1956-os Intézet - Oral History Archívum
A small group of devoted researchers began to do interviews in 1981 with people who had been active in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The aim of people who did the interviews was to reveal, by giving people chances to share personal memories, the real story of this decisive set of events, which were taboo under the Kádár regime, which had violently suppressed the revolution and which was eager to make up for its lack legitimacy in the eyes of the population by spreading false propaganda. These early interviews later served as the core collection of the Oral History Archives, which was founded in Budapest in 1985.
Budapest Dohány utca 74, Hungary 1074
- 1956-os Intézet - Oral History Archívum
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In Hungary, the Oral History Archives (OHA) is the oldest and largest independent collection of interviews of primarily historical and sociological interest. Although interviews which meet scientific standards have been done and researched by other institutions too, the OHA, as a part of 1956 Research Institute, is the only such institution which has managed to maintain its permanent institutional presence since the early 1980s.
Historical interview-making started here in the last decade of the Kádár regime as a result of the emergence of both reform communist and democratic opposition movements among Hungarian intellectuals. Since the Archives challenged the monopoly on national memory policy by the one-party state, it was considered a kind of oppositional activity and became an increasingly popular form of cultural resistance. Even the selection of the interviewees was a taboo-breaking act, as the people who were chosen were primarily actors in and witnesses of the events of 1956 who had been silenced and stigmatized for decades. The interviews, which revealed personal memories of the 1956 Revolution, managed to open up new channels for alternative ways of thinking about the history of the twentieth century in the last decade of communist rule in Hungary.
The first major step on the path to creating the archives was the informal roundtable talk among ’56-ers, organized on the 25th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution with close to a dozen participants. This was a collective form of “memory work.” It consisted of a series of conversations recorded in 1981 and 1982 (fifteen talks in total). Individual interviews also began to be done with the participants. This served later as a solid basis for the collection of the Archives, which was founded in 1985.
Research on contemporary history were gravely hindered in Hungary by the fact that public debates on 1956 were banned and archival resources were inaccessible throughout the Kádár era. The only way to interpret the events of the revolution was to record personal testimonies of the people who had participated in 1956, even if these recordings were being made as late as the early 1980s. This remained the main method of documentation until the end of communist rule, since the official narrative, according to which the uprising had been a “counterrevolution,” was one of the unquestionable doctrines of the regime which served as a cornerstone of its attempts to assert its legitimacy throughout the Kádár regime. In this historical setting, the oral history interview, as a method, acquired an extra role, as historian András Lénárt argues: “Under dictatorships, historical interviews did not merely serve as a means of scientific research, but were quite often the only way to reveal the truth, some real facts and events of the past, with a similar motivation as that of investigative journalism. The research subject in this case was 1956, and the job to be done was to refute the dishonest official concept of the revolution, which led not simply to “alternative” but “counter-historical” conclusions.”
Interviews were originally the main research method of empirical sociologists. In Hungary, Gyula Kozák is considered one of the pioneers of the earliest oral history interviews. As he admits, he himself was inspired by Oscar Lewis’ sociographical book The Children of Sanchez, which was published in 1961. Kozák’s intention was to shed light on the events of the 1956 revolution through personal testimonies “in order to reconstruct the past by contrasting relevant details of personal memories.” According to András Hegedűs B., another founder of OHA, it was Alíz Halda, the bride of an executed revolutionary Miklós Gimes, and dissident writer and sociologist Zsolt Csalog who initiated fact-finding talks with prominent participants in the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Originally, they intended to make video recordings of these talks, but as some interviewees considered this too risky, in the end they made only sound recordings of the interviews.
With regards to the series of roundtable talks of 1981–1982, participants met first at artist Péter Donáth’s flat, but soon began to meet at the home of András Hegedűs B. instead, which was larger and was located in downtown Budapest and thus seemed a more suitable and also safer, with less risk of being controlled by the secret police, as Hegedűs noted in one of his interviews later.
The roundtable talks on 1956 went on for several months, and the subjects broached constituted a major revelation for both the interviewers and the interviewees. As Imre Mécs, who in 1958 was sentenced to death but was then released in accordance with the 1963 amnesty, recalls, “It was a commonly shared revelation for us that though we had spent many years in prison together after 1956, we neither knew much about the antecedents to 1956, nor we were informed in details about one another’s roles during the days of the revolution. Hence, the real novelty of the roundtable talks was that we were all given a chance to share our life stories beginning in early childhood and lasting until 1956, and later, with many surprising details. This expanded our horizons incredibly, with the breathtaking new knowledge of the career of Ferenc Donáth or the careers of Jenő Széll, György Litván, Miklós Vásárhelyi, Sándor Rácz, and others.”
