Volume 27-28 (2007-2008)
Oral History in the World

The Development of Theory and Method in Czech Oral History After 1989

Miroslav Vanêk
Oral History Centre, Institute for Contemporary History, Academy of Sciences
Published October 21, 2008


This paper deals with specific features in the development of oral history theory and practice after the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia. Immediately after the November revolution in 1989 a small group of Czech historians found it necessary to apply oral history (OH) methods to research current events as well as the history of the last 20 years (since the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968). We had to start from the ground up, with almost no experience with OH methods or western literature from this field. With help from abroad we worked up our first OH research project about the role of Czech students in the “Velvet Revolution.” Even after the Oral History Center (OHC) at the Institute for Contemporary History (ICH) in Prague was established, we encountered serious problems: some Czech historians (“old” not by their age but their way of thinking) expressed their doubts about the reliability and validity of OH methods, even if official archival material were absent or subsidiary to the Communist regime. Moreover, we found that not all the practices of Western oral history were in accord with specific features of Czech contemporary history. We could not pay attention to social, ethnic or minorities subjects, but to the main poles of Czech society – Communist functionaries and dissidents. 120 interviews with members of both groups are currently archived at the OHC. Simultaneously we have interpreted these interviews (trying to avoid generalizations and keeping in mind social context of individual lives) and prepared a research sample for our present project – more than one hundred interviews with Czech workers. In close contact with the latest literature (von Plato, Portelli) we also take into consideration some new methodological approaches like confronting the narrator. The paper also deals with one of the most important problems in this field: investigative journalism. The mp3 file is an audio recording of the presentation. It is 5.3 MB big.