Oral history

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Oral History (Engl., Literally oral history ) is a method of historical science , which on speaking letting witnesses based. The contemporary witnesses should be influenced as little as possible by the historian . In particular, people from various milieus should be able to present their world and perspectives for posterity in this way.

The method is mainly used for everyday history and folklore , including local history . The term oral history came up in the 1930s and has also been used in German-speaking countries since the 1960s. It is often applied to all forms of conversation with contemporary witnesses, even though the method does not involve a conversation, but free speech. Most oral history projects record life history memories as audio or video interviews.

starting point

Historians rely on sources . However, since only a limited group of people leaves (written) sources, there is a risk that people outside this group of people will not be adequately taken into account by posterity. These are mainly members of the lower class; but also z. B. Managers are not necessarily inclined to write down their memories.

A conventional interview technique, so the fear of the supporters of oral history, restricts the respondent too much. It would be better to let the contemporary witness talk about his life as freely as possible so that the contemporary witness can decide for himself what he thinks is important. It is also about emotions and viewpoints that are rarely found in other sources (civil status files , necrologists , etc.). In addition, today's historian cannot know which questions will interest a historian in later times.


Traditionally, oral history is where contemporary witnesses tell freely. The story is captured with a sound recording device or video camera. Memory aids such as photo albums, personal objects, diaries , etc. support the narration. Often the sound recordings are transcribed, i.e. more or less literally transferred into writing. In a post-processing of what has been said, possibly with the contemporary witness, contradictions can be clarified or ambiguities eliminated. More extensive interview collections are often tagged and processed in digital interview archives.


Oral history projects in Germany were carried out by Lutz Niethammer and Alexander von Plato , for example, on the life and social history of the Ruhr area and 1930–1960 (LUSIR) and, even before the fall of the Berlin Wall , on the “people's own experience” in the GDR.

The oral history archives at Freie Universität Berlin provide access to the life stories of survivors of National Socialism.

Steven Spielberg founded the Shoah Foundation to record as many contemporary witnesses as possible to the Shoah . The interviews with survivors are intended to capture memories after this generation has died out. Especially in the memorial to Holocaust authentic interviews or films play an increasing role with interviews.

The Archimob project ( Archives de la mobilization ) of the association of the same name around the filmmaker Frédéric Gonseth , to which over forty historians and filmmakers belong, collected testimonies about Switzerland during the Second World War between 1999 and 2001. 555 video interviews resulted in 22 short documentaries and the exhibition L'Histoire c'est moi . Archimob is the largest oral history project carried out in Switzerland to date.

The Archimob core team has been realizing another audiovisual oral history archive with the title humem (from English humanitarian memory ) since 2006 . In 2009 and 2010, full-day interviews were conducted with around eighty people from development aid since 1945. This resulted in the first interactive documentary film in Switzerland, which can be seen at the project exhibition “The Other Side of the World” from 2011 from 2013.

The online archive “Forced Labor 1939–1945” contains biographical audio and video interviews of 600 former forced laborers, prisoners of war and concentration camp prisoners from 27 countries. The online application “Learning with Interviews: Forced Labor 1939–1945” helps students understand these oral history interviews as a historical source.


Only a few historians operate oral history in the original, elaborate way, but they do use questions and inquiries. But this is nothing more than an ordinary interview, as it has always been conducted. The term oral history is now often used as a mere synonym for interviews in historical research, or for a historiography that relies primarily on interviews as a source.

Especially in the early days of oral history , great expectations were linked to the new method: a “democratic story” was contrasted with the “official story”. Nevertheless, the interviews with contemporary witnesses are only sources that have to be interpreted in connection with other sources. In terms of source technology, they are just as critical as autobiographies . Given these prerequisites for a critical reading of the source, oral history sources can also contribute to the reconstruction of facts that are often precisely remembered.

See also


  • Lutz Niethammer : Life Experience and Collective Memory. The practice of "Oral History". Syndicate, Frankfurt am Main 1980, ISBN 3-8108-0142-9 .
  • Herwart Vorländer (Ed.): Oral history. Orally inquired about history. Eight contributions (= Kleine Vandenhoeck series. Vol. 1552). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1990, ISBN 3-525-33568-7 .
  • Alexander CT Geppert: Research Technology or Historical Discipline? Methodological problems in oral history. In: History in Science and Education. Vol. 45, No. 5, May 1994, ISSN  0016-9056 , pp. 303-323.
  • Gregor Spuhler et al. (Ed.), Polyphonic Memory. Contributions to oral history. Chronos-Verlag, Zurich 1994, ISBN 3-905311-45-3 .
  • Gerhard Henke-Bockschatz (Ed.): Oral History (= learning history. Issue 76). Friedrich, Seelze 2000, Learning History .
  • Uwe Kaminsky: Oral History. In: Hans-Jürgen Pandel, Gerhard Schneider (Hrsg.): Handbook of media in history lessons. 2nd Edition. Wochenschau-Verlag, Schwalbach / Ts. 2002, ISBN 3-87920-430-6 , pp. 451-467.
  • Paul Atkinson (Ed.): Narrative methods. Volume 3: Oral history and testimony. Reprinted edition. SAGE Publications. London u. a. 2007, ISBN 978-1-4129-0150-5 .
  • Sarah Jäggi: Work in conversation. Oral history on the change in work since 1970. Published by the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland. Lehrmittelverlag des Kantons Aargau, book 2007, ISBN 978-3-906738-74-1 .
  • Michael Egger: The little oral history guide. Published by Gerald Schöpfer. (= Series of publications by the Working Group on Economic and Social History. Vol. 18.) Self-published, Graz 2013, ISBN 978-3-901674-18-1 .
  • Nicolas Apostolopoulos, Cord Pagenstecher (ed.): Remembering forced labor. Contemporary witness interviews in the digital world. Metropol Verlag, Berlin 2013, ISBN 978-3-86331-156-8 , content .
  • Alina Bothe, Christina Isabel Brüning (Hrsg.): Gender and memory in the digital age. New perspectives on contemporary witness archives. LIT Verlag, Berlin / Münster 2015, ISBN 978-3-643-12369-5 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Oral History  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Laudation by Jürgen Reulecke on the occasion of the presentation of the Historians Prize 2002 to Lutz Niethammer [1]
  2. Friedhelm Boll / Annette Kaminsky (ed.): Memorial work and oral history. Berlin 1999, ISBN 3830500335 . PDF file
  3. http://www.archimob.ch
  4. http://www.humem.ch
  5. zwangsarbeit.lernen-mit-interviews.de  ( page no longer available , search in web archivesInfo: The link was automatically marked as defective. Please check the link according to the instructions and then remove this notice.@1@ 2Template: Toter Link / zwangsarbeit.lernen-mit-interviews.de  
  6. See also the self-critical statements by Selma Leyesdorff: De mensen en de woorden. Meulenhoff, Amsterdam 2004, pp. 26/27.
  7. v. Plato, Alexander: 'It was modern slavery'. First results of the biographical documentation project on slave and forced labor . BIOS 20 (2), 2007, 251-290, 278-280