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John Simkin

Nationalism and History Teaching

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I was never convinced that the formation of the EU was a sign of a move towards internationalism. In fact, I believe it made the situation worse. The EU was for many years no more than an economic extension of Nato. It divided Europe rather than uniting it.

I agree with John that the EU was a sort of economic branch of NATO. In this sense there is an interesting article "La CIA finance la construction européenne" in French that highlights the importance of the American influence in the birth of the EEC.

But I cannot agree with him in claiming that EEC divided Europe. It could not do anything to join it during the Cold War and, after the fall of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe, the EU has launched a very complicated and risky process of enlargement that will bring in a lot of old European nations.

I am not gullible about the reasons of this enlargement. I perfectly know that behind this process there are not only open-handed purposes, I know that the EU was perfectly unable to stop the Balkans tragedy in the nineties, but, as a whole, the Union is and, I hope, will be in the future a positive factor against nationalism.

I am an optimistic by nature and I think that if we compare Neville Chamberlain's position about Czech people in the thirties and the current EU policy regarding Eastern Europe, we all have reasons to be a bit, just a bit, confident about EU role in the future.

As I am writing that, a lot of contradictory statements come to my mind. But, well, let be optimistic tonight.

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I agree with John that the EU was a sort of economic branch of NATO. In this sense there is an interesting article "La CIA finance la construction européenne" in French that highlights the importance of the American influence in the birth of the EEC.

But I cannot agree with him in claiming that EEC divided Europe. It could not do anything to join it during the Cold War and, after the fall of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe, the EU has launched a very complicated and risky process of enlargement that will bring in a lot of old European nations.

We are not disagreeing. I was trying to make the same point myself. Like you, I am slightly optimistic about the EU uniting the whole of Europe. My fear is that the Growth of the EU is unpopular in certain quarters and is stimulating a growth in nationalism. To improve this situation we need to clarify the decision making process. Some things, such as foreign policy, is best done as a group. Other areas, such as economic decisions, need to be taken by the individual countries.

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"My fear is that the Growth of the EU is unpopular in certain quarters and is stimulating a growth in nationalism. "

I agree with you but Juan Carlos mentioned another aspect which I think is interesting: the growth of regionalism. The EU with all its shortcomings seems to enhance this process: older; pre-nation-state ties such as language, history, identiy seem to be growing stronger. Juan Carlos mentioned Catalonia and the Basque Country and in Germany you can notice these ties being revived in the South West of Germany (the Rhine area, Alsace and even parts of the German speaking Swiss), in the north (Germany and Denmark)

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As a Black Briton, I was always a little wary of explicit demonstrations of nationalism whilst growing up. As mentioned by some of the contributors earlier, nationalism can and does breed violence against the perceived 'other'. However, now I am older, I accept that with the establishment of nations, the doctrine of nationalism is important for helping to foster a sense of unity within state boundaries. After all, whether we like it or not, countries are here to stay and the citizens of each country do need to be taught to at least work together with the people who are around them. This teaching of nationalism however, does need to concentrate on celebrating the diversity within a country and the contributions that have and are made to the country's culture, economy etc from all the different groups over time. As shown by the example of Spain, Yugoslavia, USSR, African countries etc, in a lot of cases nations are very fragile coalitions of different peoples that may only really have their 'nation' in common with each other. Any weak and fragmented organisation will drastically reduce its effectiveness to serve its people and contribute positively to the international scene. Bearing this in mind, I am of the view that nationalism in itsef is not a bad thing and can be used to help create social harmony.

On another note, as no-one seems to have mentioned it, I would like to comment on the type of 'History' that Black people are taught in Britain. Slavery and perhaps civil rights USA seem to be the only History Black people have. Of course these topics are perhaps the most relevant for Black people in the'West' but I do not think it allows a sense of pride to be felt. All people should be taught some aspects of History that help them to have pride in who they are and where they have come from. Hence some focus should be given to Pre-European African history. Not only would a focus on the ancient empires of Africa create a greaterr sense of self-worth for young Blacks, it would also allow European children to have a more balanced view of Black people. The current social and economic status of Africa in the media only creates sympathy and unfortunately, ridicule of the role Black people have played in world history.

On this note i would like to ask the European contributors whether their countries consider the role of Black people in their History curriculum?? For example, in Spain particularly, are the Moorish invasions of the middle Ages considered? :rolleyes:

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:rolleyes: sorry to go back to the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk again but Australia, had an inventor involved with early flight too Lawrence Hargraves whose research into convex and concave surfaces giving greater lifting power allowed him to launch his flight on November 15 1894 which took him 16 feet above the ground. He had earlier flown an aircraft with flapping wings 35 yards in 1885. he died in 1915

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As a Black Briton, I was always a little wary of explicit demonstrations of nationalism whilst growing up. As mentioned by some of the contributors earlier, nationalism can and does breed violence against the perceived 'other'.

