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History Textbooks in Europe


Richard Jones-Nerzic
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This is a fascinating study carried out by the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Braunschweig, Germany and available as a 130+ page download from the Council of Europe website at http://www.coe.int/T/E/Cultural_Co-operati...t.asp#TopOfPage

Using a cross-section of secondary school history textbooks, it informs on the general developments in the presentation of history over the last decades, and provides an overview of how certain aspects of European history are dealt with. Some of the topics discussed are taken from the darker side of Europe's past, such as occupation policy, the Holocaust, genocide and war.

Others deal with textbook market structures, the space allotted to regional, national, European and world history, and the importance of textbook layouts and tasks assigned to pupils - whether they develop key skills of critical investigation or encourage pupils to digest pre-structured knowledge.

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Using a cross-section of secondary school history textbooks, it informs on the general developments in the presentation of history over the last decades, and provides an overview of how certain aspects of European history are dealt with. Some of the topics discussed are taken from the darker side of Europe's past, such as occupation policy, the Holocaust, genocide and war.

What a wonderful resource. This could provide the base of a good discussion about history textbooks in Europe. I remember a few years ago reading about a group of historians from a wide variety of different nationalities getting together with a plan to write a joint history textbook. Did it ever get published? Is the writing of a non-nationalistic history textbook possible?

What happens in those countries with a divided past? For example, how is the Spanish Civil War dealt with in Spanish textbooks? Are there any other examples where these issues cause problems in the history classroom?

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Guest Andrew Moore

In the United Kingdom, we teach about the Holocaust, but sometimes teachers are uneasy about allowing students to see anything that comes from the Nazi side. (In the USA this is even stronger, as Russel Tarr has found with responses to his Web activity that simulates an interview with Hitler.)

I have had some experience teaching about Nazism in film, and I have been able to show extracts from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph des Willen (Triumph of the Will) to fourteen and fifteen year olds. I have placed a guide to Nazi propaganda on my teaching site about Anne Frank at www.universalteacher.org.uk/annefrank/teaching/propaganda.htm. Here you will find a link to the German Propaganda Archive - if this site is not blocked by your Internet service provider.

The site works best if the teacher gives some context, but students will see for themselves the extremes of which Nazism was capable. Today racist or extremist parties will rarely show their true views so openly as the Nazis did in Hitler's Germany. The record of this propaganda is, though, potentially challenging for anyone who wishes to suggest that people in Germany did not know much about the state's treatment of Jews, black people and other disapproved groups. As a corrective of this belief, we can look at Der Ewige Jüde (The Eternal Jew) - see www.holocaust-history.org/der-ewige-jude/. This was shown in cinemas to huge audiences.

Students will meet claims from some nationalists that the Holocaust did not happen. You might like to look at a page which confronts Holocaust denial, and makes some suggestions about how teachers could approach it. It's at www.universalteacher.org.uk/annefrank/teaching/denial.htm.

One thing that makes this a fascinating subject for study in school, is that it is a live question - David Irving's failed libel action against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books is an unusual case of rival historical accounts' being tested in the law courts. Since the action failed, then anyone in the UK can now call David Irving a Holocaust denier, without any fear of his having legal redress against us.

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What happens in those countries with a divided past? For example, how is the Spanish Civil War dealt with in Spanish textbooks? Are there any other examples where these issues cause problems in the history classroom?

John- Your question I quoted above intrigues me. I teach sixth grade (11 and 12 year old students) in what would be called "The North." American history texts feel the need to be very cautious with how they treat the Civil War because they want to sell their texts all over the U.S.

I was speaking with a colleague the other day who stated that she felt textbooks are positively biased towards the North. I'd like to hear others respond to John's question about how countries with a divided past treat the issue in their texts and if they perceive a bias towards one side or another in their texts.

Incidentally, I had a friend from Louisiana who never called it the Civil War- he said "The War of Northern Aggression" or "The War Between the States." I remember experiencing shock the first time I heard it called that. Ah, perspectives! Ingrid

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What happens in those countries with a divided past? For example, how is the Spanish Civil War dealt with in Spanish textbooks? Are there any other examples where these issues cause problems in the history classroom?

