Oral History of War: Issues and Cautions Regarding This Research Method


How can one work with the oral history of an ongoing war?

Містяни ховаються від обстрілів у харківському метро

This text is my first attempt at writing about wartime oral history. In early March, I was forced to leave Kharkiv. A researcher who had spent most of my professional life studying the history of WWII, I myself effectively came to be a witness of war, a victim, a traumatized person, someone who suffered a loss. I gained personal experience in what used to be my pre-war field of research expertise: I experienced war, loss, and escape.

How can one work with the oral history of an ongoing war?

I will not offer any definitive answers, for there are none yet. It takes time to find them. Yet the haste with which both the public and the research community began implementing oral history projects on wartime experiences forces me to express my fears, articulate limitations, and walk through dead ends and pitfalls of the “on-the-spot” oral history method.

My doubts mainly concern the oral history of internally displaced persons and refugees. Who will we interview, how will we find those people, and how will we record their stories? Before answering those questions, we have to figure out the ultimate goal of that research — besides the obvious reasons for doing it “because people want to talk about it and we, in turn, want to preserve their memories while they are fresh and before other layers and interpretations are added as time passes”. The event every contemporary witness speaks about is ongoing, and as of today, it is difficult to separate it from different contexts. There is no telling when it will be over, there is no knowing what its further historical interpretations might be. All this is what we call “the oral stories of the in-progress past”. This caution does not deny any projects based on interviewing the witnesses or recent events — it’s just that we need to, first of all, define and articulate, the “history” of what exactly we are researching.

I also have certain doubts as to whether we indeed are working on oral history, when it comes to the therapeutic effect of listening to witnesses of the ongoing war. Not everyone recording interviews today has a good command of therapeutic listening, which is no wonder, given the fact that we are not trained psychologists. Some researchers do include professional psychologists in their interviewing teams, and they use their expertise and devise questionnaires for recording the witness accounts. But what do the interviewees think about a psychologist being involved in the project? “I’m not nuts, I am in my right mind! I don’t need no psychologist!” was the reaction of an interviewee from another war and another country. I learned this story recently, from a colleague who is equally reserved when it comes to mass interviewing during an ongoing war. We have to be open with our respondents, both regarding the project itself and the makeup of its team. But are we aware of the extent to which having a psychologist on our team will affect what the interviewees choose to tell us? Isn’t that, no matter how unwilling and innocent, still stigmatization of our interviewees? Will all of them have a pleasant recollection of this episode further on?

“Do no harm to the narrator” is a basic requirement for any oral historian. How do you ask for consent to an interview, if, the mere question about bombing (for instance) may cause re-traumatization with fear and stress? Do we have to accommodate the witnesses’ desire to get it out of their system and tell their story? As one of my colleagues said, “I will be recording them as long as people are eager to share”. Which is, of course, extremely important, but what does this kind of collaboration have to do with oral history? After all, oral history is not (and has never been) a therapy session, it is based on professional documentation.

How should the recorded data be archived and used? Does everyone have the necessary skill and resources to safely store recorded oral stories? Who will have access to those stories, and how will they gain it? Is there a chance of the enemy using them for their own purpose? Will an oral historian be responsible for that?

Along with the issues of archiving and regulating access to oral stories, there’s an issue of how those recorded interviews are going to be used. This should be determined as early as during the project planning. How are we going to further use the recordings (if, of course, we did not record those interviews for the very sake of recording)? How are we planning to interpret those stories, recorded by people who just lived through (or are still living through) a trauma? What is it in those stories that is of interest to us as modern historians — not psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, or folklorists?

By what principle will we pick stories of tragedies for their further presentation, to begin with? What happens to stories that, to put it mildly, are unconventional regarding the current situation, our preferences, common ethic, etc.? Will we be handpicking the big, more shocking stories, leaving out the less striking ones?   

The basic task of an oral historian here remains unalterable: do no harm, do not inflict additional pain, do not offend. There’s still little to no understanding of how this can be achieved when interviewing people still in the state of ongoing trauma. As of today, the methodologies of conducting oral history research amidst ongoing wars, crises, and extraordinary situations are scarce. What has already been accumulated by the Ukrainian researchers, however, can be of great help in finding answers. We are talking about the newest collection of articles by specialists using the interviewing method in their work researching Ukraine’s history and culture in the XX and XXI centuries. The works of these specialists will help us understand oral history as an art of balance and interaction, as well as the practice of using this research method when working with “in-progress past”. Those works allow for exploring the possibilities of oral history when studying both crises and turning points, and routine daily events in the history of our country over the past century.