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THE STAFF OF THE ORAL HISTORY ARCHIVE
Márkus Keller, sociologist, historian
Gyula Kozák, sociologist, head of the OHA until 1999
Zsuzsanna Kőrösi, sociologist and editor
András Lénárt, sociologist, historian
Adrienne Molnár, sociologist, head of the OHA 1999–2010
Katalin Somlai, historian, head of the OHA since 2010
Postal address: Budapest VII, Dohány u. 74, H–1074, Hungary.
Phone + 36 1 322 4036. Fax: + 36 1 322 3084.
Research service: Monday and Thursday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
THE HISTORY AND WORK OF THE ORAL HISTORY ARCHIVE
THE BEGINNINGS: THE ROUND-TABLE DISCUSSION AND THE SURVEY OF LEADERS
The Oral History Archive (OHA) attached to the 1956 Institute in Budapest has been preserving and processing the recollections of more than a thousand witnesses. Its scholarly roots go back to the turn of the 1970s and 1980s. It became clear to many people at this time that personal testimony from those who had lived and suffered through the period formed the only available source for researching the history of Hungary’s communist period, including the 1956 revolution. There was no sign at that time of the archives eventually being opened, so that historians could also research traditional sources. In 1981, András B. Hegedűs and Gyula Kozák set about interviewing people who had played an important part in the revolution.
It was already evident that it would not be enough simply to cover in the interviews the historical events, events associated with them, and reflections on these. Only in the context of each subject’s entire life story would it become apparent why they had acted in specific ways and taken specific decisions at specific historical junctures. The inability to research the documentary sources joined with the desire to search for deeper connections in prompting the researchers to make interviews of sociological exactitude that also explored the motives and background information lying behind the subjects’ lives.
Working under semi-illegal conditions, the OHA augmented the statements of individuals with a group interview with several participants in the revolution. The purpose of this series of discussions, held over several months and recorded on a tape recorder, was for the participants to piece together the history of the revolution as they knew and had experienced it, monitoring and augmenting each other’s statements. Thereby they would offset the official, falsified historical account, in which the facts had been subjected to reinterpretation.
The following active participants in the revolution participated in the round-table discussions: Ferenc Donáth, economist and politician; Árpád Göncz, writer and translator; Aliz Halda, teacher; András B. Hegedűs, economist and sociologist; György Litván, historian; Imre Mécs, engineer; Ferenc Mérei, psychologist, Sándor Rácz, toolmaker; and Miklós Vásárhelyi, press historian and politician. The questions were put by Zsolt Csalog, writer; Gyula Kozák, sociologist; and Miklós Szabó, historian. The round-table discussions form a document of outstanding value. It is authentic both as a summary and as an assessment of the history of the revolution, since those who spoke were professional politicians, political scientists and historians. In other words, this was not just an assessment ‘from below’, by participants, but a scholarly, politically credible analysis as well.
The other, this time institutional antecedent of the OHA was a survey of leaders undertaken at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Economics in 1981–85, as part of an empirical programme of research entitled ‘The Organizational System of Our Economy’. The careers, opinions, attitudes and activities of the numerous subjects, who had all filled leading technical, managerial or political positions ever since or for long periods since 1956, were typical of leaders in the Kádár period. All the respondents filled high or middle-ranking functions in the economy at the time of interview, from a chief engineer or manager of an enterprise to a minister. Altogether 155 full lifetime interviews were conducted during the research. These provide insight into movements, formal and informal criteria of selection, political and economic views, and the political, personal and economic bargaining that lay behind decision-making in the Kádár period, in the economy and to a lesser extent in the political arena. Of course, it was clear to the researchers that no descriptive economic, social and political history of the period could be based solely on such interviews. However, the opposite also applied: only a biased, distorted picture could be obtained by relying solely on the traditional, documentary sources. The lifetime interviews conducted at that time provided the basis for the OHA, which was founded in 1985.
THE SECOND FIVE YEARS: 1985–1990
The Oral History Archive was officially established in the autumn of 1985, with the support of the Soros Foundation, as part of the Cultural Research Institute of the National Public Education Centre. Its activity was defined as with lifetime interviews conducted with those who had played or were still playing a role in the ‘second rank’ of history. This provided a framework, within which interviews could be made with anyone who had taken part in important events, initiated them or witnessed them. This self-definition also seemed to be the most apolitical, covering alike 56-ers, party leaders of the 1945–48 years and members of the economic, political and cultural elites of the Rákosi and Kádár periods.