As the records of these semi-legal meetings and talks held in private flats violated the official taboo on free discussions of 1956, both the interviewers and the interviewees had to be courageous to ask and answer questions concerning hot issues and to make records of these talks. The participants were fully aware of the risk of the enterprise, so they cautiously took a few preventive steps. For instance, they shattered the room, and they arrived and left the meetings one by one in order to avoid all coming under surveillance by the state security forces. As it so happens, the secret police never intervened in the meetings and talks, although it is still not clear why not. Perhaps they were not informed about them, or perhaps they had been given instructions from above not to intervene. The only traces of police operations is from a later period, when the communist security agency wanted to prevent the recordings of the roundtable talks from being smuggled out from country to the West.
The first individual interview of OHA was made with Jenő Széll, who in 1956 served as the Government Commissioner of the Hungarian Radio. This sound-recording oral history interview and its transcription (which comes to well over of 500 pages) served as an example which was followed by other interviewers later, including György Fazekas, Miklós Péterfi, Tibor Zimányi, and Árpád Göncz. These people had all been active participants in 1956, and they had similar backgrounds and were on friendly if confidential terms with one another.
In 1985, new opportunities opened up to broaden the semi-legal practice of doing interviews, which had been going on for at least half a decade, in a more conceptional way. Miklós Vásárhelyi, the ex-press officer of Imre Nagy’s revolutionary government and as of 1984 George Soros’ personal representative in his pilot Hungarian Foundation, managed to gain financial support for the interview project. This made it possible to establish the Oral History Archives with a slightly euphemistic mission statement as an interview project dedicated to uncovering the perspectives of “second-row position witnesses of the post war period” but in fact aimed at reconstructing the overall history of the Soviet system in Hungary, a new documentary project with another concept of the history of the communist era as opposed to the official “counterrevolutionary” narrative. At the same time, the new atelier of OHA attracted independent minded historians and sociologists engaged in researching the events of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, and the Archives also served as a new alternative public research space.
Additional help to make OHA a legal project was received from reform communist Iván Vitányi, a newly appointed Chief Director of the National Public Cultural Center who offered a small office site and a legal institutional framework inside the Center at Corvin Square, on the Buda side of the Hungarian capital. Vitányi was aware that the OHA was in fact a scientific atelier researching first and foremost the history of 1956, but he took the risk and was ready to provide protection for its team. It was also well-known to everyone involved that the OHA team was not simply busy doing historical interviews, but also took an active part in the organization of an illegal conference in 1986 on the 30th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution at the apartment of stalwart 56-er poet, István Eörsi, and two years later, in 1988 they were the main initiators of establishing the Committee for Historical Justice also (TIB), claiming legal and political rehabilitation for all the victims of the reprisals who were executed after 1956.
The legal institutional framework of OHA resulted in further professionalization. Apart from the close contacts of the founders Gyula Kozák and András Hegedűs B., a number of knowledgeable historians, sociologists, and journalists joined the project as interviewers, and the circles of interviewees also widened considerably. Because of this “snowball effect,” more and more people who had participated in or born witness to the events of 1956 were reached among one-time students and intellectuals, members of the workers’ councils, revolutionary politicians, and activists in the post ’56 resistance movement. In time, even some hard-liner communist apparatchiks were persuaded to share their memories for interviewers.
The researchers in the project came to understand that 1956 was part of a wider historical period, which in a broader sense began with the rise and fall of the Soviet-type communist system. They therefore enlarged the circles of interviewees with a number of people who had been prominent actors in these decades.
At the same time, the interview as methodology, the system of archival order, and the evaluation process evolved more and more. The interviews done by OHA are considered autobiographical oral history memoirs with a focal on prominent historical events and questions of social-historical relevance. For safety reasons, before 1989 a certain level of conspiratorial behavior and trust was needed in order to ensure the survival of archival documents: each transcript of the sound recordings was typed in five copies to be passed to the interviewee and the interviewer, the OHA and a special collection in the National Széchényi Library. The fifth “master copy” of all interviews was secretly stored by the founders of the Archives.
The chances for the publication of archival pieces were slim at the beginning due to the strict control exercised by the censors and the lack of finances. Still, there were a few exceptional cases even before 1989 when at least some excerpts from OHA-interviews were published in both samizdat (Beszélő /“Speaker”) and legal periodicals (Mozgó Világ / “Moving World” – Magyar Hírlap / “Hungarian Herald”), which by the eve of major political changes were slowly followed by uncensored book publications too. However, regular thematic publications of interviews and analyses of these interviews could only begin when OHA became an integral part of the newly established 1956 Research Institute in mid-1989. After that, the Yearbook of the Institute continued hosting most of the OHA documents (e.g. Molnár Adrienne. 89:56. Ötvenhatosok a rendszerváltásról.’ – ’56-ers on ’89 a representative selection of interviews published in 2009).
The 1956 Research Institute was established on 17 June 1989 with symbolic timing: one day after the solemn reburial of Imre Nagy and the revolutionary victims of 1956. The common research aims and the close work contacts made it reasonable to integrate OHA from the start into the newly established research institute. After 1990, the interview as a method in the study of recent history gained popularity along ever new research lines and subjects. All in all, the projects done by OSA in the past four decades have resulted in a collection consisting of some 1,200 oral history interviews.