You are right to stress that nationalism does unify a country. This is especially true when you are in conflict with another country. I have spent a lot of time interviewing senior citizens about their experiences of the Second World War. I always ask them if there was anything good about the war. They always give a similar answer. This involves the belief that the war united the country. That they felt that most people were working together for the good of the country. There is that marvellous David Low cartoon that reflects this sentiment.

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/2WWtaxation.htm

This emotional need for unity is illustrated by international sporting events. While England is in with a chance of winning the competition (which is not very often) we experience a great sense of unity. At the same time, it also leads to conflict within, especially when it becomes clear that friends and colleagues who were born in Scotland, Wales and Ireland are supporting whichever team plays England.

Competition in sport is usually fairly harmless. However, nationalism that leads to war is a serious matter. One political commentator once pointed out that the only way we will get international unity is if the world was attacked by creatures from another planet. As we cannot afford to wait until then, we have to find a way of creating a system which reduces nationalism. I suspect this also involves creating a system that reduces the inequality within and between nations.

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On this note i would like to ask the European contributors whether their countries consider the role of Black people in their History curriculum??

I once started one of my History courses in Sixth Form (the main topic was imperialism) by looking at the political, ethnic, social and economic structures of Africa before the Europeans arrived thus creating a basis which helped us to see and evaluate what was destroyed and how much the continent was changed by the interference of the imperialist powers. It was very interesting for me and my students because we do not know much (actually nearly nothing) about Africa before the 19th century. The problem was that many African cultures were not based on written resources but traditions were handed down the generations by talking about them.

Another more general aspect of nationalism is how "nation" is defined or better defines itself. In the course of former Jugoslavia breaking up states, nations reappeared on the geographical and political map of Europe which defined and still define themselves mainly along ethnical lines. This is I think a form of nationalism which leads to intolerance and discrimination against ethnic minorities within the nation itself and to war with nations which are believed to be inferior.

A different definition sees a nation as a community of human beings, equal and free, who share or are similar in their understanding of basic ideas and principles like the rule of law, democracy, tolerance, language.... This is a definition which allows diversity and peaceful coexistence, which eventually promote international unity and internationalism.

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On another note, as no-one seems to have mentioned it, I would like to comment on the type of 'History' that Black people are taught in Britain. Slavery and perhaps civil rights USA seem to be the only History Black people have. Of course these topics are perhaps the most relevant for Black people in the'West' but I do not think it allows a sense of pride to be felt. .... Hence some focus should be given to Pre-European African history.

I read your posting with interest Matthew. I studied African history at the University of Sussex (mainly South Africa and Kenya) and this has had a significant impact on my History teaching. I have tried to address the issues that you have raised about Black history in my school (multicultural inner city boys in Fulham, London) with a focus on the contributions that Black Britons have made over the last 500 years. I have tried to ensure that the majority of my students are aware that Black British history does not solely focus on the Slave Trade, although that is obviously so important in terms of contemporary race relations, and that there has been a black presence in Britain since Roman times. I have integrated this into the History curriculum as far as possible, for example looking Elizabeth I's attempt to repatriate the 'Blackamoors' when we study poverty in Tudor times. We also have many activities to celebrate Black History Month and it is often at this time of the year that many students comment on how they really enjoy the opportunity to take pride in their heritage.

This teaching of nationalism however, does need to concentrate on celebrating the diversity within a country and the contributions that have and are made to the country's culture, economy etc from all the different groups over time.

I am not sure if this is possible. It seems to me that Nationalist groups tend to support a narrow definition of 'nation', they are by definition 'exclusive'.

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The EU with all its shortcomings seems to enhance this process: older; pre-nation-state ties such as language, history, identiy seem to be growing stronger.

Ulrike, this an interesting process that we can observe all over Europe: Scotland, Wales, Catalonia, Flanders, Basque Country... These nations or regions have a "historical background", at least, they have a different language, even if it is spoke by quite a few of these citizens. But, what about Padania? What about Humberto Bossi?

I think that disguised under "historical reasons", in a lot of cases (Catalonia, Basque Country, Flanders...) there is very clear attitude: the rich neighbour don't want to contribute money for the poor one. They don't need to live in the block of apartments anymore.

You are right to stress that nationalism does unify a country. This is especially true when you are in conflict with another country. I have spent a lot of time interviewing senior citizens about their experiences of the Second World War. I always ask them if there was anything good about the war. They always give a similar answer. This involves the belief that the war united the country.

