POLITICAL USE OF ORAL HISTORY
by Dennis R. Papazian
Dr. Dennis R. Papazian is a professor of Russian history and the founder/director of the Armenian Research Center at The University of Michigan, Dearborn. Dr. Papazian was the project director of the oral history project of the Armenian Assembly of America. He currently serves also as the president of the Society for Armenian Studies.
In a sense oral history dates as far back as Herodotus and his "researches." For Herodotus, as he
wandered about his world, not only wrote down what he observed but also what he was told by
eyewitnesses, pseudo-eyewitnesses, and those who purported to have some knowledge of distant
things and places as well as of past events.
Oral history in the broader sense also encompasses the oral tradition which was maintained by
various means in pre-literate societies, particularly by elders, shamans, bards, minstrels, poets,
and troubadours. These traditions in many cases were eventually written down, such as the Iliad
and Odyssey of antiquity or the more modern case of the Koran, and have thereby become part of
our written tradition.
But what we mean by oral history today generally requires not the mere writing down of verbal
traditions or individual accounts, but rather the preservation by various sound and picture
recording technologies of the testimony of a single individual, or individuals comprising a group,
regarding the same issues or general topic. The technologies of oral recording at present include
audio tapes, generally analogue, and visual tapes, generally recorded in various formats by
television cameras, or indeed on movie film. The presumption is that these recordings are
authenticated testimony, being the actual words, inflections, and gestures of those interviewed,
and dependable evidence of an individual's testimony or deposition.
If we are concerned chiefly by the legal implications of the process, then we do have a problem
in the fact that these tapes (with the exception of motion pictures), recorded by contemporary
technology, can also be altered by unscrupulous persons by means also provided by
contemporary technology. This problem will become especially acute as oral historians adopt
binary recording technologies, to replace analog technologies. Binary technologies, as is now
generally known, provide for the complete and absolute manipulation of sounds and pictures,
which drove their development in the first place, and present the oral historian with problems of
authentication not heretofore confronted if they are used. The use of WORM (write once, read
many times) optical disk recordings, would minimize, although it does not obliterate, this
As an aside, I might say, oral historians concerned with the authentication of their product might
avoid binary technologies until, and if, techniques and tools are developed to prevent
The question of authentication is moot, of course, as long as the interviewee is alive and can
testify to the accuracy of the interview. This fact makes transcriptions and the verification of
transcriptions a more than useful technique for authentication. The purpose of oral history,
however, frequently is to record the memories of those who will soon no longer be with us, to
preserve, as it were, a legacy for posterity; as well as to provide a resource for future
investigators, writers, and historians. The transcription of such interviews, accordingly, provide
a burden of time and cost which in effect negates the oral history tradition. Transcription of
verbal testimony has for years, before the invention of modern oral history technologies, been a
standard procedure of investigators; but the new technology allows for the preservation of
information in the recorded form for further use without the necessity of transcription.
Authentication of oral history tapes is a dimension which poses a new burden over and above all
the standard problems inherent in the process. Authentication, at a minimum, requires that those
engaged in the recording of oral histories take care to keep tightly written records of the process
in order to guarantee the pedigree of their product. This system would certainly include signed
release statements of those interviewed, giving the name of the interviewee, the names of the
interviewers, date and place of the interview, a physical descriptions of media used, signed
statements by any witnesses present, and evidence of careful storage and protection of the
original tapes. It would also be important to certify the depository, to keep a record or log of
those who have access to the materials, whether or not the materials were circulated, and in
general protecting against access by non-responsible, or untrustworthy, persons.
In the Armenian Assembly project, which I headed and to which I will refer later, we made sure
that all the relevant materials were recorded right on the tape during the interview. An actual
example is the following:
"This is Helen Sahagian interviewing Mrs. Arshalous Najarian, born in Bursa circa 1904,
interviewed at her home at 47 Wendell Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 7, 1980." In
this case, a transcribed interview, the transcriber is also listed, the number of tapes, and the tape
number (the tapes were numbered serially from the first to the last, thus making missing tapes
Ideally, the oral histories would be transcribed to hard copy and authenticated by the interviewee,
as we did in a number of cases. This system, however, limits by cost and time the amount of
material that can be collected and in a sense defeats certain advantages of oral histories, that is
the presentation of testimony by sound and the ability to accumulate large archives of "oral"
material in inexpensive form.
