The problem with memories
After many decades, how much should historians listen to those who were there?
IT SEEMS that not a week goes by without my wife looking up from her newspaper to inform me that another prisoner of war connected to the Great Escape has died. The most recent example is the late Vyvyan Howard, who has passed away at the age of 102, and who helped to provide security and distraction for both the Great Escape and the Wooden Horse escape.
Whenever I hear about these fine old chaps dying, I usually feel a sense of regret that I never interviewed them for my book, The Real Great Escape. What gems had I missed? Would Mr Howard have told me something that would have changed the entire way we look at the breakout? Or, at the very least, might he have provided me with some colour, or a nice description of what it was like to receive an earful from the German commandant? I then feel guilty, and worry that I have not been enough of a conscientious researcher.
However, after the moments of self-chastisement, I reflect on how much value can really be gained from interviewing people nearly eight decades after an event.
Over the course of my journalistic and historical career, I have had the privilege of speaking to many elderly people, especially for my book Berlin Games, for which I interviewed in 2004 and 2005 at least twenty men and women who had participated in the 1936 Olympics. At one point, I flew to Zurich for the day to interview João Havelange, who had competed as a swimmer, and even made it as far as Seattle to speak to the American skier Link Washburn. I also spoke to the gold medal-winning skater Maxi Herber on her death bed in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany, who told me how she remembered meeting Adolf Hitler.
At the time, I felt that it was absolutely necessary to meet all these wonderful men and women, and I am still glad that I did. I told myself that even if I spent a lot of time and money in order to get just a few lines from someone, then that surely would make my book just that little bit better, and if I interviewed lots of people, then all those little bits would add up to quite a lot.
I initially adopted the same policy with The Real Great Escape, but after a handful of interviews, I started to realise that maybe this was the wrong tack. Even though it was great to meet those involved – however tangentially – in the escape, it became clear that these meetings were serving no documentary purpose.
The problem came in four parts.
The first was predictable – the memories of so many of us for events that took place many decades ago are far from perfect. The second lies in the fact that the Great Escape is a tale that has been often told – in both books and a hit movie – and it was clear that some of the ‘memories’ the men were relating were in fact episodes they had read or watched. In short, their memories had been corrupted by the versions they had consumed rather than actually experienced. The third problem is partly born out of the second – what these men were telling me was often plain wrong and inaccurate. Finally, there was also a strong sense that my interviewees were on ‘autopilot’, and were presenting me with much-rehearsed retellings of events that would brook no real enquiry or attempts at deviation. In short, I felt frustrated and wondered whether this was the best use of my time.
One of the historian’s maxims is that the most reliable sources are often those produced as near to the event as possible. Clearly, by interviewing people in the present day, I was perhaps using the very worst of sources. This feeling was enhanced when I started listening to the interviews with the Great Escapers that are held at the Imperial War Museum, some of which were recorded just a few years after the war, and it was apparent that the memories were fresh and tallied with some of the documentary sources.
It may sound like common sense, but listening to someone recalling an event after ten years is going to be a lot more useful than listening to the same person recalling the same event after seventy years. In short, I abandoned seeking out those who had been at Stalag Luft III, and instead concentrated on the recordings.
With current and future projects, it is tempting to introduce a blanket ban on interviewing the very elderly. However, this seems monstrously unfair, and I know from many delightful hours of speaking to my 93-year-old friend and neighbour Ray Gallop, that there are many near-centenarians whose minds and memories are far sharper than mine.
But what I will do now is to be far more selective, and try to ascertain in advance whether someone’s memory is worth a long trip. Of course, it is always tempting to rub shoulders with those who were there, but seeing people for that reason alone makes me feel a little uncomfortable.
Despite this policy, I know that the next time I hear about the death of a former Stalag Luft III inmate, or even a Berlin Olympian, I shall still feel that small sense of regret – for the simple reason that you never know what someone might tell you.
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