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Talking to History

Laurence Rees, whose work as a TV historian has brought him face to face with many people involved in mass killings, discusses the opportunities and dangers of oral history.

'I’ve got good news and bad news,’ a junior researcher said as he walked into my office some years ago. ‘The good news is that the former Gestapo man we found has finally agreed to give us an interview.’

‘Excellent,’ I said, knowing how important his testimony would be to the documentary series we were making. ‘And the bad news?’

‘The bad news is that he wants to be paid £1,000 in order to take part.’

‘You know we don’t get people to take part in these films by paying money!’ I exclaimed.

‘I know,’ he sighed. ‘But it’s what he said.’

The researcher went back to have one final conversation with our potential interviewee. ‘Well, it’s still a real problem,’ he said when he returned. ‘He says he’ll drop the fee to £500, but for that he’ll just say he was present when people were tortured under interrogation. Only for the full £1,000 will he admit he tortured people himself.’

You’ll not be surprised to hear, I hope, that we ceased any contact with this potential interviewee there and then.

I mention this story because it illustrates just one of the many problems that any historical programme-maker (and indeed any academic historian) faces when dealing with oral testimony. It’s an area of history that I have wrestled with for more than twenty years, both in the course of making a number of television documentary series (like Nazis: A Warning from History; and Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’ ) and in writing history books about the Second World War.

On Thursday, September 20th at the National Film Theatre I’ll be talking about the challenges of this kind of work, at the invitation of the Grierson Trust and History Today. The talk coincides with the publication of my latest book Their Darkest Hour which contains a series of essays about the thirty-five most extraordinary people I’ve met who participated in the war.

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