My straight-forward and deceivingly simple thesis is that the practice of oral history can become a vehicle for constructing civil society and holds great promise especially in the case of Romania. In these few pages I would like to explore only one aspect of oral history, crucial for the fulfillment of this powerful promise—ethics. My own understanding of civil society falls within Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato’s definition, which includes several crucial features.(Cohen and Arato, 1992, p. ix) First, civil society needs to be both separated from the private sphere and thoroughly anchored in the public, yet also separated from political institutions. Other scholars consider political parties with a pluralist democratic framework and ideology as important forces in building and maintaining civil society as well. Yet, in Cohen and Arato’s view, which I share, such organizations ultimately tend to seek power for themselves and the constituencies they represent, and by doing so work against more general interests shared and negotiated through the institutions particular to civil society.


            Another important feature of this definition is that civil society is constituted and maintained through efforts that tend to become institutionalized.  In other words, it is not sufficient to express dissent to particular government policies on an individual basis, even when doing so in public.  The vehicle for opposition needs to be an institution which has overt goals and a structure which allows for both internal growth and dialogue with other social institutions. 

Finally, although institutions that participate in the building of civil society do not need to represent pluralist interests, they stop being participants in the process of maintaining the space for civil society when they challenge the legal framework of the state in terms of the rules for public dialogue.  For instance, a nationalist organization may foster the development of dialogue among competing ethnic interests, if the aims of that organization and its specific activities do not directly challenge the legitimacy of the state in which it operates.  Yet, when such an organization becomes the vehicle for disputing  the legal or territorial integrity of the state in which it operates, this institution crosses over to the political realm proper.  Its claims begin to threaten the very foundations for pluralist dialogue—a shared understanding of public interest, desire to preserve a space for disagreements, and faith that conflicts can be solved through dialogue and negotiation within the existing legal and political framework. 

My contention is that, given the particular context of civic values in post-totalitarian Romania, the process of interviewing oral history witnesses is also one by which these voices can be mobilized in the creation and maintenance of a public space imbued with some similar basic values.(Patapievici, 1996)  When giving an individual the opportunity to tell one’s life story, the interviewer-historian validates the voice of that participant in not just understanding the past, but especially creating a memory of the past—a memory that is at once singular, subjective, and shared with others and, therefore, collective.  Along with this opportunity to empower the voices of these silent groups comes also a type of responsibility towards the process of interviewing, collecting, and interpreting the data which is somewhat different and definitely more complex than the work of a historian working only with written texts.  I will address  this particular angle of the practice of oral history by focusing on the intersection between the above mentioned definition of civil society and three important attributes of oral history𔃉)  the interactive nature of creating oral history sources; 2) the subjectivity of these sources; and 3) the fluidity of these sources.(Portelli, 1991)

            Oral history has grown to become an important component of the historical profession in the United States and increasingly in Western Europe.  Its development in these areas has been connected to the political and intellectual currents in academia especially since the late sixties.(Vasina, 1985)  It initially grew out of the desire of historians who were interested in cultural groups without a well-documented written record of their past, such as African Americans and migrant workers, and looked towards the techniques of two growing disciplines—cultural anthropology and folklore—as keys that could unlock the gates towards the past of these silent groups.  Starting from a premise that they were on the same side as these silent voices, early oral historians constructed their narratives without much self-assessment of themselves vis-?-vis their interviewees, being more concerned with “the establishment,” whose walls they were hoping to shake down.  The proponents of oral history in Romania are at a similar point in their involvement with this new form of constructing narratives about the past.  They are mostly concerned with putting on tape as many testimonies as possible of those who were most victimized by the communist regime, with the hope of balancing the silences or lies of the written documents especially with regard to the political developments in Romania over the last fifty years.

            This hope of “setting the record straight” shows that some of those who are becoming interested in oral history operate on the same premises as historians working with traditional, written records or visual artifacts such as paintings or photographs.  Because of this approach, the practice of oral history in Romania has not lived up to its fullest potential yet.   It has mostly attempted to reconstruct the same master narrative it has criticized, with oral testimonies as its main support.  

