Politics, History and International Relations

Current students

Cold War Oral History

Bringing eyewitnesses into the lecture room - Dr Robert Knight

The Cold War is fast becoming history. It is now more distant to the current generation of students than the First World War was at the outbreak of the Second. To recovery the immediacy of the divided world and capture students’ imagination as the world moves from ‘communicative’ to ‘cultural memory’ I appealed to eyewitnesses to talk to second year joint honours students and be interviewed by them.

The response (through local radio and Loughborough alumni organisation) was far better than expected. Those who agreed to come and talk talk had experienced widely different aspects sides of the Cold War: a radar technician working on anti-missile; a refugee from Eastern Prussia (now Kalinengrad); another refugee from Poland; a military policeman with the RAF in West Berlin; a systems engineer at RAF Waddington; a peace activist at Greenham Common; an engineer who had sold equipment in Eastern Europe: a Pole who had witnessed Solidarity/Solidarnośc and the imposition of martial law in 1981.

One guest speaker talked movingly about his personal memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was a technician so he knew about the destructive forces which were on the verge of being unleashed. But he was also a father whose daughter was born as the Missile Crisis reached its climax.

Students analysed the talks in relation to the aims of the course, did follow up interviews after further research into the background, using transcripts. The project was supported by a Teaching Innovation grant from the University Teaching Centre.

Student feedback

Student response was overwhelmingly positive, comments included:

‘Gave wider perspective such as emotion which a textbook cannot capture’ ‘added a new dimension to history’;’haven’t experienced anything like to before’; ‘it was nice to bring real experiences into the course to bring it to life’;’brought topic to life, really interesting and helped understanding of events/issues.’

One clear conclusion is that tapping into real human experiences, coupled with the appropriate use of technology, can greatly improve the student experience. We plan to expand and enhance the use of eyewitness speakers in the future.