In the binary age, even the preservation of "hard copy" presents its own problems. With modern scanners, computers, and xerographic duplicating technology, even "hard copy" can easily be manipulated. Those interested in authenticating preserved materials, written or oral, are thus confronted with almost insuperable problems. Here, again, the pedigree of the document becomes of the utmost importance and careful steps must be taken to ensure their authenticity.
Let me turn for a moment to the whole question of authentic knowledge of the past. We know from research, for example, that even ancient manuscripts, when they can be authenticated as original or verifiable copies, present us with the problem of the veracity of the sources. To take a simple example, we have the story in the Russian Primary Chronicle (The Tale of Bygone Years), a document which has for all practical purposed been authenticated, about the so-called "call" of Rurik. According to the chronicler, the "call" was made in the following way:
They accordingly went overseas to the Varangian Russes: these particular Varangians were known as Russes, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans, Angles, and Goths, for they were thus named. The Chuds, the Slavs and the Krivichians then said to the people of Rus, "Our whole land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us!"
Thus while the document is authenticated, there is a question of the veracity of the report. Did
the Slavs literally invited the Scandinavians to come and rule them or not? I do not intend to
answer that question here, but rather present it as one of literally thousands of problems that we
have in dealing with the content of written histories. Is the story correct because it is contained
in a verifiable document? The general feeling among Russian scholars, of course, is that since
the chronicler was under the protection of the Rurikeds he undoubtedly put the best light on the
origin of the dynasty he served. Such internal and external criticism is necessary when dealing
with primary documents and chronicles.
The authentication of chronicles has been traditionally to verify the material by other chronicles,
written materials, or in some cases through archeology. It is in this way -- cross verification --
that historical truth, or what we take to be historical truth, has been determined. The same can be
said of large bodies of oral history materials. If the testimony of the interviewee can be
authenticated by the testimony of other interviewees and by other dependable sources, then we
can feel comfortable that the material is authentic. Material that can be verified from a number
of disparate sources can certainly be presumed to be authentic, particularly if it has a known and
Oral history has a particular importance today inasmuch as the conventional written records, the
sources of so-called "primary materials" traditionally exploited by historians, have in recent times
become less dependable and effective as a source of accurate information. At the beginning of
the 19th century, for example, when an ambassador was sent overseas to represent his country, he
was given a set of "instructions" to follow in dealing with the foreign country. These instructions
were periodically updated by couriers from the home country and undoubtedly influenced by the
secret information sent home by the ambassador.
The instructions were inevitably frank and usually secret. Their effectiveness depended on their
being a true and coherent expression of the policy of the government which sent the ambassador
in order to direct the conduct of its agent. If the instructions were faulty, the work of the agent
was injured; so extreme care was usually warranted to make them accurate and expressive. Any
change in instructions, accordingly, needed to have the same qualities of frankness, coherence,
and confidentially. Historians, consequently, felt confident that if they were able to gain access
to governmental archives, they could discover the truth about past policies and events. Archival
research, as is well known, served us well up to the beginnings of World War II.
The advent of modern technologies of communication -- the telegraph, the radio, and the
telephone -- and of transportation -- the train, the automobile, and the aeroplane -- changed the
necessity, or at least the technique, of frank and cogent interchange between countries and their
agents. One has only to observe the American Secretary of State making his numerous travels
abroad to understand that the traditional mode of communication have fallen by the wayside. In
today's world, makers of policy are often the executors of policy; and the record of the
development of policy, or its very enunciation, may not be contained in the written record, or at
least not in conventional records.
