“It is a spoken account, offered by the interviewee in response to questioning, and as such it is reflective, partisan, deeply involved, and irreplaceable.” This quotation is part of a description of what we at the Oral History Center do. It sits at the beginning of every oral history we publish. It was written by Willa Baum, the longtime director of the Regional Oral History Office (the former name of the OHC until 2015). It highlights quite beautifully the conceptual foundation of modern oral history: the deliberate exploration of the unique, subjective historical truths of individuals. While oral history was once considered a poor evidentiary cousin to official records stored in archives, academic oral historians from the 1960s on proclaimed proudly the value of subjective evidence. It was the subjectivity itself that was to be recorded and studied. At the same time, oral historians promised to expand the archive by interviewing people whose views had not been recorded in archives or studied by historians. So, there are two related ideas: oral history as a practice of inclusion that diversifies and enriches the archive, and a belief that the historical record can be made more accurate, more true, by conceiving of it as a living, evolving, contentious space in which there is little in the way of a settled, single consensus about what actually happened. “What actually happened” is a translation of a phrase coined by German historian Leopold Von Ranke, who regarded government documents as the apex of authoritative sources because he saw the 19th-century nation state as the prime mover of history. When I took historical methods courses ages ago, this phrase was trotted out by professors as a particularly primitive, dated, and possibly morally bankrupt form of reasoning. History is about power, the professors would argue, written by the winners, erasing the views and the experiences of the excluded. What mattered in modern historiography was making sure that different experiences and viewpoints were represented in the historical record, and in the interpretations of the historical record.
Recognizing that history is about power, oral historians evolved practices for sharing authority with interviewees, whom we in the field refer to as “narrators” to highlight their authority as originators of a narrative, as opposed to passive sources for an interview. Sharing authority might involve planning an interview far in advance with the narrator, apportioning time to topics, putting up guardrails, and sharing the text of the transcript after the interview to permit them to reflect on their own words and correct them if necessary, or to protect themselves or others from anticipated harm. I call this process the construction of the “deliberate self.” With all the pressure and stimulation of undergoing a recorded interview in real time, even the most seasoned and trained speakers can, in a moment, misrepresent themselves, speak in a disorganized fashion, and mischaracterize what they remember. This is the spontaneous self. To be ethical, and above all trustworthy, interviewers should give narrators the opportunity to see themselves in their own words and refashion them to better represent themselves and the past for posterity. This works well if oral historians are already aligned more or less with their narrators with respect to what is known and how what is known is understood. This “shared authority,” to use oral historian Michael Frisch’s term, is part of what practitioners call the co-construction of oral history.
But what happens when a single, official narrative of state history is washed away by a revolution, and what remains is the collective trauma of decades of misinformation, surveillance, and punishment? How does one conduct interviews in this space? More importantly, how does one interpret what is said?
Over the past four years, I have conducted interviews with a group of Czech physicists. This project evolved into an exploration of how a scientific community functioned under a totalitarian order. The Czechoslovak Academy of Science and courageous scientists emerged as important spaces and agents that supported intellectual diversity and underground political activism. Scientific orientations and a certain form of asceticism underpinned political activism against dogma, propaganda, and the repression of fellow scientists and citizens. These interviews highlighted the contributions of scientists to the underground political movements established before the Velvet Revolution and to the democratic political order that followed.
Why was I doing this research? I study “scientists in trouble.” I am interested in the ways in which a scientist’s commitment to objective truth – a truth completely separate from the background, ideology, beliefs, and values of people – plays out in the messy political world in which scientists must live and operate. What happens when an individual scientist’s commitment to scientific truth clashes with powerful political forces? It could be the Iowa dairy industry during World War II or the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia. In the latter case, what is the relationship between a scientist’s commitment to objective truth and the demands in a totalitarian society of an absolute commitment to dogma? In my conversations with these narrators, and with scholars and students in the Czech Republic, I was confronted by a different understanding of the value of oral history from what we have constructed in the United States and a few other countries.
Last fall, I conducted two workshops on oral history methods, for faculty and oral historians at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague and for graduate students at Masaryk University in Brno. My primary motivation for doing this work was to use oral history to meet the challenges of a difficult past and of an increasingly difficult present, one in which state-sponsored versions of the truth pose grave threats to democracies in Central and Eastern Europe. I was also considering the value of oral testimony in the historical shadow of a police state, where many official records from the totalitarian period have now been destroyed. Finally, I wanted to share ideas about the role of trauma in these stories – the difficulty of telling stories that, to this day, are not supposed to be told in Czechia.
But it was when I came to lead the training in Brno for graduate students in a history department that I learned about the implications of a particular form of collective trauma for the practice of oral history with populations who lived under or in the shadow of totalitarianism. After I explained the involved process of co-construction of an oral history from beginning to end, the importance of sharing transcripts with narrators, for example, a hand went up. “My adviser told me not to share the transcripts with the narrators.” Why? Part of the project this student was undertaking was to interview former members of the Czechoslovakian secret police. I said to the class that transcripts should be shared with narrators if possible. The student replied, “Why should we share anything with them? We give them more consideration than they ever gave us!” I trotted out my explanation of the “deliberate self.” Another student spoke, “If you say something in court, it’s in the record forever. You can’t erase it.” Still another said, “If you give them the opportunity to see how they really look, they will cut everything of any historical value out, and we will have nothing!”
