The aura of eyewitnesses

Dr Christiane Bertram, a junior professor at the University of Konstanz, researches on the use of eyewitnesses in history and political education - “Tag der Zeitzeugen” (a conference focusing on the roles of eye witnesses) will take place on 18 May 2017

Eyewitnesses play an important role in everyday life, the cultural remembrance of past events and especially in history education in schools. Dr Christiane Bertram, who is junior professor of didactics in the social sciences at the University of Konstanz, demonstrated in an experimental study that eyewitnesses also pose a risk. After having an eyewitness visit their class, schoolchildren were very motivated, but comparatively less critical when classifying the events described as a strictly personal historical perspective. The new junior professor in Konstanz is organising the “Tag der Zeitzeugen” at the University of Tübingen and invites interested members of the general public to join the event.

How can eyewitnesses be used for historical and political education in the future? This question, which also provides the theme for the event, refers to the results of an experimental study which was just published in the American Educational Research Journal. As part of her dissertation project at the Hector Research Institute of Education Sciences and Psychology, Christiane Bertram observed a total of 30 classes and the effects of working with living eyewitnesses as compared to videos of eyewitness accounts and transcripts of eyewitness interviews.

The results of the experimental intervention study confirm what previous research in this field had indicated: that the schoolchildren in the live group became emotionally involved and lost their critical distance to the account. “In contrast to the video and text groups, they were less able to understand that accounts of the past need to be deconstructed and that eyewitnesses can provide only their individual perspective on events. They were convinced, however, that they had learned a lot, with respect to both methods and content”, Christiane Bertram summarises. The fact remains that they had a lot of fun with this learning unit.

Researchers and multipliers in the field of history and political education will meet at the “Tag der Zeitzeugen” and exchange ideas on the current status of research as well as on the future work with eyewitnesses in history and political education. The keynote speeches will be held by historian Professor Martin Sabrow from the University of Potsdam and the didactics professional Dr Christiane Bertram, who will provide insight into both the historical-theoretical and didactic-empirical aspects of the topic. The Konstanz-based cultural scientist Professor Aleida Assmann, the didactics professional Professor Martin Lücke, the memorial director Dr Jörg Skriebeleit and Professor Alexander von Plato, an “oral history” expert, will all participate in the podium discussion.

In the evening, a film and reading will show how eyewitnesses can help research the past and make it come alive today. The event’s goal is to show ways to utilise the experiences of eyewitnesses from the 20th century to prepare schoolchildren for the challenges of the 21st century.

The aura of eyewitnesses needs to be addressed when they are integrated in historical and political work. Eyewitnesses who give live accounts of their experiences in the classroom develop a special credibility for their listeners. Researchers believe that it is due to this that schoolchildren find it difficult to grasp some of the key methods of historical research: that eyewitness accounts provide only one individual’s perspective and thus require deconstruction. “Living eyewitnesses seem to exude an “aura” which may make it more difficult for schoolchildren to maintain the necessary critical distance to the eyewitness’s account”, says Christiane Bertram.

This does not mean that eyewitnesses should be excluded from history classes. On the contrary: a future study centres around training educators to prepare their use of the eyewitness method well. Educators should provide schoolchildren with insight into basic historical methods in addition to kindling their interest in the topic at hand. Christiane Bertram: “This is how we put the results of our study into practice in the classroom”. Christiane Bertram views the Binational School of Education at the University of Konstanz, with its close connections to empirical educational research and its broad network of collaborating schools, as a great opportunity.


  • Zeitzeugen-Studie der Konstanzer Bildungsforscherin Dr. Christiane Bertram in: Bertram, C., Wagner, W. & Trautwein, U. (2017). Learning historical thinking with oral history interviews: A cluster randomized controlled intervention study of oral history interviews in history lessons. American Educational Research Journal. doi: 10.3102/0002831217694833
  • „Tag der Zeitzeugen“: 18 and 19 May 2017, University of Tübingen:
  • A joint project of the University of Konstanz and the University of Tübingen: „Zeitzeugen im Geschichtsunterricht als Maßnahme zur Förderung historischer Kompetenzen: Eine cluster-randomisierte kontrollierte Interventionsstudie“ (eyewitnesses in history education as a means of promoting methodological skills: a cluster-randomised controlled intervention study)