Furthermore, the use of the telephone -- either open or encoded -- has exacerbated the problem
of documentation. So much important governmental and other business today is transacted over
the telephone, that some of the most important business of the day lacks a "paper trail." We need
but look to the case of President Richard M. Nixon and the "Watergate tapes" to drive home this
point. Were it not for the fact that White House conversations and phone calls were audio taped,
there would have been no chance of successfully prosecuting the Watergate "plumbers" or of
pressuring President Nixon to resign. There were no incriminating documents, only
The case of the Watergate tapes is also instructive of how analogue audio tapes can be altered,
and such altered tapes detected, by the then current technology. The example of Rosemary
Woods and the "twelve minute gap" should suffice to illustrate this point.
We also have the Iran-Contra exposé to illustrate the illusory quality of computer stored
information. Those in the "White House basement" who sought to obliterate information about
the issue which they had stored on electronically recorded magnetic media (hard drives or floppy
disks) in computers found it easy to erase the files and make them unrecoverable. While simply
erased computer files can be recovered, there are methods of erasing them permanently by
reformatting the storage medium or using programs which "wipe out" files. Overwriting "wiped
out" files or reformatted disks is currently a sure method to prevent recovery of files.
Furthermore, we know that hard copy files were destroyed by shredding. While some of the
shredded documents may have been recovered and reconstituted, it is highly probable that most
of the destruction went undetected. Here again, most of what we know about the Iran-Contra
controversy does not come from the documentation but rather from testimony before Congress
and the investigations of the special prosecutor. What could not be found in the records,
accordingly, was derived from oral testimony under "the rule of evidence."
Because of this change in the conduct of business, government, and foreign policy, society has
come to depend more and more on sources other than archival documentation. To know what
"really" happened, we have come to depend more and more on personal notes, diaries, and
memoirs -- both published and unpublished -- of the chief actors. Indeed, this necessity to quiz
the individuals involved, either directly or indirectly, has led to the popularity -- indeed the
necessity -- of oral histories.
Materials produced by the actors, we can readily surmise, contain broad possibilities for being
orchestrated by unscrupulous, self-serving individuals. What is needed is a way of testing such
information. Here again, as with the chronicles, the material needs to be verified by comparison
with other sources: we can presume that if the facts expressed are supported by other dependable
sources, then they are fundamentally correct.
My own experience has been as the project director of an Armenian genocide oral history project
carried out under a NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) grant through the Armenian
Assembly of America made while I was the director of the Washington offices. The grant
proposal was developed by Vigen Der Manuelian who generously assigned it to the Armenian
Assembly for revision and submission as a matching funds request. Several Armenian oral
history projects had been developed and carried out before this, including some work done by
students at UCLA, ALMA (the Armenian Library and Museum of America), the Armenian Film
Foundation, and Dr. Vazken Parsegian, of the Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute. More recently,
the Zoryan Institute, and perhaps others, have been engaged in oral history recording.
The immediate impetus for the Armenian oral history projects, as I understood them, was an
explicit concern that the survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915/16 were growing old and
would soon be dying. If no action were taken to record their memories, then vital evidence of
their experiences would be lost for ever. At that time most of us involved were also concerned
that we preserve as much information as we could of the way of life of the Armenian population
in the Ottoman Empire, especially of those who had lived in the ancestral homelands. It is only
now, on reflection, that I have come to believe that many of us were impelled by an unconscious
concern that Armenian history, our personal as well as community history, had been torn asunder
by the genocide and that when the older generation died we would be confronted with a second
and final break with ties to the homeland and memories of the past.
It has been said that every person and every nation has a right to its history. Armenians had
suffered a rupture in their history due to the genocide and now the younger generation was
confronted with another, final, rupture to follow the demise of those elders who represented
continuity with the past.
Fortunately, and unexpectedly, many of the survivors were impelled to write their memoirs, and
dozens of the them have been published in the past few years. These memoirs provide a wealth
of resource material chronicling the suffering of the survivors and their road to deliverance.
They also provide a tie between a past world and the present, a critical link in the life of a people
between the homeland and the diaspora.
