Collection of Historical Interviews at the National Széchényi Library
Budapest Szent György tér 4-5-6., Hungary 1014
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Name of collection
- Collection of Historical Interviews, National Széchényi Library
Provenance and cultural activities
The Collection of Historical Interviews (CHI) is responsible for multiple tasks: 1) it contains the legal deposit copies of every film, electronic document, or video produced or sold in Hungary, regardless of circulation; 2) it maintains the Hungarian film collection of the Foundation for the Promotion of the Hungarian Motion Picture Treasure; 3) it contains records and written documents made by the Hungarian department of Radio Free Europe; 4) it records, digitizes, and registers the broadcast streams of five Hungarian national television channels; 5) it archives a copy of the records of the plenary sessions of the Hungarian parliament; 6) and it contains one of the largest oral history collections in Hungary.
The historical interview collection is the original core of the CHI. It includes exclusively motion picture records, some of which can be consulted in transcriptions. These materials include both life story interviews and shorter talks about a particular issue which often served as raw material for TV programs and documentaries. The first records were made in the 1960s, when historical documentaries and portrait films became popular in Hungary. The history of CHI was interwoven with the “golden age” of television, because the idea of archiving was raised during the production of TV programs, such as “Our Century.”
Péter Bokor’s series entitled “Our Century” began in 1963 and was broadcasted up until 1989, with a forced break in the 1970s. It was supported by historian György Ránki, who was one of the most influential academics in the Humanities in Hungary at the time. Gábor Hanák, who later became Bokor’s co-creator in the series, joined the crew at an early stage, when he was an undergraduate. “Our Century” quickly became very popular: the episodes were discussed at public meetings which were organized all over the country. Both of members of the intelligentsia and members of the wider strata of society met to talk about the episodes. These events ensured a forum for discussion of quasi-political issues about which people were not permitted to speak in the limited and supervised public sphere. The TV program was popular in part because it dealt with topics from the recent past which had been suppressed and not talked about, or only in a very schematic way. Furthermore, “Our Century” gave voices to historical agents and eyewitnesses who did not represent the viewpoint of official narratives of history, including sometimes people who were known as (former) enemies of the state. Of course, only small excerpts from the interviews were included in the documentary series, but Bokor and Hanák realized that these recordings were very valuable documents which would be worth preserving for posterity. This had not been an issue until that point: program creators did not pay attention to the raw material, so significant amounts of material were lost during and after the cutting process. Bokor and Hanák therefore started to collect these recordings, and they initiated a practice which gradually spread in the profession, especially as of the early 1970s. From that time on, more and more filmmakers tried to preserve all the entire raw material they recorded. A large part of these materials was brought to the Hungarian Film Institute. Film historian Vera Gyürey, who was an employee and later leader of the Institute, transferred a lot of these materials to CHI beginning in 1985.
The idea of doing oral history interviews systematically, and not only for the TV programs, was raised in the late 1960s, when Bokor and Hanák were shooting the documentaries. At that time, however, this vision could not be made a reality because it would have been a very expensive undertaking. At the time, film rolls were used with which one could only make short recordings and which were also very expensive. Even when 16mm film came in, which was more affordable than the 35mm variant, it still was not possible to implement this vision. 16mm film permitted filmmakers to do interviews for historical documentaries, but it was still way too expensive for oral history for purely documentary purposes. The rolls had to be changed every ten minutes, which meant that the conversations were interrupted again and again. Furthermore, interview recordings were considered a suspicious practice by politicians: even in the 1980s, it took effort to persuade representatives of the party that the practice of doing interviews was not motivated by politically subversive aims. In the first half of the 1980s, however, Hanák was encouraged by Bokor to take the preparatory steps necessary to establish a collection.
The work of creating a collection began at the television studio, but Hanák did not reveal that the aim of archiving was to save interviews for future generations. Had he done so, he would not have gotten official support, and he probably would have awoken the suspicions of the Party. Instead, Hanák suggested to the directorate of Hungarian television that he collect raw materials for future TV programs. 1983, however, was a turning point in the history of the collection. A scandal emerged concerning Sándor Sára’s documentary entitled “Chronicle,” to which Hanák contributed as a dramaturg. This twenty-five-episode series is about the Second Hungarian Army, which was decimated during fighting along the bank of the Don River in World War II. Sára did interviews with many survivors. After a few episodes were screened, politicians intervened and the screenings were brought to a halt. The question remained, however, what to do with the interviews, which lasted more than one hundred hours in total. The manner in which programs were produced for Hungarian television, the lack of official support for the preservation of materials in a systematic manner, and insufficient storage capacity led Hanák and Bokor take a decisive step. Via various channels, they officially initiated the establishment of a “National Videotheque,” as they called it at the time.