            This approach doesn’t take into consideration some essential attributes of oral history, which critics have rushed from the beginning to point out as weakening characteristics:  the subjectivity and instability of oral history sources.  In fact, by embracing these aspects of the creation of oral history interviews, the historian can turn them into empowering attributes.  To begin with, it is clear that both interviewer and interviewee participate in the creation of this historical document.  If the historian attempts to stay at a distance from this direct involvement, he or she risks to live in an illusory perception of the process of interviewing.  The belief in the goal of objectivity has been  particularly difficult to shed by historians everywhere.(Novick, 1988)  But even today some historians still hold a kernel of belief that members of this profession have the ability of standing back and evaluating historical processes objectively by virtue of our professional training and intellectual grounding.  The process of oral interviewing exposes this as simply a myth.(Tonkin, 1990)

            The significance of the statement that both interviewer and interviewee contribute to the creation of the historical source is manifold.  Not only does it expose the myth of objectivity, but it also turns the historian into a participant in the making of memory in a direct manner and it reduces the gap between the historian as a powerful producer of culture/meaning and the interviewee as a simple witness to past events.  In the context of this essay I would like to focus only on one aspect, the ethical dimension of this “partnership,” as Alessandro Portelli has defined the relationship between historian and interviewee, both during the interview and later, during its transformation into a shared historical source. (Portelli, 1991, p. 57) 

            The presence of the interviewer in the process of telling a life story is not simply an addition to the narrative, or an interruption—it is a dialogue.  The interviewer needs to take into consideration the various ways in which his or her appearance could be perceived simultaneously or alternatively as an authoritative presence, an intrusion, a curiosity, a compassionate listener, a threat, or an array of other personas, on the basis of the interviewee’s own personal expectations.  There is no “right” persona to embody when interviewing someone, but rather a general awareness that the more powerful the interviewer’s presence, the more likely will the interviewee be drawn to react to whatever he or she expects the interviewer wants.  Especially by asking leading questions, the historian is more likely to have his or her suspicions or hypotheses reinforced, rather than understand the  possibly unforeseeable motivations an interviewee might have had for certain actions.  This is ethically problematic particularly in the cases of interviewing individuals whom the historian suspects and over whose actions the interviewer even holds some incriminating written documentation.  This has been especially the case with German historians investigating the actions of individuals whom they believed played a role in the Final Solution. 

In the case of Romania, a similar line of research has developed around the activities of various individuals connected with the Canal and the various political prisons, such as Pitesti.  The ethical question here is whether searching for “the truth” in the case of these individuals whom one suspects of actively participating in violent and cruel acts legitimizes deceiving them during the interview through various leading questions.  This is in fact a false dilemma, because it is built on the premise that one can achieve the goal of finding “the truth” via oral history interviews. Oral narratives by not only victimizers, but also the victims of acts of violence show a great diversity in participants’ recounting of even what seems to the interviewer as basic factual data.(Kovacs, 1992)  Therefore, by confronting an interviewee with factual data that infirms that person’s earlier statements in the oral interview (such as, “This written document proves that, on the such and such date, you were in fact in residence at Pitesti, and not in Bucharest…”) may not trigger any reaction of recanting on the part of the interviewee. In fact, the confrontation would most likely change his or her expectations of the interviewer’s intention and prompt the interviewee to close down or begin to formulate answers in a manner he or she believes is expected to reply.  Either way, the interview is unlikely to come any closer to “the truth”—in this case, not the factual truth, but the subjective truth of that person’s candid recollection of the past.  What an oral narrative can achieve in the elusive quest for “the truth” is to present the interviewee’s own perception of the facts, as well as of his or her involvement in the past.  It is by analyzing the particularities of the narrative per se—absences, pauses, semantics, level of detail—in the post-taping study, that the historian can shed more critical light on that person’s recollections.(Niethammer, 1992)  These individual particularities become especially meaningful when they are juxtaposed to official versions of the same events, and especially to other personal recollections (whether written or oral) of other witnesses.