John, from the British point of view in WWII, from the "right side" point of view, this unification is evidently something positive. All Europe benefitted from that British people unity and fight. But, you can say the same for the Germans during the WWII. Did this sort of unity by fighting a war occurred? I am afraid that probably the answer is yes. Undoubtedly, Bismarck's victorious wars forged and enhanced German sense of unity.

A recent case is American wars on Afghanistan and Irak. Patriotism is on the rise in the USA.

I can understand this feeling, but I don't dare to say that is positive.

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Picking up Juan Carlos' idea I think it might be an interesting aspect to differentiate between nationalism and patriotism.

The difference 'Nationalism' Patriotism' in the history of the twentieth century could be easy.

If we have a look at the beginnig of the first world war. The vast majority of the population was patriotic. Soldiers and the others had a duty and they did it even if they didn't agree with the war. They just wanted to defend their country.

Nationalists were just a minority. They wanted the war and they were enthousiastics about it. In France it is obvious that Nationalist such as Peguy or Barres were happy with that. The first died in 1914 in one of the first battle of the Great War.

For today or in the nineteenth century it is more difficult in my opinion to have a perfect definition of both words because they are closely linked together. What happened in ex-yougoslavia in the 90's and today is a perfect example of that problem.

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The difference 'Nationalism' Patriotism' in the history of the twentieth century could be easy.

If we have a look at the beginnig of the first world war. The vast majority of the population was patriotic. Soldiers and the others had a duty and they did it even if they didn't agree with the war. They just wanted to defend their country.

Nationalists were just a minority. They wanted the war and they were enthousiastics about it. In France it is obvious that Nationalist such as Peguy or Barres were happy with that. The first died in  1914 in one of the first battle of the Great War.

For today or in the nineteenth century it is more difficult in my opinion to have a perfect definition of both words because they are closely linked together. What happened in ex-yougoslavia in the 90's and today is a perfect example of that problem.

You make the point that there was a distinct difference between patriotism and nationalism in France in 1914. However, you admit that separating patriotism and nationalism is more difficult when you consider recent conflicts in Europe.

My dictionary defines a patriot as someone “who loves and zealously supports his/her country.” Whereas a nationalist is someone who shows “loyalty and devotion to a nation”. When it comes down to it I am not sure there is much difference between these two concepts.

I am an internationalist who believes that nationalism and patriotism poses a threat to world peace. For example, people in Britain tend to believe they are superior to French people. Politicians are aware of this feeling and if they are keen to get support from the general public they go in for some French bashing. Tony Blair and his government resorted to this tactic during the build up to the Iraq War. It was a successful strategy and helped to sway public opinion towards war.

Individual people will often quote events from history in order to show that the British are superior to the French. A common reference is to the French surrendering in the summer of 1940. This is compared to the unwillingness of the British people to give in to Hitler. In reality, the situation was far more complex. There is considerable evidence that the British people also wanted to surrender in 1940. The fact that this did not happen was more to do with geography than some sort of national moral character. Where, for example, was this superior moral character in 1938?

It is of course a ridiculous idea that one country is anyway superior to any other. It is true that at different times individuals have made a significant impact on the economic, social or cultural development of the world. Britain has played its role in this. However, I would be a fool to believe that I have any right to take a nationalist pride in the achievements of Tom Paine, Robert Owen, Charles Dickens or George Stephenson.

What about using history teaching as a powerful weapon to fight against nationalism?

As history teachers we know that nationalism has been, is, and, sadly, will be the main source of violence and misery in Europe and all over the world.

I try and try with my students to dismantle all the nationalistic clichés and stereotypes and I intend to show them how nationalist history is set up to deceive people into false images of themselves.

Please, let teach our students that states and nations are contingent products of history, nothing more. And that they have to be proud of what they have achieved in their life with their effort and wit. Nobody can be proud of being born in some place. A pure accident.

I agree with Juan Carlos that as history teachers with have a responsibility to try and tackle this problem of nationalism. It is a difficult task as people have a deep desire to feel patriotic. This feeling will at different times in history be exploited by politicians. History teachers will always come under pressure from these politicians to teach a nationalistic history. We should resist this pressure and teach instead, internationalism. According to my dictionary, this is “an attitude that favours cooperation among nations”. This forum is in its small way trying to do this.

I think it will be interesting for us to consider what an internationalist history curriculum would look like.

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It is a difficult task as people have a deep desire to feel patriotic

And this includes our students as well. I, too, see myself as an internationlist but very often I notice that my students are looking for identity and social harmony.

As John pointed out correctly this feeling can easily be exploited by politicians in Germany especially by politicians of the right and far-right, who use the idea of "nation" as a means discriminate against and exclude minorities, limit immigration and send asylum seekers back.

I think it is important to show the students that we accept their wish to define themselves as part of a political and social unity but that we show them the dangers and pitfalls of nationalism. At the same time we should be able to show them the advantages of an open, tolerant and international attitude.

