) was published in Dutch in a small edition of 3,036 copies. It was a modest first step – how did it become one of the most translated books in the world? What were the key moments in this development?

Visitors to the Anne Frank House read from Anne's diary. Fragment from the documentary In line for the Anne Frank (2014).

Publication of the diary in Germany and France (1950)

After the success of the Dutch edition, Otto Frank found publishers in West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany) and in France willing to publish Het Achterhuis. Both translations were published in 1950. A first edition of 4,600 copies was printed in Germany, but the book was not a bestseller. However, when Das Tagebuch der Anne Frank was published as a cheap pocket in 1955, it became a hit. And when the play (see below) was also a success in the Federal Republic of Germany, a total of 700,000 copies were printed. The success of the play led to the publication of an edition in the GDR (East Germany) in 1957.

The French edition was published in 1950, like the German one, and the reviews were positive. The French edition was picked up by American author Meyer Levin. He was to play an important role in the success of the book in the United States.

‘I once asked my publisher why he thought the diary was read by so many people. He felt that the diary covered so many areas of life that every reader found something in it that affected him personally.’

Success in the US after review in The New York Times (1952)

In 1950, after reading the French edition, Meyer Levin first wrote about Het Achterhuis in an article on 'the attitude of American publishers towards books of Jewish content' for Congress Weekly magazine. He called Anne Frank a 'highly gifted writer’ and her diary 'a work about the unfolding of the nature of a young girl absolutely pure in candor and at the same time in delicacy.’

Otto had a hard time finding a publisher in the United States. After the manuscript had been turned down by 10 publishers, Doubleday publishers decided to acquire the rights. The publication of Anne's diary in America in 1952 had a cautious start. Five years after the book was first published in the Netherlands, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl was launched in a modest edition of 5,000 copies.

Doubleday did not hold high expectations and hardly spent any money on additional advertising. Sales did not go well. But after an enthusiastic review by Meyer Levin in The New York Times Book Review (15 June 1952), sales began to pick up. A second print run of 15,000 copies was issued, followed within days by a third of 45,000 copies. Before long, print run after print run sold out in rapid succession and millions of Americans read the book.

The Diary of Anne Frank, the play (1955)

Meyer Levin turned into a fervent advocate of the book and insisted on the production of a play and a film based on the diary. He even wrote a script, but that was rejected by Otto Frank. This caused a lot of bitterness between them and they eventually ended up in court. Much has been written about this case and the role that Meyer Levin played in the American publication, not only by Meyer Levin himself, in The Obsession,  (1973) but also by later researchers.

Otto Frank finally decided to work with playwrights Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. They wrote the script in little under two years. The Diary of Anne Frank opened at the Cort Theatre in New York on 5 October 1955. Before the opening performance, Otto Frank wished the cast every success; he himself could not and did not want to see the play. The idea of seeing his family on stage was too much for him.

The final Broadway performance took place on 22 June 1957. After 717 performances, the play started on a tour of other US cities. The Diary of Anne Frank won important prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize for theatre, a Tony Award, and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play.

Performances all over the world

The play was staged in many other countries as well, including the Netherlands. Its opening night on 27 November 1956 was attended by Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard. In Germany, the play made a deep impression, and more than 2 million people came to see it. Afterwards, there was often a minutes-long silence. In Germany – and in many other countries – the diary became better known because of the play.

The Diary of Anne Frank, the film (1959)

Using the play as a starting point, Goodrich and Hackett wrote the screenplay for the film The Diary of Anne Frank. George Stevens directed the film. It premiered in New York on 18 March 1959.

According to the available data, the film was not a blockbuster: the budget is estimated at 3 million dollars, the gross yield at 5 million dollars. However, the film won several prizes and 3 Oscars for:

  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Shelley Winters)
  • Best Cinematography (Black-and-White)
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Black-and-White).  

Just like the play, the film – despite its somewhat disappointing performance at the box office – definitely contributed to the reputation of Het Achterhuis.


More about Meyer Levin:

  • Graver, Lawrence, An Obsession with Anne Frank: Meyer Levin and The Diary (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995).
  • Levin, Meyer, The Obsession (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1973)
  • Melnick, Ralph, The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank: Meyer Levin, Lillian Hellman, and the Staging of the Diary. (New Haven, CT & London: Yale University Press, 1997).
  • IMDB-page about 'The Diary of Anne Frank' [12 October 2018]