Eventually, the Coordination Council for Unearthing, Registering, and Publishing Cultural and Historical Relics, chaired by literary historian Tibor Klaniczay, offered 30,000 Hungarian Forints. This sum, which was hardly enough to start to do interviews, had symbolic significance: the idea of the National Videotheque gained legitimacy. The Hungarian Historical Society and historians Gyula Juhász, Domokos Kosáry and, in particular, György Ránki also backed the initiative. The next key development came when historian Gyula Juhász, the leader of the Research Group for Hungarian Studies at the National Széchényi Library, adopted the project as an independent program in 1985. The collection, thus, acquired a solid institutional basis, and it was renamed Collection of Historical Interviews.
The CHI considered the collection of records its most urgent task, as well as the search for eyewitnesses with whom to do new interviews. Registration of the materials appeared to be secondary. As a first step, a list of optional interviewees was made: people who were well-known, were closely related to significant historical events, and had followed the processes closely were put on the list. In Bokor’s view, both the protagonists of the events and people who had only been close observers were to be interviewed, since in his assessment observers can often give more reliable information than the main actors, and many times they have unusual perspectives on the events. According to the history of the collection outlined on the CHI web page, Hanák and his colleagues had to treat this list of interviewees with the greatest discretion, because if it were to be discovered, they might well face face “serious consequences.”
Initially, the lack of technical equipment, which was expensive, constituted a major obstacle to work. In 1986, CHI managed to furnish a studio with the support of the Soros Foundation, and indeed this studio is still in use today, equipped just as it was more than three decades ago, since there have been hardly any opportunities to modernize equipment and purchase new devices. The launch of the CHI was conditioned by a crucial technical improvement: film was replaced by video, U-matic and Beta cassette, specifically. However, these formats were not cheap either, but they allowed for the production of one-hour-long uninterrupted recordings. Nowadays, one of the most serious problems the collection faces is that these recordings will not accessible anymore. Cassettes are an enduring form of archiving, but soon there will be no equipment with which to play them.
The technical development of the film industry significantly influenced the opportunities for conducting interviews. In the early Kádár-era, items from abroad were under embargo. The economic reform of 1968 eased the limits on foreign currency spending in the film industry, and as a consequence, equipment could be purchased, but modern technology remained fairly expensive. The purchase of cameras and additional devices was slow and difficult, and the technical lag in comparison with Western Europe remained. In roughly 1970, given the technical and financial conditions, it was only possible to use black and white 16mm cameras, which were already widely used in Western Europe and the USA soon after World War II. For interviews, this handheld camera, with which it was easy to record voice, proved the most suitable. As a result, the production costs and the cost of the technical apparatus decreased, and the process of shooting became more spontaneous and faster. However, it was not possible to record more than 10 minutes with one roll. Thus, in comparison with the earlier technologies, this constituted an improvement, but discussions still had to be interrupted regularly. Only in the 1980s did the use of video techniques which made it possible to record long, uninterrupted interviews begin to spread.
Real interviewing at CHI started in 1987. The number of names on the aforementioned list of interviewees grew. Often, new names emerged in the course of discussions, and contacts were made via interviewees. Of course, many of the interviewees were initially distrustful. This is a common phenomenon, observable in all ages, but it was particularly true under the Kádár regime. Interviewees had to be won over. Speakers were given guarantees that their stories would not be available to the public without their permission or with their consent. As a result, the collection was not publicized, and the management did not allow researchers to consult the holdings. In their assessment, the work of enlarging and enriching the collection was more important than allowing the materials to shape historiography through critical reading by researchers. This method seemed a justifiable defence strategy in the 1980s, because the materials dealt with twentieth-century events and topics which were suppressed as taboos in the official narratives of history and public discourse. The interviewers were given opportunities to talk to people who had been marginalized by the regime (for example, people who had participated actively in the 1956 Revolution) and members of subaltern social groups (for instance, members of the Roma minority). Collecting materials and holding interviews remained the primary task after the regime change as well, though today the collection endeavours to make the materials more available to researchers.
After 1989, the situation of CHI consolidated thanks to the establishment of the Foundation for the Promotion of the Hungarian Motion Picture Treasure in 1991 by the Hungarian Foreign Trade Bank, the National Széchényi Library, the Hungarian National Film Archive, and Hungarian Television. The Hungarian Foreign Trade Bank provided the financial basis. It is the most substantial supporter of the collection today: the physical space and the personnel are provided by the Library, and the technical support is given by the foundation.
Interviewing is an ongoing activity today, but it depends on the available financial resources. An average of twenty-thirty interviews are done a year. This number is usually higher in years in which there are important historical anniversaries and commemorations: while involvement in commemorative events usually comes with an influx of extra funds, which facilitate the maintenance of the Collection, it also places restrictions on the practice of interviewing, since the interviews must be related to the events commemorated, and with a limited number of employees, it is not possible to cover a greater variety of topics.
