Oral History Society seminar: Europe’s 1968

Posted on 30/01/2014 by


Robert Gildea, professor of modern history at Oxford University, presented a seminar on the oral histories of the revolutionaries and radicals of Europe’s 1968 at the Oral History Society/Institute of Historical Research joint seminar in December.

Gildea, who with a team of historians interviewed more than 500 activists from across Europe, told the seminar that the research was inspired by Sheila Rowbotham’s text Promise of a Dream: Remembering the sixties.

Gildea said that the life history interview approach enabled him and his colleagues to follow his interviewees’ “trajectory to becoming an activist, being an activist and thinking about activism”. He said he had to “combat academic snobbery” towards oral history.

“There was this question about when you do interviews whether you are dealing with historical reality or dealing with stories about what happened 40 years ago,” he said.

Gildea worked with 14 historians from 14 different countries and said that the researchers wanted to cover countries that had not previously been thought of in relation to 1968: for example, Northern Ireland and Eastern bloc countries such as Hungary.

“We wanted to draw links between activists in different parts of Europe. We didn’t want a chapter on Germany, and one on France,” he said.

One Frenchman told how he went to a revolutionary summer camp in Switzerland which was full of Spanish Republicans in exile and deserters from the war in Algeria. Gildea said that a lot of encounters happened in Paris and Prague, “either real or imaginary”.

After the crushing of both the student uprising in Paris in May 1968 and the Prague Spring in August 1968 Gildea said that young radicals had to rethink what radicalism and revolution meant. Post 1968 the movement became more about cultural revolution, with an Italian interviewee telling how she organised a revolution to overturn the strict regime in a mental asylum in Trieste.

The research revealed the misunderstandings and misinterpretations between activists in northern and southern Europe and east and west. One Marxist West German revolutionary told how he thought that Eastern Europeans’ calls for “democratic rights” was “bourgeois”. One Eastern European said: “For us democracy was a dream, for them [Western radicals] it was a prison.”

When asked to look back at their activism the interviewees expressed many different emotions. One leading Communist felt that she had wasted her life holding on to her ideology. But one gay activist said that the movements had helped develop a sense of agency and the feeling that you could “remake your own life.”

Gildea concluded that researchers could point to Europe’s 1968 as a single entity but there were also incredible divergences of opinion between activists about whether the revolution was “political, cultural or social”.

  • Europe’s 1968: Voices of revolt, edited by Robert Gildea, James Mark and Anette Warring is published by Oxford University Press. The next OHS/IHR seminar will take place on March 20th and features Molly Andrews from the University of East London. For more information click here.
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