There was a sense of urgency which accompanied our oral history work. We had to record as
many survivors as possible before they died and their memory of things past be lost for ever. We
also vaguely felt that the oral histories, and the transcriptions, would serve as a kind of deposition
which, if not presented to a court of law, at least would be presented to a court of international
justice. Accordingly, we were as careful as we could be in record keeping and tape preservation.
One set of tapes of the more than 400 interview is kept in the offices of the Armenian Assembly
in Washington, one copy was made and deposited in the ALMA in Watertown, MA, and one
final set was made and deposited in my personal library and archive. Approximately 100 of the
interviews, chosen on a select basis, have been transcribed and verified. The originals are in my
I will not in this paper deal with the mechanics of our process beyond saying that we made use of
the tested questionnaires and other materials developed by the ALMA, by Vigen Der Manuelian
and Bethel Charkoudian, in conjunction with professional advice from experienced practitioners
in oral history. The work represented the state of the art at the time the project was carried out.
Interviews were made all over the United States and Canada and an attempt was made to chose
persons with vivid memories and those who represented a cross section of towns, cities and
villages where Armenians lived and from which they were deported. This was an important
factor since the present Turkish government denies the Armenian genocide and then argues that
Armenians were deported only from the Russian front where it was feared they would fraternize
with the enemy. Those who have seriously studied the Armenian genocide know that the
expulsions took place all over Turkey, from the north, south, east, west, and from the central
area. In the example interview cited above, for instance, the interviewee was from Brousa, a
town only a few miles from Istanbul.
Depositions, in the Armenian Assembly project, were taken from survivors from Aiden, Brousa,
Izmit, Kastamouni, Ankara, Konia, Adana, Marash, Sevas, Trebizond, Shabin Kara Hissar,
Mamouret-el-Aziz/Harpout, Aleppo, Ourfa, Diyarbekir, Sassoun, Erzeroum, Van, Istanbul, and
the environs and villages of all these cities, as well as from survivors from north Persia and the
Russian Empire. On the face of it, on the basis of all the evidence, there is no question that the
Armenian genocide occurred all over Turkey.
Many of the survivors, although certainly not all of them, were children or villagers with little or
no education at the time of the genocide. The cited interview was made in 1980 of a woman
born ca. 1904. The woman would have been approximately eleven years old at the time of the
genocide. Most of the survivors received no further education in the United States, and generally
occupied their time with the struggle to survive while working and raising children. There is
little chance their memories were modified by later study, and so their testimony is untainted by
any after-the-fact information regarding their personal experience.
As a matter of fact, what we find is a very personal view of the events from the bottom up, so to
speak. Few of the interviewees had any impression of international politics or of Turkish
government policy at the center. Their experience, with a few notable exceptions, was with local
officials, the police, the Chetes (criminal irregulars), and roughnecks pressed into constabulary
service, and not with statesmen, power brokers, politicians, high officials, or ambassadors.
Another internal indicator of the authenticity of the testimony is the emotional catharsis which
accompanied many of the interviews. Many interviewees broke down and cried. Some said that
they could now die in peace, their story now having been recorded. Others cried and described
incidents which they had kept secret and never verbalized to anyone before. In a few cases,
woman told of being taken in by wealthy Turks or Kurds, of having children, and of then
escaping with the coming of the Allies. "My child is still in Turkey," one lamented, "what has
become of my beautiful child? Where is he, and what is he doing? Does he remember his poor
mother, his young teenage mother?" It is highly unlikely that such testimony given under great
emotional strain could be affected or contrived.
Another internal indicator of the authenticity of the testimony is the fact that almost inevitably
the interviewees expressed an inordinate hatred for all Turks and then would go on to tell how
their escape was arranged by a Turkish family which hid and succored them and then helped
them to flee. This expression of hatred for all Turks and then the remembrance of the good Turk
who helped them to escape is an inconsistency of judgment which would not be present in
contrived testimony, but would rather reflect the true emotional state of the interviewees and the
hierarchal quality of their memory.