The collection of Radio Free Europe (RFE) was added to the library in autumn 2001. The library has “an eternal and non-transferable right” to archive materials of the Hungarian department of RFE, and it placed part of the collection at the CHI. The Free Europe Committee was registered in New York in 1949. The same year, its radio station was established, which broadcasted Hungarian language programs as a contribution by the Hungarian department. The collection of RFE was divided among the various departments of the library, depending on the format of the materials: microfilms went to the Microfilm and Photo Collection, written documents to the Manuscript Collection, and sound recordings to the CHI. One finds among these materials RFE broadcast recordings from the time of 1956 Revolution. The tapes were first brought to the Federal Republic of Germany at the request of chancellor Konrad Adenauer after the Revolution to determine whether or not the records included a call for armed resistance. The 311 pieces of 90 minutes tapes were then transferred to the Bundesarchive in Koblenz and, finally, via Prague to the Hungarian Library in 2001.
The Mikes Kelemen Program, which was established by the Hungarian Diaspora Council, also facilitates the enlargement of the collection. The Program was launched as a joint organisational effort by the State Secretariat for National Policy and the Library in January 2014. Its aim is to transport the diaspora’s material heritage to Hungary. Assistant research fellows look for sources on the émigré communities abroad. Collecting points were established in seven overseas countries (Canada, USA, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Australia), to which the members of the local Hungarian community can submit their smaller or larger private collections. In addition to collecting books and documents, they also do interviews. Within the framework of the program, 150 interviews have been done so far, but only one is a video interview, while the others are digitized voice recordings. We cannot give the names of the people who were interviewed. They range from 30 to 90 minutes in length.The growing collection of the Foundation for the Promotion of the Hungarian Motion Picture Treasure is also placed in the CHI, but it is not directly connected to the opposition movement. There are some 10,000 VHS recordings and more than 12,000 DVDs in the collection, and the legal deposit copies are brought here as well. At the moment, there is no online catalogue of the oral history interviews, but this part of the collection and the Radio Free Europe collection and the Hungarian Newsreel collection can be searched online.
Description of content
The Collection of Historical Interviews represented an alternative historical memory to the official discourse through the stories recounted by eyewitnesses and historical agents in the interviews. These personal life stories and testimonies are reminiscences of historical events which were distorted, suppressed, tabooed, and politicized by the regime (and by subsequent political actors).
The video interview collection grew out of various sources. It includes full life-story interviews done specifically as oral history, and shorter or longer interviews which served as raw material for documentaries. The collection contains some 1,300 interviews. They vary in length, from one hour to fifty. Life-story interviews comprise two thirds of the collection. Many of them have already been digitized, while other recordings are available in their original form (on U-matic, Beta-cassettes). Approximately 250 interviews were recorded with a digital camera. The digitization process is increasingly pressing, since the record player equipment is aging. It is expensive and sometimes impossible to replace individual components, since the equipment used has not been in production for decades. Currently, roughly 30 percent of the interviews are available in digital form. There is a serious need of digital storage capacity: only half of the digitized interviews are on the server. The other half has to be stored on DVDs. Almost all interviews have been transcribed, and 75 percent of the transcriptions are available in digitized form. Videos and old transcripts are continuously being digitized and transcribed.
The films produced in the workshop of Péter Bokor, Gábor Hanák, and the “Our Century” TV-series constitute a significant part of the collection. Bokor did interviews with important actors in the events of World War II, for example Ilona Edelsheim-Gyulai (István Horthy’s widow), various army officers, Alfred Trenker (former commandant of the Gestapo in Budapest), Wilhelm Höttl (head of the SS in Hungary), Albert Speer (Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production), and Franz Novak (member of the Eichmann-Kommando). With many of these people, Bokor did the first TV conversation. He did more than three hundred interviews for his TV documentaries. However, it was forbidden to record interviews with some of the prominent historical figures, for example, the former communist leader Pál Demény, chief commander of the National Guard during the 1956 revolution and prominent emigré Béla Király, Júlia Rajk (widow of martyr communist László Rajk), or former head of the political police Gábor Péter. Bokor, however, recorded discussions with them, disregarding the instructions coming from the Party.The raw materials of the aforementioned Chronicle TV series by Sándor Sára were not preserved. However, researchers can study Sára’s other recordings, i.e. the interviews which were done for the three-part 1992 documentary entitled “Hungarian Women in the Gulag” (more than three hundred hours of material) and the recordings made during the shooting of the 1987 series entitled “The Road Cries In Front of Me” about the Hungarian-speaker Székely community in Bucovina (more than two hundred hours of material).
- video recordings (including oral history recordings): 1000-
Geographical scope of recent operation
Date of founding
Place of founding
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Important events in the history of the collection
- parts are closed to the public
Author(s) of this page
- Huhák, Heléna
- Scheibner, Tamás
Lukács, Bea, interview by Scheibner, Tamás, Huhák, Heléna, July 12, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection