What is Oral History?
Oral History is a field in historical studies. It is a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities and participants in past events.
Usually, there is a clear structure: A prepared interviewer communicates with the interviewee. The answers and stories are being recorded. Those recordings can be listened to again and again or they can be transcribed or summarized. After that, they can be found in archives or libraries and are often used for public presentations. Either for research, radio and video documentaries or for museum exhibitions. There are several uses for the recordings of interviews with historical value. The definition of Oral History excludes random taping, speeches and any lack of conversations in between interviewer and interviewee.
One of the first examples that implement the idea of Oral History are the recordings of the Nuremberg Trials which started after World War II in 1945. The dialogues between judge, accused and witness were preserved and documented with tape recorders. Today the collection of personal comments and memories through recorded interviews are immediately being digitalized by 21st-century technology.
The idea of Oral History is all about making contact with people that have experienced certain events in history, have a moving destiny or simply their personal story to share. It has the aim to make people aware of the transience of people and that everyone has a voice. Maybe it can be a motivation to talk to your grandparents about their life? Or to talk with your parents about their childhood and youth? Concrete questions can make the interviewee remember events and occasions they probably forgot many years ago or they thought weren't interesting or relevant for younger generations. Events and experiences they took for granted. Honest interest can make them realize their own value and actually let them see, what they already experienced in their life and what formed them. We should show interest in people’s stories while we can. The added value does not only enrich the interviewee, but also the interviewer and a possible audience.
The digitization of interviews is essential, as long as we have the possibility to do it. They give important personal insights in the destinies of the persecuted during World War II for example. Insights that pictures cannot show. Many witnesses were children or young adults when they experienced traumatizing or moving events but are elderly people when they report their memories. What they experienced in their youth and how it effects their ongoing life might be very impressive for young students, that probably have a similar age as the witness when they experienced things like persecution, the influence of fascism in WW II or other things that made an impact on their life and character.
This “personification” of history and historical sources creates a new possibility to learn and is definitely a modern option to “classical” historical sources.
Nevertheless, this method is being criticized to be too subjective to be a proper and serious source for historical research. One could argue that historical knowledge also has to include narrative competences and especially emotional memories. History should not be just facts, but should also show the actual impact on people since history is not dead or really "over".
What if the witnesses are already gone?
What do we do if few or no contemporary witnesses are left? What do we do if all Holocaust witnesses are gone, for example? How do we properly remember and warn future generations?
An almost unsolvable problem. We fortunately do not have the ability to bring people back from the dead, but the Shoah Foundation of the University of Southern California made a step further and developed “New Dimensions in Testimony” - a futuristic use of Oral History. They interviewed Holocaust witnesses and recorded every answer, emotion and every blink of an eye in a 360° angle with high-tech cameras. 3D-holography and a special speech recognition software make a dialogue and some kind of “interaction” with the witness possible. In this case, the actual interviewee does not choose a fitting answer, but the algorithm of his hologram choses one from its existing database.
As technological development goes on, the use of such holograms could be increased and used worldwide. Until then, it is our personal responsibility to show interest to contemporary witnesses and their story and to encourage them to find their voice.
Podcast: SWR 2 Wissen – Der Nürnberger Kriegsverbrecherprozess in Originaltönen