Although it was not explicitly stated, participants in the 1956 revolution were seen as one of the main targets when the OHA was founded. Moreover, the 1956 revolution was interpreted as part of a historical process commencing in 1945. The criterion, when selecting subjects for interview, was that they and their lives should be represent Hungarian history after 1945 (not statistically, of course, but in a qualitative sense). It was also intended that the voices of the ‘other side’ should be heard, of those who had participating in defeating the revolution and directed the reprisals. Many of the second and third-ranking political leaders of the Rákosi period came to play important political roles in the Kádár period. Others of them were active in the middle and upper ranks in the economic and cultural fields. Some former officers of the ÁVH (secret police) fulfilled functions in foreign trade, the co-operatives, the cultural sphere and the trade unions. Some of these were encountered during the leader survey and others only in retirement, after 1985.
Clearly, the higher the position subjects had occupied, the more important the information they could provide, and the likelier they were to try to conceal that information, since volunteering it meant addressing the negative historical role they had played. Despite such constraints, the interviews are interesting, because they provided hitherto unknown facts and opinions on very many questions of detail (such as the formation of a life strategy, personal motives, value judgements etc.) Some ÁVH officers were successfully interviewed, although such people were less inclined to speak up. At least as important as interviewing the active participants in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was to meet the victims and persecuted of the period, who had been jailed, deported, robbed of their livelihood or marginalized.
The next group of interviewees included prominent members of the political parties in the brief period of coalition government after 1945. We were lucky in this respect. Despite the ordeals they underwent in the 1950s, in prisons and labour camps, it proved possible to talk to many key figures in the parties of the 1945–48 period. When history took an unexpected turn and the communist system fell, many such respondents became politically reactivated, despite their advanced years, so that several further events occurred in their active lives, which they had begun to think of as over. Several of them became members of Parliament or took leading positions in their re-established parties, for instance Dezső Futó, Sándor Keresztes, Tivadar Pártay, András Révész and Vince Vörös.
At the centre of the OHA’s collecting work stand the decisive figures among the participants, victims and shapers of the revolution. They include the communists who turned against the system, stood by Imre Nagy after 1953, and then took part in the revolution and the preparations for it. It includes the ‘Pest lads’ who spontaneously joined the uprising, of which many also took part in the armed resistance after November 4. It includes leaders and members of the workers’ councils, revolutionary committees and other local self-management organizations. Then there are the members of the armed forces, above all the officers of the Hungarian People’s Army who came over to the revolution. Also targeted were the leaders of the political parties reconstituted during the days of the revolution, the representatives of the intellectual opposition, the editors, writers and distributors of the various illegal papers, and representatives of the many organizations formed among the intelligentsia. One distinct group consists of the emigrés, above all those who fled abroad from the post-revolution reprisals, but several emigrés of the Rákosi period were also interviewed. Another big group of subjects consists of people whose destinies, careers and experiences were thought worth preserving as such. They include prominent scholars and scientists, artists and performers, writers, architects, clerics, doctors, newspaper editors and university professors, who exerted a strong influence in their fields or on the country’s history as a whole.
THE ORAL HISTORY ARCHIVE AS PART OF THE 1956 INSTITUTE
The idea of founding the 1956 Institute (in part to continue work done by the Imre Nagy Institute, which operated in Brussels in 1959–63) had arisen in the early 1980s. Several samizdat publications concerned with the revolution appeared in the mid-1980s. Meanwhile the OHA was gathering around itself researchers with an interest in the revolution, mainly historians and sociologists, and acting as an alternative research centre. By 1990, it possessed a considerable volume of interviews connected with the revolution, so that it became one of the bases for the 1956 Institute, of which it remains a section to this day.
Most of the interviews in 1990–95, in line with the basic tasks of the 1956 Institute, were made with participants in the revolution, but representatives in other fields were also interviewed. In recent years, the scope has widened to include Romanian (Transylvanian) Hungarians. Some of these were and are in direct contact with events in Hungary and endured the political happenings there. Others became subjects as minority politicians (among them writers, scientists, university lecturers etc.), because of statements they made in support of the Hungarian community in Romania. Many of the Transylvanian Hungarian subjects were simply victims or witnesses of the mainstream of history, so that the interviews with them shed light on the views of the ‘common man’ and the predicament of the Hungarian minority in Romania.
Special mention needs to be made of the directed, thematic interviews, which cover the whole life of the subject at most in outline, and concentrate instead on specific events and facts. Interviews of this kind were made, for instance, when the literary activity of 1953–63 was being researched. Such thematic interviews were also made with foreigners, who were in Hungary during the revolution, or able to provide essential information on the international aspects of the revolution, by virtue of a position held in their home country. Prominent here are the interviews done with Polish politicians and journalists and with participants in the Romanian university movements of 1956.