Another indicator is the fact that almost all of the interviewees saw their experience not only in
the past in time but seemingly also in space. "Armenia", meaning that portion of the traditional
homeland which had been in the Ottoman Empire, was not a contemporary place but somewhere
back in time. "I don't want to go back there, I like it here with all the modern conveniences.
What's back there for me? Life was not easy like here?" Little thought was given to the fact that
America back in 1915 was hardly the place it was in 1980; yet for the interviewees, to go back to
Armenia was to go back to 1915. The testimony, for the most part, then was not motivated by
current politics or a desire to demand lands back from the Turks. Various demands may be on
the agenda of some second and third generation Armenians, but it was hardly on the minds of the
interviewed survivors themselves.
Finally, the past seemed to be idealized by the interviewees. The land was richer in the old
country, the fruit bigger and more tasty, the friendships closer, the people more moral, life easier,
and even the old Turkish neighbors friendly. The psychological mechanism, as we all know, is
one of assertion of the values of the interviewee by his looking at the past as what it should have
been rather than as it nakedly was. Furthermore, they are following their natural inclination to
idealize their youth as well as reflecting the reality that children rarely see or understand the
problems faced by the adult community. It is clear that survivors would hardly have idealized
their past in Turkey if they were falsifying their testimony.
So what kind of evidence they do these oral histories provide? They provide the kind of
evidence typical of oral histories, the personal experience and the personal point of view.
Numerous books and studies have been made regarding memory, particularly the memory of past
events. The limitations of long-term memory are well recognized, yet it is also understood that
trauma, or traumatic events tend to be burnt into the memory or repressed altogether. So while
we should be well aware of the parameters of memory characteristics, we can safely say that
those basic events and fundamental feelings reported can be trusted, although not in all detail,
and that the interpretation of events reflects not only objective reality but also in part the
personality and psyche of the interviewee. In these stories we get a variety of detail, but in all
essentials the details reflect the image found in other interviews of the same time and place; and
the overall picture which emerges is one that reflects the larger story which has already been well
established by contemporary adult eyewitnesses and observers who earlier reported on those
same general events.
One of the major collections of contemporary eyewitness reports, the collection
made by Arnold Toynbee, is often not given the weight it deserves. This work
is attributed to Lord Bryce, an eminent historian in his own right, and destined
for Viscount Grey of Fallodon, the then foreign minister of the British Empire,(1)
is divided into sections, eg., general descriptions, and then the vilayets of
Van, Bitlis, Azerbaijan and Hakkiari, the Caucasus, Erzeroum, Mamouret-ul-Aziz,
Trebizond, the Sandjak of Shabin Kara-Hissar, Sivas, Kaisaria, Angora, Thrace,
Constantinople, Brousa and Ismid, the Anatolian railway, Cilicia (Adana and
Marash), Mussa Dagh, Ourfa, Aleppo, and Der-el-Zor. These contemporary reports
in this book confirm in all major detail the stories recorded on the oral history
Furthermore, there are thousands of official documents of all the European
powers, including evidence of eyewitnesses and government officials, that can
be found in government archives, as well as published and unpublished, books,
articles, and letters.(2)
Visual oral histories have been put to good use thus far by Dr. J. Michael Hagopian of the Armenian Film Foundation in a series of films which have been widely distributed amid high acclaim. I know of no other use that has currently been made of Armenian oral history tapes. What needs to be done, of course, is to make use of excerpts from the tapes in books and articles currently being written about the Armenian genocide. Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, for example, used tapes of Americans who had been in the harbor of Smyrna during the burning of the city when she wrote her book.(3)
Furthermore, it would be important to publish extensive works
based on the oral histories themselves. Such systematic use of the tapes is long overdue and
As far as legal action is concerned, there is little question that the tapes,
if properly verified, could be a part of a general indictment for legal action.
Such legal action, which would be time consuming and expensive, may indeed be
the next step. In any case, any tool for the discovery of historical truth has
political implications if the issue is that of an unresolved crime, such as
the Armenian genocide.
