Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Man Who Played with Fire

Might Stieg Larsson have taken a page from Theodore Abel? In The Girl Who Played with Fire, Larsson's best-selling detective novel, a reporter is stymied in trying to track down a retired police officer. He has the retiree's e-mail address but no town or street. Veteran reporter Mikael Blomkvist suggests a trick: notify the retiree that he's won a mobile phone that must be delivered to his home address. The reporter takes Blomkvist's suggestion, the retiree takes the bait, and the plot thickens.

An early implementer of a similar technique, Abel sought to track down followers of Adolf Hitler in 1934. As a sociologist at Columbia University, he thought that the life stories of early party members could help make sense of the National Socialist movement. How to locate those people? A contest, of course, in which Abel offered 400 German marks "for the best personal life history of an adherent of the Hitler movement." Limiting the contest to people who had joined the party before 1933, his announcement, distributed at all local headquarters of the party and published in the party press, stated that "contestants are to give accurate and detailed descriptions of their personal lives, particularly after World War I. Special attention should be given to accounts of family life, education, economic conditions, membership in associations, participation in the Hitler movement, and important experiences, thoughts, and feelings about events and ideas of the post-war period."

Abel paid the awards out of his own pocket. Had he been able to offer more money, he thought, he would have gotten more entries. Even so, he received 683 manuscripts, "a result as unexpected as it was gratifying. The wealth and variety of material contained in these life histories fully justified the undertaking." Many of these life histories are among the Theodore Abel papers at the Hoover Archives. If you can't visit to read the originals, try Abel's book, Why Hitler Came into Power: An Answer Based on the Original Life Stories of Six Hundred of His Followers (1938), from which these quotes were taken. I can't truly call Abel the man who played with fire, but he surely played a smart game.

Nazi Party Biography of Wilhelm Schmitz, Box 1, Folder 3, Theodore Abel papers, Hoover Institution Archives

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Microfilming: A Meticulous Preservation Process

Someone said that “today’s activity is tomorrow’s history.” That is certainly true at the Microfilming Department at the Hoover Institution, where we preserve documents for future reference. Over the years, many people who have visited our lab, whether they had used microfilm before or not, said they had never realized what a thorough process microfilming was. As a result of witnessing our work, they appreciated and had a better understanding of microfilming as a meticulous preservation process.

I won’t go into the many technical details in this short article, and even though preservation and access go hand-in-hand, I will deal only with preservation here. I will begin with the preparation aspects of the process.

Ideally, all the documents should be ready to be microfilmed when they come to our lab. There are times, however, when we have to do some document preparation before filming, including removing fasteners, staples, paper clips, pushpins, etc. Depending on the age of the documents, the fasteners may be old and rusty (first photo below). We don’t use staple removers (second photo) to remove the metal fasteners, since they could leave marks. Instead, we use micro-spatulas and other tools (third photo). Once the metal fasteners are removed, we replace them with plastic clips (fourth photo). Finally, the documents are ready to be microfilmed.

To give you an idea of the extent of the preparation, the following photos show the number of fasteners removed from 110 boxes from September 2009 through mid-March 2010. Their total weight came to 2.866 pounds. (The total number of each type of fasteners was approximated by weighing all the removed fasteners and approximating the percentage of each type from the total.) The breakdown is as follows:

Each metal paper clip weighed 0.0881 ounces. There are 500-600 metal paper clips. Each pushpin weighed 0.0352 ounces. There are 150-250 pushpins. Ten staples weighed 0.0352 ounces. There are 2,000-25,000 staples.

I hope you can now appreciate all the work that goes into microfilming.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

You Have Been Warned

Hoover fellow Mark Harrison is one of the first researchers to delve into the recently acquired Lithuanian KGB materials. When he heard about a law that would expand the powers of Russia's FSB (Federal Security Service) if enacted, his immersion in these materials became even more material. Mark's blog entry, You Have Been Warned, tells how the KGB files have informed and enriched his understanding of the proposed law.

A draft law before the Russian Parliament (since passed) gives new powers to the FSB (Federal Security Service), the successor to the KGB. It allows the FSB to issue binding warnings to citizens suspected of creating conditions, through negligence, passivity, or incitement, in which crimes might be committed or facilitated. A warning that is ignored can be followed by an unspecified penalty, even though the actions that led to the warning may not be offenses in themselves.

This provision of the draft law restores the legal basis of a function once widely exercised by the KGB. This function was known in Russian as profilaktika, which translates directly as "prophylaxis" or "prevention."

Across the Soviet Union in the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, the KGB subjected around 15,000 people a year to profilaktika, more than half of them for displaying some sort of overt political unreliability, or having connections with foreigners leading to suspicion of disloyalty (see Rudol'ph Pikhoia, Sovetskii Soiuz: istoriia vlasti, 1945–1991: Moscow 1998, pp. 365-366.) In proportion to the population, this would be about one in 10,000 adult Soviet citizens in each year.

What did profilaktika mean? Evidence of many, many individual cases can be found, for example, in the Lithuania KGB collection of the archive at the Hoover Institution, where I'm working now. How did they work? You could imagine it like this. Out of the blue, you get a call to come into your local KGB office. You really don't know what it's about, but you're on your best behaviour. Sitting behind his desk is a KGB colonel. He asks you what you think of the Soviet Union. Wonderful! You declare. Good, he says.