"...internationalism. According to my dictionary, this is “an attitude that favours cooperation among nations”.

This is a rather abstract concept; an important point is how to define "internationalism" on an individual level

The idea of an international curriculum is really very fascinating but also very difficult.

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patriotism/nationalism/chauvinism

3 remarks :

-Difficult subject. We can rely on the 1871 War between France and Germany, and the debate among historians about Alsace-Lorraine.

We may oppose 2 visions :

. one which makes the link between a land, a people and democracy. "La nation est un plébiscite de tous les jours( Ernest Renan)."

http://www.bmlisieux.com/archives/nation04.htm

. another one which fought against democracy.

Charles Maurras and l'Action française were royalists, anti-republicans, xenophobics, antisemits. In 1940, he saw the French defeat as a "divine surprise" for the nationalists who celebrated "la patrie" in a country occupied by the german and nazie army.

in 1913, France had a government led by René Viviani, an independant socialist.

After 5 years of war, there was a right coalition in power.

- in 1962, about Europe, de Gaulle writes :

"Dante, Goethe, Chateaubriand appartiennent à toute l'Europe dans la mesure même où ils étaient respectivement et éminemment italien, allemand et français".

- Teaching geography gives a multi-scale view :

we may choose a local identity, a national one, a continental or world one.

Suppose you are born of Chinese parents, you have been educated in Europe, and that you migrate to Quebec...

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I argued yesterday that history teaching in schools plays an important role in developing nationalistic attitudes. If that is the case, then it is possible to change the way we teach history in order to promote internationalist values.

This would involve both changing what we teach and how we teach it. One obvious example of how we develop nationalistic views is the way we teach about wars. In Britain, the study of the First and Second World Wars plays a prominent role in convincing people they are superior to other nations. The military battles that enabled the growth of the British Empire also play an important role in this.

A few years ago the British government decided to impose a national curriculum on schools. Much of the debate that took place at this time concerned the teaching of history. Politicians accused history teachers of not spending enough time teaching about our “great achievements” of the past. Last year a national conference was held on teaching history in schools and Prince Charles got the headlines about his comments that we should spend more time teaching about the British Empire. This pressure mainly comes from right wing politicians. Liberal and left-wing politicians rarely get involved in this debate. This is partly because they agree with those on the right. If they don’t, they realise there is not many votes won by arguing against this approach to history teaching.

Personally, I am not against teaching about the wars of the British Empire. My concern is about how we study them. I think it is important that we concentrate on why we fought them and why we won them. That the students discover that these military victories was not the result of being inherently superior to other nations. That victory depended on economic, geographical, scientific and political factors.

If we take the example of the Second World War. There is no doubt that the teaching of this subject creates problems for the way most British people see the world. It is a subject that is always referred to in any outburst of British nationalism. It also shapes our current political attitudes. This is true of our views on Europe and the United States. It is no surprise that Winston Churchill was recently voted Britain’s greatest figure in history. (There is a theory that the main reason why Tony Blair was in favour of the Iraq War was that it offered the best hope of him being seen by the historians in the future as a great leader).

The way Winston Churchill is seen today is the result of nationalistic history teaching. He is seen as the man who led us to a courageous victory. That without him, the British people would have defeated and occupied by the German army. This is of course a complete distortion of the past. The people who hold this view tend to forget that Churchill was heavily defeated in the 1945 General Election. In fact, Clement Attlee, won a landslide victory and went on to introduce important reforms that are now still popular with the British people. However, Attlee never featured in the poll of greatest Britons. The reason for this has a lot to do with the way we teach history. It is not pointed out that the major reason why Churchill was defeated in 1945 was that he was seen as a war monger (one of the reasons why he was so unpopular in the 1930s) and that if he had won the election Britain might well have been led into a war with the Soviet Union. He would also have probably also got us involved in wars attempting to maintain the British Empire. (It is often forgotten that Churchill was wrong about almost every major political issue of the 20th century).

Ulrike rightly pointed out that students want to feel good about their own country and want to study the nation’s heroes and heroines. I have no problem with that. However, I do think we have to think very seriously about who we portray as our heroes and heroines. I do not think we should portray our war leaders in this way. There is a large number of people from our past that make ideal role models for our young people. Unfortunately, they rarely appear in our school textbooks.

One of the attractions of producing a website for use in schools, is that you can help influence the people we study in the classroom. If one types in “Winston Churchill” into the Google search-engine my page on him comes out 4th out of 614,000 pages. The first three provide the traditional view of Winston Churchill. However, my page provides a very different interpretation that in the past would never have found its way into the British classroom. It is an example of how the web opens up the possibility of challenging the way history is taught in schools.

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