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

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