Researching South African prisoners-of-war experience during World War II: historiography, archives and oral testimony

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Recently a study was undertaken to narrate and analyse the World War II experience of South African prisoners-of-war (POWs). One of the aims of the study was to provide a voice to the POWs whose stories had gone largely unobserved by local and international historians. The objective of this article is to describe the research method. The reasons for the extensive reliance on oral interviews are explained by providing an overview of the historiography and by describing the nature of the archival material. Additionally, specific analytical aspects concerning oral history, such as memory, retrospective knowledge, dual evaluation and intergenerational communication, are considered, as well as the manner in which rapport was established between the researcher and the participants. To show how the oral and the written word influence the way in which historical events – and the participants in those events – may be interpreted by present-day researchers, the way in which POW memoirs were used in conjunction with oral testimony in this study is also described.