I took my time to respond. “This type of interviewing will work, exactly once. But when you break trust with narrators, the reputation of your process, and those of anyone else claiming to do oral history, for that matter, will be tarnished in direct proportion to the notoriety of the exposure of the narrators’ hidden stories.” (Full disclosure, I said this at the time much more awkwardly than what I wrote here, but I am asserting my prerogative to reconstruct my narrative.)
The discipline of oral history relies on multiple narratives to tell a composite, textured story of perspectives about how complex phenomena can be understood, and framed. It was oral historians from Italy, a nation with a comparably complex political history as Czechoslovakia’s, who helped shape the field of modern oral history. For Alessandro Portelli and Luisa Passerini, oral history was the analysis and interpretation of the complex interplay between memory and recorded history. Portelli studied collective memory and press reports about labor protests in Italy. He wrote about how narrators transposed the death of a protestor at the hands of the police to a different protest about a different cause that actually happened four years later. Passerini wrote about the deafening silence in the life histories of those who described a “before” and an “after” of the Italian fascist period.
With these kinds of approaches in mind, I offered some suggestions to the Czech students. If you are disturbed by what you perceive as false narratives, lies to whitewash the narrator’s complicity in an evil political order, you can do at least two things. You can interview those who suffered at the hands of the police, explore the consequences of surveillance and interrogation on families of the suspected and accused, and/or you could also serve as a trustworthy partner of narrators whose deeds and perspectives you find abhorrent, but in the process potentially produce a more candid text than might otherwise be obtained through spontaneous revelations in some kind of interview trap. Then, you could interpret the alignment and differences among those perspectives. Allowing these perspectives to talk to one another through your historical interpretation is one way to understand oral history work.
So, were these graduate students chastened and enlightened, having been brought up to date on the latest best practices in oral history from the United States via postwar Italy?
The modern oral history method, this careful co-construction of the story between interviewer and narrator, is in my opinion the best way to interview the survivors of trauma and to collect and archive their stories. It gives the narrators control, the absence of which is at the center of trauma, which offers the potential to be a salve for the wounds of the past.
I wonder, however, if there isn’t some kind of American exceptionalism, or Italian exceptionalism, to this version of oral history practice. The evolution of the discipline or practice of oral history is towards diversity and inclusion, both in terms of sources of narratives and the ways in which narratives may be cultivated, framed, archived, or disseminated. Truth is plural, and the plural truths stand in contrast to one another. It’s a model of history as mosaic, not a king’s chronicle. In fact, the value of oral truth is that it comes from a narrator, filtered by the narrator’s history, memory, background, and position in the world.
When I did my initial interviews for the Czech physics project, one thing that struck me was that, of all the books smuggled into Czechoslovakia, the most important to this group was the works of Karl Popper. Karl Popper is a philosopher, known in some sectors of the academy for his rigid definitions of the mechanisms of science and the nature of scientific truth. More recently, some historians have pointed to Popper’s right-of-center political commitments as evidence that a belief in positive knowledge independent of the knower – that is, a truth that is not a matter of perspective, of background, or of prior knowledge – is a tool and a smokescreen for right-wing hegemony.
And yet, the people’s struggle, in Czechoslovakia, the poet’s revolution of Vaclav Havel, was fought by people who took this definition of truth as their north star. It is not hard to understand why.
It is not just the narrator who is traumatized in the Czech Republic, and so many other places; it is an entire society. The source of the trauma is more than the narrator’s experience of a lack of control in their past; it is the fundamental interdiction of independent meaning-making that is the lifeblood of a totalitarian state. It was the insistence on a daily truth that brooked no examination, discussion, or independent verification that so scarred those who are trying to tell their stories in Czechia now. One of the critiques of social science and humanities research is that the instrument of knowing cannot really know itself. How can humans really know humans the way we measure the chemical composition of matter? But that kind of objective clarity is in a way what these young historians in Czechia want. The heat of this discussion came in part from the problem of interviewers interviewing other interviewers about their interviewing practices. Oral history practice evolved partly in response to the historic menace of the interview: the confession, the interrogation, the Inquisition, self-incrimination through recorded, and always in some way compelled, speech. The tables turned, the student viewed the formerly powerful as liars, now minimizing, erasing, or justifying their practices as police interrogators. Is historical truth here a salve or a weapon? Can it be both?
It is often said that testimony about trauma has been a path to healing. Witness the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in the 1990s (though the results of that process are still being evaluated). But what if a society is still very much stuck on the truth part? One of the students came up to me after the workshop and apologized. “I don’t think we as a society are ready yet for your high ethical standards.” There was not a hint of sarcasm in his statement, though maybe there should have been.
This encounter with post-Velvet Revolution graduate students in Czechia did not change my mind about current oral history best practice as I understand it. Making the narrator feel safe and in control is the best guarantor of their representation of themselves and what they experienced. But in our search for plural truths, we need to respect the fact that one person’s truth is often a claim to “capital T” truth, not a perspective or opinion, and that their participation in an oral history project can be part of their battle against obfuscation, propaganda, erasure, and lies. That goes for both the narrator and the interviewer. So we need to be careful when we consider the epistemology of oral history, and reflect on what objective truth means to many individuals and communities, as a matter of cultural and actual life and death. And we might further consider the extent to which our commitment to co-construction shapes both the archive and a historian’s interpretive freedom. If trust-as-alignment is paramount, how much room is there for skepticism, comparison, or independent evaluation? Fortunately, oral history is an evolving field, and it is through these encounters with meaning-making in different contexts that we stumble towards our provisional truth of what we think we know about ourselves and what we do, much as Karl Popper once claimed was the ideal practice of science.