Franka Maubah, History witness. Free recall versus historical source criticism – the ambivalence of the method of West German oral history about 1980.

Only recently has the contemporary witness become the subject of academic study. The emerging scholarship views this figure as belonging to a specific historical period, namely the post-Holocaust era. Today, the narrations of the contemporary witness are commonly understood as constructs, as stories developed synchronously in the course of the interview. The article takes a closer look at the formative period of the German Oral History studies around 1980, a field deeply informed by post-dictatorial sensibilities. It locates the figure of the contemporary witness, the interviewer and the interview methods employed within the historical context in which they emerged. Moreover, if we consider other Oral History approaches developed elsewhere and compare the German approach to Fritz Schütze’s narrative interview method for the social sciences, it can be identified as a genuinely historical, diachronically operating approach. By letting the interviewees talk about their memories uninterrupted, they were encouraged to reflect on their lives as a whole. A the same time, pioneers of the field such as Lutz Niethammer and Alexander von Plato developed ways to verify the narrations’ plausibility and thus to evaluate the reliability of the interview as historical source. This combination of empathy and skepticism, of unconditional interest in a person’s full life-story and its critical verification became the hallmark of German oral history studies, not least because emerged in a post-dictatorial society. Rather than studying memories as mere constructions of the past, they developed a methodology aimed at enabling historians to get access to the actual past experiences which they believed are contained in the retrospective testimonies of individual human beings.