But in that case, he goes on: How come you told this anti-Soviet joke to your colleagues in the office on Thursday? And on Friday in the bar you repeated the news you heard the day before on Radio Liberty? And on Saturday you were heard cursing your Soviet-made automobile and wishing you had a BMW?

At first you bluster and deny everything. Inside, however, your world is collapsing. You're realizing just how much trouble you're in; your job and your home depend on the state and both are on the line. But that is only the start. Worse, it's dawning on you that your colleagues, your friends, maybe even your family members have been telling tales about you to the KGB. You're on your own.

You crumble. You start to make excuses: You were tired and under stress, you've always been a bit of an ignorant big mouth, you've been promoted above your competence and this has put you under pressure. You didn't realize how wrong it was. But you do now. Yes, you do, you do.

You promise you will never, ever do such things again. And you really mean it because, short of being physically beaten or locked in a cell, nothing is worse than the state of mind that this profilaktika has put you in. You've been exposed, hurt, humiliated, compromised, and isolated from society: From now on you will trust nobody, not even yourself. In fact, the only honest person in the room is the man in front of you.

The colonel listens as you stammer out your explanations. He is calm and nods a lot. He accepts what you say. When you've done, he closes the file. Go away, he says, and change your ways. We'll keep the information but, as long as you do the right thing from now on, we'll never have to look at it again. As you leave, you thank him for putting you back on the right track.

After you've gone, he makes a note to keep a special watch on you for a few months or a year, just to be sure that you meant it.

Profilaktika was applied to all sorts of cases, from loose morals and rowdy behaviour to indiscreet or unauthorized contacts with foreigners, petty smuggling or currency violations, and to adolescents who, in a place like Lithuania, might get caught up in the romance of anti-Soviet fly-posting or dreams of emigration. In such cases profilaktika was applied to the parents as well as the children.

More than half of all the cases of profilaktika were carried out in the privacy of the KGB offices, but there was also another version of the drama. This was enacted in public meetings. In this case the psychological beating was administered by your own colleagues, your student peers, or the pillars of your neighbourhood community.

For a police state, profilaktika was relatively humane. For hundreds of thousands of people it took the place of arrest and imprisonment, which would have been their fate in Stalin's time. It was also very effective in causing people to change their behaviour. In eight years, according to Pikhoia, out of more than 120,000 people subjected to such treatment, only 150 were subsequently taken to court for an actual offense. That's one eighth of one percent, a recidivism rate that western penal systems can only dream about.

A durable police state cannot be built out of bricks alone. There are building blocks like the security police and civilian police, border controls, the control of public assets, the distribution of taxes and resource rents, and media monopolies. In addition, binding agents are needed to assemble the blocks and glue them in place by controlling and coordinating the everyday behaviour of citizens at work, at home, and in the streets. Profilaktika was part of the mortar that held the bricks of the KGB state in position. Looks like it will do so again.

Professor Harrison's blog

Her home telephone having been disconnected by the KGB, Arina Ginzburg calls the U.S. embassy in Moscow; fellow dissident Sergei Moshkov ensures that no one enters the telephone booth. In the background, a KGB woman watches. Undated, Aleksandr Ginzburg papers, Hoover Institution Archives

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Fiftieth Anniversary of the Confederation of Iranian Students

As long as archivists keep processing new collections, the tale of a single historical event or personage is never quite put to rest, which was certainly my experience when processing the Hamid Shawkat collection. Unfortunately, for an Iranian-American, my knowledge of modern Iranian history is fragmented, at best: Mosaddeq was thrown out, the shah came to power, the shah was thrown out, Khomeini came to power, and the Islamic Republic of Iran was formed. Often it takes a modern phenomenon to awaken interest in a now distant historical event. Last year's contested Iranian election provided the fuel for a generation of Iranian students to slip beyond their firewalls and, for a brief moment, converse with a world that has otherwise labeled them as other, distant, and disconnected.

The power of the Iranian student uprising, however, is not without precedent. In 1960, a group of students came together to form what would become the most organized and democratic student group Iran had ever seen: the Confederation of Iranian Students (CIS). Originally made up of members of the Tudeh Party and the National Front, CIS expanded in 1961 to include members of the Iranian Student Association of the United States. Armed with the unifying goal of denouncing the shah and the human rights violations of the secret police, the confederation was seen by some as the only political organization capable of representing the needs of the Iranian people in a time when opposition groups were being forcefully eradicated.

To uphold this responsibility, CIS produced an assortment of printed materials, including journals, newsletters, and newspapers, that strengthened the network stretching across Europe and the United States. Those materials, many of which are included in the Hamid Shawkat collection, offer a rare glance into the organized student front that helped promulgate the tumultuous political climate that gave rise to the Iranian revolution in 1979.

In 2010, we are proud not only to have access to these records but to recognize the fiftieth anniversary of the Confederation of Iranian Students which, for the most part, has escaped the narrative of modern Iranian history.

"Nameh Parsi" Published by the
Confederation of Iranian Students,
Box 9, Hamid Shawkat collection,
Hoover Institution Archives