Grassroots oral history groups in Greece

Riki Van Boeschoten

One of the most interesting aspects of the oral history scene in Greece is the mushrooming of local grassroots oral history groups all over the country. In 2011 the first oral history group was established in Kypseli, a neighborhood of Athens badly hit by the severe social consequences of the economic crisis, but the movement gradually spread to other neighborhoods of the capital. At the end of 2014 there were a total of eight groups, almost all of them in Athens.  But the next year the movement began to spread to other areas as well. Especially over the last few years we have seen an exponential growth. By the end of 2018, 37 groups had been created since 2011, out of which 30 were still active. About half of them were located in provincial towns beyond the capital and all together these groups have collected more than 600 interviews.

All groups have been established after an 18-hour training workshop familiarizing prospective members with interviewing techniques, archiving and ethics. Their members are volunteers of all ages, forming independent informal collectivities and working together in a collaborative framework. These collectivities bring together people with a genuine interest in history, including schoolteachers, architects, local historians, artists and students. While during the first years the groups were mostly focused on their own neighborhoods, in more recent years we have seen an important diversification. On the one hand a number of special interest groups have been created, bringing together activists already working in other areas: for example in alternative structures concerning environmental issues, social health care, or women liberation.  On the other hand some groups were created with the support of or in cooperation with local institutions (museums, archives, libraries, municipalities, university departments). A third category concerns groups created to record the memories of specific socio-cultural collectivities, in the event refugees from Asia Minor.

These developments are quite amazing: although oral history has been taught in some university departments over the last few decades, it has remained a very marginal phenomenon in Greek society. Two important factors contributed to this seachange: the impact of the economic crisis which began in 2010 and the creation of the Greek Oral History Society in 2012.  The economic crisis has deeply affected all aspects of Greek society, from mass unemployment to deep changes in the family and in the political system. In a society in which the traumas of the past, especially of the 1940s , are still very much alive, this had led many people to reflect on a largely silenced history in order to face the present and the future. On the other hand the crisis has also triggered a more general development of alternative structure run by active citizens, covering economic, social and cultural needs and working independently of formal power structures. The mushrooming of local oral history groups should be understood in this specific context. On a different level, the Greek Oral History Association has supported this movement from the beginning running training workshops all over the country and providing a larger framework to integrate these local initiatives into a broader international context.

More recently, an important turning point came when some of the local oral history groups began to materialize what had been their goal from the outset: to bring back the oral histories they had collected to their original communities in order to serve the “social purpose of history”, as Paul Thompson would say. In 2015 and 2017 the Athens oral history groups organized an “Oral History Festival” in which the groups presented their work, often inviting their interviewees to attend. Some groups organized sound walks in their town or neighborhood, presented their work in local schools, or decided to prepare a publication based on their interviews. Importantly, two oral history groups (one in Athens and one in Volos) which organized events with painful memories of the 1940s (Resistance against the Nazi occupation, the role of local collaborators and the ensuing Civil War) met a tremendous success with the local population. Memories that had been hidden for decades and had been silenced within individual families came to the fore and brought recognition of past sufferings. Interviewees, now in their nineties, were invited to attend as guest of honor and felt satisfied that at last their stories could be heard in public.

This engagement with local communities, if combined with a reflexive and critical attitude towards the past, may lead the way to the development of a genuine democratization of history and enhance the crucial role of oral history in this challenge.