The Oral History Archives (OHA) of the 1956 Research Institute, Budapest preserves today in its holdings some 1,200 historical interviews. In 1981, András Hegedűs B. and Gyula Kozák began to do interviews with prominent participants in or witnesses to the 1956 Hungarian revolution. They initiated a series of roundtable talks on 1956 which were recorded (sound recordings were made only, not video recordings) and which went on for several months in 1981–1982 with the following participants: economist and politician Ferenc Donáth, writer and translator Árpád Göncz, educator Alíz Halda, economist and sociologist András Hegedűs B., historian György Litván, engineer Imre Mécs, psychologist Ferenc Mérei, toolmaker Sándor Rácz, press historian and politician Miklós Vásárhelyi, all of whom had been participants in the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Participants also included writer and sociographer Zsolt Csalog, sociologist Gyula Kozák, and historian Miklós Szabó as interviewers. At the same time, individual life interviews also began to be made not only with one-time revolutionary activists, but also with prominent individuals of the previous period in Hungary or abroad (i.e. in the neighboring countries or in countries in the West to which they had emigrated).
Aid materials for a sociological research project on leaders ran by the Economic Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1981–1985 constitute a special group of interviews. The interviewees included people who at the time were middle-level managers in the country’s economic sphere. There were also many who previously had held important positions either as politicians or as technical and business managers following 1956. As a result of this research project, which was four years long, a total of 156 life interviews were completed under the guidance of András Hegedűs B. and Gyula Kozák. The team of interviewers was recruited mostly from among young economists who focused their inquiry mainly on leaders’ experiences of the 1968 management reforms and the subsequent trends in the state socialist economies, but they were nevertheless interested in the family backgrounds or the personal career ambitions of the interviewees.
Interviews covering someone’s whole life were preferred from the outset by OHA. The average duration of the conversations recorded by sound recorders was 8–12 hours long and took 3 or 4 sessions to be completed. Interviewers were chosen from among those who were well acquainted with the main subject matter and actors covered in the interview to be made. OHA beforehand always provides the interviewers with basic sociological as well as methodological guidelines on how to conduct the conversations. The course of questions and answers along the interview follows chronological order. It is always the discretional right of the interviewee to decide on the availability of his or her interview. (Closed to the public–researchable–free to be published, etc.) The contract is signed by all partners (the interviewee, the interviewer, and OHA) as a basic legal document which must include these conditions properly.
The structure of OHA-interviews in most cases consists of three major parts: covering biographical as well as public events before, during, and after the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Thus, the main thematics of personal memoirs include family histories, childhood histories, socialization, the early stage of one’s professional career, then–as detailed as possible–the experiences of 1956 and the post-revolutionary period up until the present day: reprisals, prison years, emigration, changes in family life, restart of professional career, 1989, etc.
In the archival holding of OHA the transcribed interviews are bound in folders of different colors: red, yellow, or green, indicating different levels of accessibility: “closed to the public”–“for research use only”–“free to be published.” The transcribed versions of the sound recordings are added by a registration page containing the most important data of the interview, a copy of the contract with the conditions of research use, and publicity together with an index of names and attachments (personal documents, photos, etc). The list of all OHA interviews with annotations is also available online.
OHA, though it did not declare this before 1989, preferred to do oral history interviews with active participants in the 1956 revolution from the outset. However, as far as the staff was concerned, 1956 was only one event—if perhaps the most decisive—in a much broader historical period which began in 1945 and ended in 1990. Therefore, in time the OHA staff wished to enlarge the circles of interviewees beyond the revolutionary actors and the victims of reprisals to include, when the chance came along, people who were or had been in power too. This resulted in a broad and complex archival holding of interviews with many different groups: the active participants in the 1956 Revolution, communist leaders and intellectuals who revolted against the Stalinist dictatorship, volunteer freedom fights, teenage boys, soldiers who sided with the revolutionaries, former members of the workers’ councils and other revolutionary bodies, local leaders, students, and intellectuals of the resistance movement, prominent writers and journalists who had remained in Hungary and who were often harrassed or who had been imprisoned for years, emigrants who had fled to the West, etc.After 1990, interviews continued to be done in OHA as a part and a special holding of the 1956 Research Institute, which pursued ever newer lines of research and increasingly varied and subtle research projects. The scope of interviewees was enlarged with new groups, such as the Transylvanian Hungarians, who, as peaceful demonstrators who had expressed their support of the 1956 revolution, suffered massive imprisonment in Romania until 1964. Another characteristic example of new research projects is the series of interviews conducted in the period between 1994and 1998 with the children of revolutionaries (“The Second Generation of ’56-ers”), which finally resulted in 43 completed oral history interviews.
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