Finally, there is a distinct group of interviews made with financial support from the National Technical Development Committee. These were conducted with senior engineers and scientists, who had made decisive contributions to Hungarian technical and scientific development.
In 1991, the OHA advertised an autobiographical competition entitled ‘Everyone’s Life Makes a Story’, for which 250 autobiographical writings and memoirs were entered. These cover almost the entire period of the last 60 years of Hungarian society. The submissions are available to researchers. In 1994–98, another programme of research using oral-history methods was conducted. This involved 43 lifetime interviews. The question investigated was what had happened to the second generation, to the children of those executed or imprisoned after the defeat of the revolution, how they had grown up under the burden imposed by the parent’s conviction for a role in the revolution. Their destinies and the experiences of their official and private lives also yielded appreciable information about the micro-history and social mentality of the Kádár period.
THE INTERVIEWING PROCESS
From the outset, the interviewers were selected who would match the respondents in their professional background and earlier research activities. In other words, interviews were conducted by people with experience and familiarity with the relevant subject matter and specialist field before they prepared for the specific interview. Those who are interviewing combatants in the revolution need different background knowledge from those who are talking to important figures in Hungarian cultural policy or technology. Certain basic specialist (sociological, interviewing) skills provide the foundation for specific preparation received by all those who are making an interview for the OHA for the first time. This is provided by the OHA staff, who also analyse the interviews jointly with the interviewers.
In most cases, a relatively uniform method of interviewing is employed. The interview emerges from a succession of interactions between the interviewer and the subject, in which the interviewer tries to bring out information and comments that would not emerge from a memoir or an autobiography. No effort is made to delve deeply into private affairs. Intimate details are avoided, except where they play a decisive part. On the other hand, great emphasis is placed on covering the whole life of the subject and on ensuring that sociologically ‘hard’ and ‘semi-hard’ data feature in every interview. Interviews include family background (grandparents, parents, siblings, other relevant relatives), primary socialization, educational influences, consciousness acquiring, development of the ideological ego (a personality capable of reflexivity), the maturation process, professional career and family history. The recollections consist of life-courses imbedded in their historical context, and so subjects, naturally, go beyond events to reflect on all that has happened to them, all the more so because they have been witnesses, in most cases, to exceptional historical and political events. Apart from some inevitable excursions in time, the conduct of the interview is chronological. The extent of each lifetime interview is generally proportionate to the importance of the events experienced by the subject and the information he or she possesses, and the propensity of the subject to relate and assess these.
THE OPERATING SYSTEM OF THE OHA
The OHA keeps continual track of the data about possible interviewees. Subjects are chosen by the head of the research project concerned and entrusted to interviewers. Subjects are then approached, usually by the interviewer, more rarely by OHA staff members.
Before the interview begins, the interviewer discusses with the subject the purpose of the interview and the conditions under which the OHA will preserve the interview after it has been made. The subject decides on the level of public availability. The interview may be designated as closed (research and quotation requiring assent from the subject and the interviewer), available for research (freely researchable, quotation requiring the assent of the subject and the interviewer) or public (freely available for research and quotation with a source attribution). This is agreed verbally between the respondent and the interviewer before the interview and confirmed afterwards in a standard form of agreement prepared by the OHA. Of course, a subject may choose any form of preservation in line with his or her personal wishes. The costs of the interviews are covered by the OHA.The text recorded on the tape is transcribed onto a computer. The subject and interviewer then make any necessary changes on a printout (mainly in personal names, place names, foreign words and any factual errors), which are entered by the word processor. That yields a final text, which is printed in four copies. One copy each goes to the subject, the interviewer, the manuscript library of the National Széchényi Library, and the OHA, where further operations are prepared from this copy. The National Széchényi Library also receives the original audio cassette, both of which are preserved as closed materials. The OHA also preserves the text on discs, whose contents are transcribed annually onto CD–ROM. The OHA copy is bound, along with a title page giving the main details of the respondent, the agreement on public availability, an index of names, and in some cases, other appendices. The colour of the binding corresponds to the level of public availability: red (closed), yellow (researchable) or green (public). A record sheet is prepared for each interview. This records the name, date of birth and address of the subject, a brief resumé of the interview, its level of public availability, its inventory number, its time and length, the name of the interviewee, and other information about the preparation of the interview. All this information is stored on computer. A shortened version of it is available in the Annotated List of Lifetime Interviews in the Oral History Archive. As possibilities arise, documents about the lives of interviewees are collected. Photocopies of such diaries, letters, photographs, various official documents, press cuttings etc. supplied by the subject are attached to the interview as an appendix. If word is received that an interview subject has died, that too is recorded. Subjects who have classified their interviews as closed are approached from time to time with a request that they allow them to be reclassified as researchable. Thanks to these approaches, only about three dozen of the interviews in the OHA are still closed. Also to be found in the collection are interviews whose subjects stipulated that the very existence of the interview should not be disclosed publicly during the subject’s lifetime. These appear in the register of interviews under a letter code that ensures anonymity.
