ABOUT THE ARCHIVE
THE STAFF OF THE ORAL HISTORY ARCHIVE
THE FORMER CHIEFS OF OHA:
Postal address: Budapest VII, Dohány u. 74, H–1074, Hungary.
Phone + 36 1 322 4036. Fax: + 36 1 322 3084.
Research service: Monday and Thursday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
THE HISTORY AND WORK OF THE ORAL HISTORY ARCHIVE
THE BEGINNINGS: THE ROUND-TABLE DISCUSSION AND THE SURVEY OF LEADERS
The Oral History Archive (OHA) attached to the 1956 Institute in Budapest has been preserving and processing the recollections of more than a thousand witnesses. Its scholarly roots go back to the turn of the 1970s and 1980s. It became clear to many people at this time that personal testimony from those who had lived and suffered through the period formed the only available source for researching the history of Hungary’s communist period, including the 1956 revolution. There was no sign at that time of the archives eventually being opened, so that historians could also research traditional sources. In 1981, András B. Hegedűs and Gyula Kozák set about interviewing people who had played an important part in the revolution.
It was already evident that it would not be enough simply to cover in the interviews the historical events, events associated with them, and reflections on these. Only in the context of each subject’s entire life story would it become apparent why they had acted in specific ways and taken specific decisions at specific historical junctures. The inability to research the documentary sources joined with the desire to search for deeper connections in prompting the researchers to make interviews of sociological exactitude that also explored the motives and background information lying behind the subjects’ lives.
Working under semi-illegal conditions, the OHA augmented the statements of individuals with a group interview with several participants in the revolution. The purpose of this series of discussions, held over several months and recorded on a tape recorder, was for the participants to piece together the history of the revolution as they knew and had experienced it, monitoring and augmenting each other’s statements. Thereby they would offset the official, falsified historical account, in which the facts had been subjected to reinterpretation.
The following active participants in the revolution participated in the round-table discussions: Ferenc Donáth, economist and politician; Árpád Göncz, writer and translator; Aliz Halda, teacher; András B. Hegedűs, economist and sociologist; György Litván, historian; Imre Mécs, engineer; Ferenc Mérei, psychologist, Sándor Rácz, toolmaker; and Miklós Vásárhelyi, press historian and politician. The questions were put by Zsolt Csalog, writer; Gyula Kozák, sociologist; and Miklós Szabó, historian. The round-table discussions form a document of outstanding value. It is authentic both as a summary and as an assessment of the history of the revolution, since those who spoke were professional politicians, political scientists and historians. In other words, this was not just an assessment ‘from below’, by participants, but a scholarly, politically credible analysis as well.
The other, this time institutional antecedent of the OHA was a survey of leaders undertaken at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Economics in 1981–85, as part of an empirical programme of research entitled ‘The Organizational System of Our Economy’. The careers, opinions, attitudes and activities of the numerous subjects, who had all filled leading technical, managerial or political positions ever since or for long periods since 1956, were typical of leaders in the Kádár period. All the respondents filled high or middle-ranking functions in the economy at the time of interview, from a chief engineer or manager of an enterprise to a minister. Altogether 155 full lifetime interviews were conducted during the research. These provide insight into movements, formal and informal criteria of selection, political and economic views, and the political, personal and economic bargaining that lay behind decision-making in the Kádár period, in the economy and to a lesser extent in the political arena. Of course, it was clear to the researchers that no descriptive economic, social and political history of the period could be based solely on such interviews. However, the opposite also applied: only a biased, distorted picture could be obtained by relying solely on the traditional, documentary sources. The lifetime interviews conducted at that time provided the basis for the OHA, which was founded in 1985.
THE SECOND FIVE YEARS: 1985–1990
The Oral History Archive was officially established in the autumn of 1985, with the support of the Soros Foundation, as part of the Cultural Research Institute of the National Public Education Centre. Its activity was defined as with lifetime interviews conducted with those who had played or were still playing a role in the ‘second rank’ of history. This provided a framework, within which interviews could be made with anyone who had taken part in important events, initiated them or witnessed them. This self-definition also seemed to be the most apolitical, covering alike 56-ers, party leaders of the 1945–48 years and members of the economic, political and cultural elites of the Rákosi and Kádár periods.
Although it was not explicitly stated, participants in the 1956 revolution were seen as one of the main targets when the OHA was founded. Moreover, the 1956 revolution was interpreted as part of a historical process commencing in 1945. The criterion, when selecting subjects for interview, was that they and their lives should be represent Hungarian history after 1945 (not statistically, of course, but in a qualitative sense). It was also intended that the voices of the ‘other side’ should be heard, of those who had participating in defeating the revolution and directed the reprisals. Many of the second and third-ranking political leaders of the Rákosi period came to play important political roles in the Kádár period. Others of them were active in the middle and upper ranks in the economic and cultural fields. Some former officers of the ÁVH (secret police) fulfilled functions in foreign trade, the co-operatives, the cultural sphere and the trade unions. Some of these were encountered during the leader survey and others only in retirement, after 1985.
Clearly, the higher the position subjects had occupied, the more important the information they could provide, and the likelier they were to try to conceal that information, since volunteering it meant addressing the negative historical role they had played. Despite such constraints, the interviews are interesting, because they provided hitherto unknown facts and opinions on very many questions of detail (such as the formation of a life strategy, personal motives, value judgements etc.) Some ÁVH officers were successfully interviewed, although such people were less inclined to speak up. At least as important as interviewing the active participants in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was to meet the victims and persecuted of the period, who had been jailed, deported, robbed of their livelihood or marginalized.
The next group of interviewees included prominent members of the political parties in the brief period of coalition government after 1945. We were lucky in this respect. Despite the ordeals they underwent in the 1950s, in prisons and labour camps, it proved possible to talk to many key figures in the parties of the 1945–48 period. When history took an unexpected turn and the communist system fell, many such respondents became politically reactivated, despite their advanced years, so that several further events occurred in their active lives, which they had begun to think of as over. Several of them became members of Parliament or took leading positions in their re-established parties, for instance Dezső Futó, Sándor Keresztes, Tivadar Pártay, András Révész and Vince Vörös.
At the centre of the OHA’s collecting work stand the decisive figures among the participants, victims and shapers of the revolution. They include the communists who turned against the system, stood by Imre Nagy after 1953, and then took part in the revolution and the preparations for it. It includes the ‘Pest lads’ who spontaneously joined the uprising, of which many also took part in the armed resistance after November 4. It includes leaders and members of the workers’ councils, revolutionary committees and other local self-management organizations. Then there are the members of the armed forces, above all the officers of the Hungarian People’s Army who came over to the revolution. Also targeted were the leaders of the political parties reconstituted during the days of the revolution, the representatives of the intellectual opposition, the editors, writers and distributors of the various illegal papers, and representatives of the many organizations formed among the intelligentsia. One distinct group consists of the emigrés, above all those who fled abroad from the post-revolution reprisals, but several emigrés of the Rákosi period were also interviewed. Another big group of subjects consists of people whose destinies, careers and experiences were thought worth preserving as such. They include prominent scholars and scientists, artists and performers, writers, architects, clerics, doctors, newspaper editors and university professors, who exerted a strong influence in their fields or on the country’s history as a whole.