Return to Selected writings
SOME BOOKS ON ORAL HISTORY
Allen, Barbara, From memory to history: using oral sources in local historical research,
Nashville, Tenn.: American Association for State and Local History, c1981.
Baum, Willa K., Oral history for the local historical society, Nashville, Tenn.: American
Association for State and Local History, 1975.
Transcribing and editing oral history, Nashville, Tenn.: American Association for State and
Local History, c1977.
Dexter, Lewis Anthony, Elite and specialized interviewing, Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern
University Press, 1970.
Hoopes, James, Oral history: an introduction for students, Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, c 1979.
Montell, William Lynwood, The saga of Coe Ridge: a study in oral history, Knoxville, Tenn.:
University of Tennessee Press, 1970.
Olch, Peter D., Selections from the fifth and sixth National Colloquia on Oral History, New
York: Oral History Association, 1972.
Shumway, Gary L., An oral history primer, Salt Lake City: G. L. Shumway, c1973.
Sitton, Thad., Oral history: a guide for teachers and others, Austin: University of Texas Press,
Thompson, Paul Richard, The voice of the past: oral history, Oxford, [Eng.] New York: Oxford
University Press, 1978.
SOME BOOKS ON THE ARMENIANS AND THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE
Ambassador Morgenthau's Story, by Henry Morgenthau, New York: Doubleday,
Page & Co., 1918.
Armenia: Survival of a Nation, by Christopher Walker, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2nd
Facing History and Ourselves; Holocaust and Human Behavior, by Margot Stern and William
Parsons, Watertown: International Educations, 1982.
Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century, by Leo Kuper, New York: Penguin
Hitler and the Armenian Genocide, by Kevork Bardakjian, Cambridge: Zorian Institute, 1985.
Neither to Laugh Nor to Weep: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, by Abraham Hartunian,
Cambridge: Armenian Heritage Press, 2nd edition, 1986.
Passage to Ararat, by Michael Arlen, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
Smyrna 1922: Destruction of a City, by Marjorie Housepian Dobkin,
New York: Kent State University Press, 1988.
The Armenian Genocide and America's Outcry: A Compilation of U.S. Documents, 1890-1923,
Armenian Assembly of America, Washington, DC, 1985.
The Armenian Genocide in Perspective, Richard G. Hovannisian, editor, New Brunswick:
Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 1986.
The Armenian Genocide - News Accounts from the American Press: 1915-1922, by Richard D.
Kloian, Berkeley: Anto Printing, 1985.
The Armenian Holocaust: A Bibliography Relating to the Deportations, Massacres, and Dispersion of the Armenian People, 1915-1923, by Richard G. Hovannisian, Cambridge: Armenian Heritage Press, 2nd revised printing, 1980.
The Blight of Asia, by George Horton, Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1926.
"The Genocide of the Armenian People," Armenian Review (A Special Issue), Spring, 1984, Volume 37, No. 1, Boston: Armenian Review, Inc.
The Lions of Marash: Personal Experiences with American Near East Relief, by Stanley Kerr, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1973.
"The Role of Turkish Physicians in the World War One Genocide of the Ottoman Armenians," by Vahakn Dadrian, reprinted from Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume I, No. 2, New York: Pergamon Press, 1986.
The Slaughterhouse Province: An American Diplomat's Report on the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917, by Leslie A. Davis, New York: Aristide D. Caratzas, 1989.
The Treatment of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-1916, by Viscount Bryce, London: His Majesty's Publishers, 1916.
1. The Treatment of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-1916, by Viscount Bryce, London: His Majesty's Publishers, 1916.
Back to text
2. Richard G. Hovannisian, ed., The Armenian Holocaust: A Bibliography Relating to the Deportations, Massacres, and Dispersion of the Armenian People, 1915-1923, Cambridge: Armenian Heritage Press, 2nd revised printing, 1980.
Back to text
3. Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, Smyrna 1922: Destruction of a City, New York: Kent State University Press, 1988.
Back to text
Return to Selected writings