Oral history is a kind of historiography

The section offered by Linde Apel and Knud Andresen (both from Hamburg) on ​​the historical potential of interviews and oral history on the last day of the 51st Historikertag in Hamburg was the first on oral history at a Historikertag. Almost exactly a year ago, on August 24, 2015, Miroslav Vaněk, for his part, had the first section on oral history on the (22nd) International Committee of Historical Sciences in Jinan, China, with great response. [1] Both oral history sections, in China and Hamburg, have made history to a certain extent.

The Hamburg section, which dealt with the historicization of oral history as a method and the scope of current oral history projects, was a real success: around eighty listeners stayed very focused until the end, asked many questions and thanked them for the quality of the reflections that Knud Andresen, Linde Apel, Andrea Althaus, Anke Te Heesen, Franka Maubach and Julia Obertreis gave us. [2] The facts speak for themselves, the analysis of oral history interviews has found its legitimate place in historiography. The active participation of the section participants is proof that we have entered a new phase of German oral history, which today deals more clearly with its scientific method and its biographical history. Oral history has long ceased to be a political-scientific movement [3], but now stands on its own.

As LINDE APEL noted in her introduction, historical research based on oral sources has made it clear how sophisticated this genre of sources is. It is far more profound than the accumulation of anecdotes and subjective experiences. The phase in which oral history was considered a question of faith is now part of the history of German historiography. The long-standing criticism that oral history is unscientific because it is subjective is obsolete today, because a historical science that has a cultural and historical perspective has generally approached the positions of oral history. This seems to be the right moment for the historicization of oral history, but also for self-reflection on standards with regard to its methods, questions and demands. The aim of the section was to “stimulate a debate about the history, perspectives and potentials of oral history and to reflect on its long-term source value”. Originally, Birgit Schwelling was supposed to address the conflicts over the importance of oral sources and the reliability of memories between the Association of Returnees and the Scientific Commission for the History of German Prisoners of War in the 1950s. Because these areas of conflict, which arose from the encounter between contemporary witnesses and contemporary historians and also due to the need for political legitimation, are still relevant today. Unfortunately, she had to cancel her participation.

The lecture by ANKE TE HEESEN (Berlin), "‘ To climb into other people’s heads. ‘Oral History and the History of Science in the 1960s", followed on from this reflection and described the complex development process of a historical question. Anke te Heesen researches the oral history of an idea. For this purpose, she is investigating the survey project "Sources for History of Quantumphysics", led by the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, in the context of which leading figures in quantum physics in the USA in the 1960s were interviewed about the origins of their findings. The analysis of the interviews conducted at the time offers a unique opportunity To bring to light the questions, doubts and mistakes of scientists working with interview sources and in doing so to rewrite the history of ideas with the oral backgrounds of their origin. Historians wanted to understand which decisive moments shaped the development of quantum physics. The need for consultation Anke te Heesen introduced us to the fundamentals of this first oral history project in the history of science. It became clear that oral history was not (yet) focused on the memories of social minorities, cf. or a methodical decision with the aim of understanding the intellectual process of the creation of knowledge.

FRANKA MAUBACH (Jena) continued to reflect on the methodological potential of oral history interviews in contemporary history research. In her lecture "Unheard-of events: LUSIR and the innovative strength of early oral history" she spoke about the first large-scale oral history project in the Federal Republic of "Life history and social culture in the Ruhr area 1930-1960", which, under the direction of Lutz Niethammer, marks the beginning of the German-speaking oral history research. The focus of interest at the time was the Ruhr workers and the question of how a region could develop into a stronghold of the SPD beyond political turning points.

Franka Maubach asked about the conditions under which memory narratives were created, about the innovative potential of oral history at the beginning of the 1980s in comparison to other sources, and about what contribution oral history contributed to contemporary historical research at that time. She asked about the possibilities of a secondary analysis of the interviews, in which the interviewers, their questions and irritations - and not just the stories of the interviewees - are the focus. This pioneering project in interview research from the Federal Republic of Germany can be asked how the oral history method developed and changed.

Finally, ANDREA ALTHAUS (Hamburg) pleaded in her lecture on migration narratives of German and Austrian female workers in Switzerland, “Migration narratives. On the connection between life story and history ”, for the narratological expansion of oral history. Her contribution was not about secondary evaluation, but about the question of the possibilities of knowledge in the evaluation of self-conducted interviews, which is dedicated to the biographical and historical contextualizations and the correlation of narrative content and narrative structure. As before, history is written on the basis of oral testimony obtained specifically for this purpose. Andrea Althaus argued that for the interpretation of a historical phenomenon it makes sense to reconstruct the (overall) biographical context in addition to the historical one and to take seriously that it is a situation-related narratives.