            Returning to my initial contention that the practice of oral history can help construct civil society, allowing the interviewee to make his or her recollections known without any leading questions becomes a way of validating that person’s participation in history.  The oral historian cannot become the interviewee’s conscience, but can become the public before whom the interviewee makes sense of the past and renders it meaningful for an audience in the present.  In this process, the interviewee takes a stance not only on the past, but also on the present, especially in the case of a repressed, silenced past that has remained highly politicized.(Patapievici, 1996)  Asking confrontational questions is not likely to force that individual to reassess his or her past actions.  This reassessment is more likely to take place if the interlocutor is brought by the interviewer in touch with his or her past through more neutral questions. 

In the case of Romania, the practice of oral history within the ethical parameters I have discussed here can be a powerful force in the process of generating a public space for shared values from another important perspective.  As much as fifty years of communism have attempted (in principle) to bring about an egalitarian spirit, the relationship between the producers of culture (i.e., the educated elites, who consciously construct the intellectual and political discourse) and the larger public (i.e., the audiences of these intellectual and political debates) has been far from egalitarian.  Political life over the past seven years has shown that often the center doesn’t know what happens at the margins, and the top has often little awareness of what happens below.  This has certainly begun to change, but historians have not been on the forefront of this shift towards listening to popular culture and voices from below.  The practice of oral history can become an important tool for enabling both interviewer and interviewee to redress this inadequacy.  For the historian, the interview is an opportunity to listen to perceptions of the past by people who are not necessarily remarkable, but certainly active participants in history.  Their voices  illustrate the ways in which official discourses about the past are reconfigured by different individuals who don’t hold positions of power, but are nonetheless historical agents.  This type of confrontation can help reassess historians’ own role as producers of culture—somewhat more connected to the different meanings embodied in a particular action, and possibly more ready to accept and represent through their own work the plural nature of historical memory.

On the part of the interviewee, the process of retelling one’s story or, in some cases, telling it for the first time, is an empowering experience.  By agreeing to produce this text that will become inherently meaningful to an audience of specialists, the interviewee participates in the construction of civil society as an active, autonomous voice.  However, not every individual is likely to recognize this powerful aspect of participating in an oral history interview.  Therefore, the interviewer has the opportunity (and, I would add, the responsibility) to offer this aspect of the process of interviewing as an incentive for participation.

Just as important as this personal validation is the notion that once the text is taped, it becomes an artifact.  This doesn’t mean that the interview represents the definitive version of one’s recollections, since all oral narratives about the past are performative and shifting—they invariably will change with each different recounting, unless the narrative is a memorized text.(Portelli, 1991)  However, the tape represents a complete text within the  context of that one interview.  The tape is also at that point a historical source bound to be interpreted/utilized in  different ways. 

After the completion of the study the interviewee has no longer any input into these interpretations, and even the interviewer has limited control over this process.  This is especially the case with interviews that are stored in institutes or collections open to public use.  When the tape is deposited and catalogued in such an institution, it becomes part of the public domain.  In effect, this completes the process of rendering the interviewee’s recollections of the past not only as a cultural subjective act of individual remembering, but also a publicly meaningful act of offering one particular interpretation of the past.

The role of the interviewer and institution that holds such testimonies is one of great public responsibility first and foremost towards these individual witnesses, in protecting their testimonies from abuse.  Yet, their responsibilities also extend towards the process of informing the public and rendering the acts of speaking out, connecting to the past and engaging in making it meaningful in the present a valuable form of participating in the public arena for all individuals.  One way in which oral historians in the U.S. have sought to combine these two roles successfully in an ethically satisfying manner has been to ensure the written or explicit oral permission of the interviewee for making the contents of the interview part of the public domain upon completion of the study (see Appendix 1).  In the U.S. this has been especially an important issue because of the litigious culture in this country, which, on occasion, has prompted conflicts between interviewer and interviewee detrimental especially to the interviewer. 

In the case of Romania, the express agreement of the interviewee may look like a threatening act for that person, but in fact it represents an important step towards protecting the interviewee from possible abuse, and the historian needs to make this issue before the interview.  The responsibility of the interviewer is to ensure that the identity of the interviewee is kept confidential unless that person agrees in a clear manner to have his or her name revealed in the study or in the records of the tape.  In order to provide protection from future abuses, the interviewer also needs to make room for specific provisions, such as not making the tape public for 20 years after the death of the interviewee, or any other such personal requests that might bring additional protection to the interviewee. 