The public and researchable interviews can be read on the OHA premises. The reader service has been approached over the years by several hundred people (historians, sociologists, anthropologists, journalists, reporters, filmmakers, and university and school students), who have found information and assistance useful in their work.
THE COMBINED INDEX
Such a vast collection calls for more than constant maintenance and augmentation. It is vital to facilitate the process of researching into the interviews and to making them useful to researchers in as many disciplines as possible. One important tool is the index of names attached to each interview. Where possible, each index entry includes with the name the general identifying attributes, such as occupation and public and political functions, as well as the association with the interviewee. The name indexes also help with orientation within the interview, where a researcher is looking for an event linked with a particular person or persons. However, it is time-consuming to research several hundred interviews in that fashion, by taking each individually and seeing whether those associated with the event are mentioned.
The objective when compiling the combined index that would skirt this problem was to make the description by each name as explicit as possible. After all, the same person might answer to different career and individual attributes at different periods. The combined index of several tens of thousands of names alphabetically also shows how often the name occurs in each interview. However, the large number of names mentioned meant that some had to be left out of the combined index. In most cases, these were people important to the respondent at a certain time, but presumably of little interest to historians: childhood friends, classmates, colleagues at work and other acquaintances. The names omitted from the combined index (without further specification) are stored in a separate file, where anyone who is interested may work on them. The precise version of the combined index is available for research purposes in the databank of the 1956 Institute.
COMPUTER PROCESSING OF THE INTERVIEWS
The ready availability of the information in the interviews is an important consideration for researchers. The OHA uses a ‘researcher-friendly’, free-keyword database-handling program that provides detailed, comprehensive information about every event, venue and institution to do with 1956 that is mentioned in the interviews, along with every detail of each interviewee’s life.
The processing takes the following course. An abstract of the interview, a few pages in length, is prepared in note form. This contains the main personal data (place and date of birth, social status of family, schools, workplaces etc.), and in more detail, historical events that the respondent took part in, witnessed or commented on, i.e. all the relevant information in the interview. After they have been checked, these abstracts go into the computer, where finding the exact source of the necessary information is reduced to a technical problem, with the help of indicative field names. The program offers other services, besides giving the exact locations of the primary information sought. It also divulges the names of related persons, events and institutions, and the times associated with these. The program allows searches for institution names, events, times, settlements and smaller topographical locations within them, the sociological data about interviewees, in any formal logical connection (of the AND, OR, BUT or NOT type). It then says on what page of the interview the found information occurs. So far, 430 lifetime interviews with ’56-ers have been put onto the computer.
Processing and transferring further lifetime interviews to computer will continue in the near future, under the research programme entitled ‘Twentieth-Century Destiny Paradigms’.
RESEARCH IN PROGRESS
The original objectives of the 1956 Institute can only be taken further in the future by steadily broadening the frames of research to cover the 1945–1990 period of Hungarian history. The OHA is adapting to that expansion by launching projects related to the new frames of reference. The recollections in the collection are documents of daily life and sources, to a large extent, of suppressed history that cannot be duplicated elsewhere and offer great assistance with understanding the past and interpreting the underlying processes in society. The processing already described gives researchers the easiest access to information about the revolution and the early Kádár period.
The changes that took place in the social structure of post-1945 Hungary are well known at the macro level. The objective of the research programme entitled ‘Twentieth-Century Destiny Paradigms’, which begins in the second half of 2001, is to explore, analyse and augment our knowledge of these on a level of individual careers, experiences and strategies. The lifetime interviews contain information about the important events in subjects’ lives, their motives and their reflections on these. From the viewpoint of the investigation, one of the main factors is that the full lifetime interviews include the life stories of each respondent’s parents and grandparents. That means the family background can be reconstructed, along with the primary and secondary processes of socialization, and it emerges what strategic responses were made by people of various backgrounds and origins, to the changes generated by history and politics. The specific, individual life courses begin to outline typical strategies in life.
Connected with this, there is a separate project entitled ‘The Repatriated’. Further lifetime interviews of an oral-history type are being conducted and analysed to examine what has happened to a specific group of people, whose members left Hungary after 1945, lived most of their lives abroad, and then returned after the 1989–90 change of system. Through their individual lives, it is possible to compare the micro and macro-historical relations with the historical and political processes in Hungary and to reveal differences and similarities between various cultures.