In her comment, JULIA OBERTREIS (Erlangen) underlined an aspect that ran like a red thread through the section: the fact that the secondary analysis of oral history interviews raises new and productive historical questions, not least as a heuristic principle around asking new questions about the past. From a historiographical point of view, the gain in knowledge of this approach, through which the historians themselves influence their sources, is obvious. [4]

The fact that oral history continues to fail to meet certain demands of the researchers and can cause frustration was also a topic of the section and was lively discussed. Behind that experience, however, hides the subversive and intrinsic power of oral history, which is able to bring new contexts to light in sheer contradictions to the assumptions and levels of knowledge of historians. LUSIR offers an obvious example of this and, in retrospect, it is particularly fascinating to see how the historians were sometimes overwhelmed and sometimes surprised by the answers from their interview partners (mostly workers and medium-sized companies).

If the questions on the secondary analysis in this section have not been fully answered, then this is due to the good reason that there are still no project results in this area. [5] It can be assumed that this will soon change. And it is to be hoped - in contrast to French oral history projects, whose interviews are immediately archived and subject to a 30-year blocking period - that biographical interviews in Germany will continue to be conducted, reflected on, analyzed and published.

In the section “Believe what you hear. Hear what you believe? The historical potential of interviews and oral history ”, the historicization of oral history was in the foreground. [6] The aim of the section was to show that dealing with interviews and oral sources has a long tradition in historical studies, so questions about the meaning of subjectivity are not only asked of oral sources. At the same time, it should be an impetus to think about the chances and requirements of a second evaluation of interview files. Oral sources emerged (and continue to emerge) that point beyond the epoch of those who lived with them and thus contemporary history. And finally, a current oral history project was intended to point out the need for historical as well as biographical contextualization of these subjective sources and the particular suitability of this methodological approach for the history of migration.

Section overview:

Head of Section: Linde Apel (Hamburg) / Knud Andresen (Hamburg)

Knud Andresen (Hamburg): Moderation

Linde Apel (Hamburg): Introduction

Anke te Heesen (Berlin): “To climb into other people’s heads”. Oral History and the History of Science in the 1960s

Franka Maubach (Jena): Unheard of events: LUSIR and the innovative strength of early oral history

Andrea Althaus (Hamburg): Migration stories. On the connection between life story and history

Julia Obertreis (Erlangen): Commentary

[1] See under https://lecture2go.uni-hamburg.de/l2go/-/get/v/20178 and https://lecture2go.uni-hamburg.de/l2go/-/get/v/20179 (13.11 .2016).
[2] An international oral history committee is to be elected at the general assembly of the International Committee of Historical Sciences in Moscow in February 2017. See Miroslav Vaněk, Evening oral history session, in: The Czech Historical Review 4 (2015), 1226-1227.
[3] See Annette Leo / Franka Maubach (eds.), Giving the oppressed a voice? The International Oral History Association between the Political Movement and the Scientific Network, Göttingen 2013.
[4] Getting involved in the laborious and lengthy method of oral history means asking people to tell their own life stories over many hours and within a strictly methodical setting. In the moral, data protection, historical and scientific sense, the historian is responsible for his self-generated source, which is to be archived in perspective and thus made publicly accessible. This process illustrates how different roles and functions “interview partners” and “contemporary witnesses” assume for the researchers. In this sense, public history and dealing with contemporary witnesses for historical publications are all too often confused with oral history and their dealings with interview partners. See about the figure of the contemporary witness, the norms and the leveling of the culture of remembrance, Martin Sabrow, conference report: HT 2006: The contemporary witness. Approaching a historical-cultural present phenomenon, 09/19/2006– 09/22/2006 Konstanz, in: H-Soz-Kult, 10/10/2006, www.hsozkult.de/conferencereport/id/tagungsberichte-1193 (13/11/2016); the Zeitpfeil website at http://www.arbeit-mit-zeitzeugen.org/ (13.11.2016) and the anthology by Christian Ernst (ed.), Geschichte im Dialog? Schwalbach 2014.
[5] See Matthias Frese / Julia Paulus, contemporary witness and oral memory. Chances and problems of the secondary analysis of interviews and ego-documents on the Second World War and the post-war period, Westfälische Forschungen 65 (2015).
[6] For the history of oral history in the USA, see the special section “Looking back, looking forward: Fifty years of Oral History” of Oral History Review 43.2 (2016).