One may argue that there are burning questions which cannot wait, and that certain truths need to be brought before the public eye despite the individual requests of those interviewed.  As much as this is a politically appealing stance, it is also an ethically problematical one, for it sends a signal that the interviewer has the privilege of choosing whom to protect, rather than respecting every interviewee’s rights in the same fashion.  If the practice of oral interviews is to play a role in encouraging the development of civil society, it cannot do so from an ethically shifting position.

This brings me to an important connected issue—whether a historian does better to protect these individual rights by holding on to the sources (the interviews)rather than offering them to a public institution upon completion of one’s study, and by making vague, unreferenced mentioning to such interviews rather than clearly noting the existence of the taped interviews, their date, and their availability.  Aside from the problem of academic professionalism that pertains especially to the issue of referencing, there is an important ethical dimension to this question.  By holding on to the interview the historian not only prevents the use of this source by other researchers, but also becomes de facto the authoritative voice through which this source speaks.  Therefore, the historian removes the agency of the interviewee as an active conversant in the discourse about the past and the construction of a shared public space.  This shortcoming can be easily redressed, however, by making clear reference to the existence of a taped source and its availability on the basis of the limits set up by the interviewee.(Penn, 1994)

Civil society is constituted and needs to be reinforced through individual or institutional acts by various participants who share a commitment to making visible their various interests in a language that reflects the awareness of these differences and a respect for their juxtaposing existence (even when in conflict).  Support for this process rests not only in the hands of non-governmental organizations or government institutions, but especially through a responsible practice by most individuals in acts that are not self-serving.  The process of recording, analyzing, and making public oral history interviews can become an important element of  transforming the public sphere into a space in which most individuals place trust and personal significance, and which they are committed to  bolster through acts of sharing their often conflicting  understandings of the past and the present.


Selective Bibliography


Jean L. Cohen and Andrew Arato, 1992.  Civil Society and Political Theory.  Cambridge, Mass:  M.I.T. Press.


            John Bodnar, 1996. “Generational Memory in an American Town.”  Journal of Interdisciplinary History 26(4), Spring:619-637.

            Fred Davis, 1979. Yearning for Yesterday.  A Sociology of Nostalgia. New York: Free Press.

Robert Hayden, 1994. “Recounting the Dead.  The Rediscorvery and Redefinition of Wartime Massacres in Late- and Post-Communist Yugoslavia,” in Rubie S. Watson, ed., Memory, History, and Opposition Under State Socialism. Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research Press, pp. 167-184.

Andras Kovacs, 1992.  “The Abduction of Imre Nagy and his Group:  The ‘Rashomon’ Effect,” in Passerini, q.v., pp. 117-124.

Lutz Niethammer, 1992.  “Where Were You on 17 June?  A Niche in Memory,” in Passerini, q.v., pp. 45-70.

Peter Novick, 1988.  That Noble Dream.  The Objectivity Question & the American Historical Profession.  New York:  Cambridge University Press.

Luisa Passerini, ed., 1992.  Memory and Totalitarianism.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

H.-R. Patapievici, 1996.  Politice.  Bucharest, Ed. Humanitas.

Shana Penn, 1994.  “The Terrible Secret.”  Journal of Women’s History 8, Winter:  .

            Alessandro Portelli, 1991. “What Makes Oral History Different?” in Alessandro Portelli. The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories:  Form and Meaning in Oral History.  State University of New York Press.

Raphael Samuel and Paul Thompson, eds, 1990. The Myths We Live By. New York: Routledge.

Elizabeth Tonkin, 1990.  “History and the Myuth of Realism,” in Samuel and Thompson, q.v., pp. 25-35.

Jan Vasina, 1985. Oral Tradition as History. Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press.

Smaranda Vultur, 1997.  Istorie traita—Istorie povestita.  Deportarea in Baragan, 1951-1956.  Timisoara:  Ed. Amarcord.