A start was made at the end of 1999 on a type of sociological research that differs from the work of the OHA hitherto. This entails processing the lifetime interviews of Budapest subjects convicted of ’56-related crimes through the network method. The work sets out to reconstruct, through the selected interviews, the subjects’ individual network systems and assemble a full picture from these. Rather than reconstructing and describing the events, the aim is to make a structural analysis of the personal stories about the revolution and reconstruct the network pattern of the interviewees.
The questions explored include the following. What network differences were there among the various groups that played a part in the revolution? What effect did the network systems of the interviewees have on their role in the revolution as individuals? What relations were ‘awakened’ in the ’56 relations and did these survive the defeat and reprisals?
Even before the change of system, the OHA had begun to publish edited versions of some lifetime interviews. Several books and journal contributions on aspects of 1956 followed, in the early period after the change of system.
Publication began in 1992 of a new series, in co-operation with the 1956 Institute and the Contemporary History Committee of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. A volume of selected interviews with workers’-council leaders –“Szuronyok hegyén nem lehet dolgozni”. Válogatás 1956-os munkástanács-vezetők visszaemlékezéseiből (‘You Can’t Work at the Tip of a Bayonet’. Selection from the Reminiscences of 1956 Workers’-Council Leaders) – was followed by selected interviews with armed rebels – Pesti utca – 1956. Válogatás fegyveres felkelők visszaemlékezéseiből (Pest Streets – 1956. Selection from the Reminiscences of Armed Insurgents). That was followed, on the 40th anniversary of the revolution, by interviews with the leaders of parties that were revived in 1956 – Pártok 1956. Válogatás 1956–os pártvezetők visszaemlékezéseiből (Parties 1956. Selection from the Reminiscences of 1956 Party Leaders). Each contains edited versions of 10-12 interviews, which build up a complex picture of specific historical events and the institutions active in them. The interviews chosen from the OHA were those that gave the best account of the subject, the ‘classic’ sources, whose statements were corroborated by other interviews, coupling this with the interpretations and reflections of the subjects.
The volumes published are intended primarily to provide, from ‘below’ or within, information about the revolution, so that the revolutionary events receive the most attention. Apart from covering the previous life of the subject and actions during the revolution, the edited versions also outline the various subsequent reprisals, both formal (judicial) and informal (political and affecting work and everyday life). Finally, importance was attached to presenting each subject’s assessment of the revolution and of his or her part in it, from a distance of 30-40 years. For reasons of space, the interview texts had to be shortened considerably, but the aim of presenting the complete story of what happened to the interviewee was not abandoned. The abbreviated versions of the interviews, which run to several hundred pages, leave the essential sections unaltered and preserve the speech patterns of the subject. Footnotes have been added, mainly to make things clearer and more accurate, by elucidating and correcting allusions, times, events and names of institutions, and identifying now little-known or forgotten persons. This was necessary if the subject matter of each volume (workers’ councils, street battles, and party politics) was to be covered in full depth. The fact that the political occurrences and historical events appear within the whole life-story allows both interested readers and professional researchers to identify new connections between them. The books also hold interest for those who do not usually read specialist works of history, since they acquaint them with the events and reconstruct them in a context broadened by the human emotions of the participant recalling them. The volumes are seen as sociography, since they are neither literary creations nor products of representative sociological research.
Apart from the volumes of interviews, we also compile thematic selections from them. These juxtapose interview extracts that explore a specific historical topic (such as the months after the defeat of the revolution, or the attempts to recruit the interviewees made after 1956) or gather memories of a certain person (such as János Kádár). The subjective pictures that emerge add many new and interesting details to our knowledge of the topic concerned.
The findings of the research programme entitled ‘The Second Generation of ’56-ers’, mentioned earlier, have appeared in several papers in journals, followed by a volume of studies: Titokkal a lelkemben éltem. Az ötvenhatos elítéltek gyermekeinek sorsa – I Lived with Secrets in My Soul. The Fate of Children of the ‘56 Convicted. The book, amply illustrated with interview extracts, analyses the lives of the generation left to themselves after the defeat of the revolution, on whom was ‘visited the iniquity of the fathers’. It covers 21 people whose fathers were executed after 1956 and 21 whose fathers were imprisoned, displaying a curious aspect of society and the system of power in the Kádár period, the realm of institutionalized silence. It goes on to explore what alterations the change of system brought in the lives of the respondents and their assessments of the revolution.