This year European Social Science History Conference raised high expectations and as always in case of huge mass conferences some of them were perfectly satisfied – some were not. Marking a 10th anniversary of the event, Vienna’s conference hosted more than 2000 participants and several hundreds of sessions. I wouldn’t be honest to say that I was not at all overwhelmed by at least 22 panels (named in alphabetical order, starting A, ending Z, but sometimes with a few additional Z-s…) taking place simultaneously four times a day. Instead, even preliminary reading of 222-pages conference programme took some time and did not guarantee that one would not overlook anything. But this is the obvious price we pay for unique possibility of meeting (almost) entire European social history researchers at one place and time.
My overview of the conference will be very subjective, since I focused on particular fields and geographic areas. I attended mostly sessions organized by the “Oral History” network, and just a few from the broad choice of “Ethnicity and Migration” and “Culture” networks; and I was trying to have my eyes open on everything connected with Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine. Additionally, I picked up several sessions which fit in my field of interest – immediate postwar social change in Eastern Europe and collective memory – but happened to be scheduled in other networks.
“Oral History” network managed to include 64 papers in the final programme (not all of them were ultimately presented), which quality was very diverse. I have attended very good, coherent sessions, which encouraged inspiring and fruitful discussion: one of the most interesting was panel with just two speakers, Nanci Adler and Miroslav Vanek. Adler presented new perspective on her research already in progress: she discussed competing narratives on the Stalinist past in Russia, focusing on the broad reception and attitudes towards the “Memorial” organization in Russian society. Her presentation inevitably brought about comments and questions on current political situation. Vanek presented his latest project on identification with the political system in the Czech Republic during the communist period. Based on impressive number of several hundreds interviews with “ordinary Czechs”, the project is just to be turned in the book in English. Vanek’s talk brought about vivid discussion on the position of the interviewer in oral history – questions asked were among others how does the process of interviewing influence the interviewer on the personal level. This particular session, ending up as focused mostly on off-topic methodological issues during the discussion part, shown further need to encourage strictly methodological “Oral history” sessions. Another brilliant session was dedicated to topic of preserving memories in displaced communities and included Arbnora Dushi’s talk on second and third generation’s memories of the divided border communities of Albania/Kosovo, and Leslie McCarteny paper on memories of the Good Friday Earthquake in Alaska.
As it always happens, I have also attended some very weak sessions, with poorly presented, naïve or not that much oral history based papers. Many sessions had to be reorganized several times and were finally presented in a form which had nothing in common with what was originally planned – this undoubtedly influenced quality of some sessions as such. Promising session entitled “Life stories approach to the social transformation” was cancelled, its only remaining speaker, Marta Kurkowska-Budzan (paper “I’m a Communist Sportsman: Meanings, Discourses and Identities in Contemporary Poland”) being moved to another session. This happened also to the session chaired by me, which ended up with three not that bad, but rather inconsistent papers (“Memories of WW2 Traumas”) that were originally part of other sessions.
One of the most widely covered topics within the “Oral History” network were those of displacement, ruptures and memory transfer. Friday morning session entitled “Disrupted lives, disrupted identities”, included four presentations on various aspects of uprootedness: fate of the Ebensee camps survivor, who stayed in the very Ebensee after the war (by Andreas Schmoller), memory of the lost Jewish world of Poland and Lithuania (Christa Whitney), and loosing one’s identity by people of the “half-Jewish” origins in Nazi-regime Vienna (Michaela Raggam-Blesch). Entire session was dedicated to the displaced Jewish refugees, whose memory was framed in the context of family relationships and identity formation. Holly Gilbert presented interesting paper on negotiating ruptured family memories by using photography, Bea Lewkowicz spoke on her experience of work on the exhibition about Austrian Jewish refugees living now in the UK, and Philipp Mettauer’s paper covered forced migration in the family memory. Outside the network, topic of children effected by World war II ruptures was risen by session organized by Maren Roeger and Machteld Venken, and included papers on German children expellees in Austria (Melanie Dejnega), children of Dutch-Nazi collaborators (Ismee Tames) and memories of Polish and Ukrainian postwar deportees (Anna Wylegała). Another interested paper on that topic was scheduled during session entitled “Labour and survival on the Soviet home front during World War II”: Johannes-Dieter Steinert presented his based on the personal documents (mostly written memories) research project on the Polish and Soviet child forced labourers in Nazi Germany and German occupied Eastern Europe. Another “Oral History” network sessions included those on (re)presenting oral history (web & performance), teaching, censorship and art in the normalization era in Eastern Europe (case studies from Czech Republic and Latvia), and memories of non-war related 20th century migration
Except of the regular conference session, ESSCH 2014 provided its participants with variety of choices of special conference events, including book exhibit (rather poor choice), general meeting with lecture (“Connecting histories of work and non-work in the 20-th century. A view from the periphery” by prof. Andreas Eckert) and reception in the famous Vienna’s Rathaus (rather crowded, which was not that surprising with this number of guests). However, what I found personally most interesting, was the network meeting, where one could get closer to the inside story of the network’s work. “Oral history” network meeting discussed not only this year sessions at a glance (submission process and statistical analysis, drop-outs and panels’ scheduling) and preparation to the 2016 conference, which was announced to take place in Valencia, but also general dynamics of the network development (eg. it was postulated to come back to the previously used name of the network “Oral History and Life Stories”). Participants of the meeting unanimously agreed that it was very inconvenient to have two major (and expensive…) oral history conference scheduled so closely to each other (IOHA 2014 is taking place in July in Barcelona), and that lack of travel grants influenced negatively perspectives of participation for speakers from Eastern Europe (there was no single speaker from Belarus and Moldova and only two from Ukraine, who both eventually cancelled their participation).
As I already wrote, quality of the papers varied from session to session: some were very satisfying and inspiring, some were not worth staying and listening. Although I wish there were more papers on Ukraine and other post-soviet countries, I was also quite happy with the “Oral history” network sessions when it comes to the range of topics – most of them focused on issues of social change, rupture and discontinuity, be it postwar displacement or exotic from European point of view Alaska earthquake, and this is exactly how I’m using oral history as a method in my research on postwar social change in Poland and Ukraine. What I missed was in-depth and more sophisticated methodological discussion about oral history as method, its disciplinary status in the Academia, its ethical and legal dilemmas. Accidental, basic and very general reflection that the interview is influencing both interviewee and interviewer was definitely not enough for this kind of event.