John- Your question I quoted above intrigues me. I teach sixth grade (11 and 12 year old students) in what would be called "The North." American history texts feel the need to be very cautious with how they treat the Civil War because they want to sell their texts all over the U.S.

I was speaking with a colleague the other day who stated that she felt textbooks are positively biased towards the North. I'd like to hear others respond to John's question about how countries with a divided past treat the issue in their texts and if they perceive a bias towards one side or another in their texts.

Incidentally, I had a friend from Louisiana who never called it the Civil War- he said "The War of Northern Aggression" or "The War Between the States." I remember experiencing shock the first time I heard it called that. Ah, perspectives! Ingrid

Ingrid. I receive regular complaints about the content of my website. Most of these come from the United States. This is probably not surprising as most of my users are from the United States. The most common complaint comes from people in the Deep South about my American Civil War Encyclopaedia. Other popular subjects they don’t like concerns my sections on Civil Rights, the Vietnam War and McCarthyism.

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAcivilwarC.htm

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAcivilrights.htm

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/vietnam.html

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAred.htm

I make every effort to be objective in my narrative and most complaints concern the use of sources to illustrate the topic I am writing about. I recently upset racists in America by my page on Nathan Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Their main complaint concerned my decision to include a passage from Harper’s Weekly (30th April, 1864) on Nathan Forrest’s role in the Fort Pillow massacre (the killing of a large number of African American soldiers who had surrendered to Forrest’s Confederate Army). It appears that Forrest is a hero of the Deep South and would never be criticised in textbooks used in their schools (the internet is now a problem for those educational institutions unwilling to look too closely at their country’s past). I had a spate of emails from librarians in Texas schools (I think it was an organized campaign) about my treatment of the Civil War (I believe that Texas keeps a tight control over the textbooks their students use).

I have also had complaints about my Spanish Civil War website. Surprisingly, most of these have come from people who feel I am pro-Franco. Nothing could be further from the truth. One woman wrote me regular emails about this so-called bias. Her main complaint was over the way I had dealt with atrocities during the war. She objected to the way I claimed that both sides committed atrocities. She argued that most of these crimes were committed by Franco’s troops. She also thought that I had not gone into enough detail about these atrocities. For some reason she thought I should have emphasised the sexual nature of these crimes.

Some of the most passionate complaints come from relatives of people featured in my encyclopedia. The most moving came from the son of Larry Parks and resulted in me making an immediate change to his father’s entry. The grand daughter of another victim of McCarthyism wrote and complained about the photograph I had used of her grandfather. She said it made him look like a criminal. She sent me her favourite photograph of her grandfather and so I was able to replace the offending picture.

I also received several emails from the grand daughter of a suffragette that I had written about. Her complaint was over one of the sources I had used. It was an account by Christabel Pankhurst of the role this woman had played in the suffragette movement. I thought it was complimentary but she took offence at the following passage: “she was a winsome merry creature, with bright hair and laughing hazel eyes, a face fresh and sweet as a flower, the dainty ways of a little bird, and having with all a shrewd tongue and so sparkling a fund of repartee, that she held dumb with astonished admiration, vast crowds of big, slow-thinking workmen and succeeded in winning to good-tempered appreciation the stubbornness opponents.”

She claimed this passage misrepresented her grandmother and demanded that I removed it. I refused and as a result these emails became more and more abusive. They eventually came to an end. About a year later I received another email from the woman apologising for her behaviour. She said she had been unwell at the time she wrote them.

Recently I got a very hostile email from Robert Tressell’s last surviving relative. He complained that I had made a mistake in his entry concerning a visit to Canada. I immediately changed it. This resulted in a much more friendly email with an invitation to see the Robert Tressell archives that he keeps in his home. I will be visiting him tomorrow. This visit will undoubtedly result in further changes to my entry on Robert Tressell. There is no doubt that the internet is changing the way history is being written.

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John- isn't it interesting how personal a subject like history can be? My mother was born in 1939 in Germany. She has shared some of her memories with me, but does not want to speak or read about the Holocaust. I don't fully understand it, but I think that she feels that the suffering of Germans during and after the war does not get acknowledged or the same publicity as the suffering of Jewish people. She's a rational woman, not racist or hateful by any means, yet when this subject is mentioned, her emotions, based on her own loss and suffering, kick in.

