Oral Histories get below the Official Story

Peter MonteathIn the latest issue of The Oral History Review, 35(2), an essay by Peter Monteath (pictured right) examines the contributions to be made by oral histories. In this case, he uses the method to better understand the experiences of those categorized by the Nazis as “mixed race” (der Mischlinge).

It argues that oral history provides an invaluable supplement to the written, official record. The latter is by its nature a view “from above” and from the perpetrators; it generally excludes the perspective of the victims of Nazi racial policy. Moreover, as an overview of the treatment of Mischlinge demonstrates, there were stark discrepancies between policy and practice which are difficult to comprehend on the basis of the written record alone, but which are well exemplified through a study of individual experiences. The paper uses several examples of such experiences collected from three separate video testimony repositories to analyze the nature of those experiences, detecting discrepancies between official policy and practice and observing the considerable variations in the nature and harshness of those experiences. Finally, the oral history record is found to be invaluable in tracing some of the longer-term consequences of the Third Reich for surviving Mischlinge, especially in terms of their constructions of identity and the ways in which, for the period after the Second World War, they dealt with the ascribed identities which had so heavily impacted them in their early years.

Monteath’s essay provides important insights into the value of oral histories for “getting below” the official narrative. Indeed, it is clear from his discussion that the method would be most effective when re-examining contexts where power imbalances might have skewed the reported history. (If you know of other exemplary uses of the oral history method, please add them as resources below.)

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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