I wonder if this also happened with the relatives you mentioned in your response?

I have not travelled much in the South, yet I know that names such as Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Stonewall Jackson still carry much weight there. What I have not explored much, (and am unsure even how I'd begin), is why an event that happened so long ago, in this case with no living survivors of the event around to fuel the flames, can still affect a region and its people to the degree it appears to in the South. I think there must be a psychology angle here, don't you?

Thanks for the websites. I will explore them today. Ingrid

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Of course I thought of this immediately after I sent my last posting. I believe there's value in getting a view of one's culture from someone outside of that culture. Listening to the BBC's coverage of American politics/news gives me a slightly different flavor than American coverage. Often what a group omits to mention in a news broadcast is as telling as what they do mention. Perhaps it would be valuable for texts to be written by individuals from outside a country who may not carry the subtle prejudices or biases that are passed down to generations within a region.

While I'm here, does anyone have any good resource sites about Virginia Woolf? I find her life to be interesting. I've read at least 5 or 6 different biographies of her, each with its own focus (her lifelong struggles with mental illness, her writing, her relationship with her sister, her relationship with Leonard Woolf, etc.). Ingrid

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What a wonderful resource. This could provide the base of a good discussion about history textbooks in Europe. I remember a few years ago reading about a group of historians from a wide variety of different nationalities getting together with a plan to write a joint history textbook. Did it ever get published? Is the writing of a non-nationalistic history textbook possible?

I myself live and teach in Braunschweig and I have very often used the excellent library of the Georg-Eckert Institute; you can find nearly every European schoolbook from different periods there. When and if I have enough time I take my students there to do some research on how different events, persons etc. in history have been portayed in schoolbooks from different times and different countries.

By the way, there is something like a European schoolbook on the German market, but due to its conciseness it is only suitable for Sixth Form students.

I know that the Georg-Eckert Institute together with historians and history teachers is trying to compile and produce a European history book for younger students.

In our bilingual branch we understandably have to use either British, Australian or American schoolbbooks and it is indeed very interesting to compare those to the German schoolbooks.

I do not want to sound nationalstic, but I think that -maybe due to our negative historic experience with nationalism+racism - the German schoolbooks try to view and present especially 19th and 20th century history from a more European and/or international perspective.

We do not have a national curriculum as we are a federal state and what is taught in school is for the German Laender to decide. The history curriculum of Lower Saxony for middle and high school stresses the neceessity of a more European and international perspective and the history books have to reflect this attitude.

You also referred to divided countries and divided histories and history books. Post-war Germany was divided till 1990 and not only the wall divided the country but also the very different economic and social systems. This political and ideological division could of course be found in the history books. I think it is not astonishing that the closer one came to the 19th and 20th century the more different the books in the two parts became. The history book (there was only one book available) used in the GDR was based on Marxist theory and especially in the books covering the last centuries the advantages of socialist theory and reality in e.g. the USSR and the GDR on the one hand and the shortcomings of the capitalist west on the other hand were highlighted. The amount of anti-communist bias in the western books was mainly determined by course of the Cold War : openly anti-communist in the 50s and the beginning of the 60s and from then on less fervent and more sophisticated following the flow of Willy Brandt's Neue Ostpolitik.

It would indeed be an interesting international project to analyse how the Cold War, the division of Europe was/is presented in history books from different countries and decades and if and how students have been influenced by these books: how much do they/ we really know about our neighbours and their history; which cliches still live on.

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I remember a few years ago reading about a group of historians from a wide variety of different nationalities getting together with a plan to write a joint history textbook. Did it ever get published? Is the writing of a non-nationalistic history textbook possible?

Yes i have the dutch edition at home.

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A very interesting book concentrating on Europe is "The History of Europe for Young people" but it is not a schoolbook. It was written by the French historian Jacques Le Goff in 1997. Unfortunately I do not know if the book is still available and if it was translated into other languages than German.

The contents of the book and its structure also could provide a starting point for the discussion of what to include in a European history textbook.

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Many years ago my students asked me if I thought that they were indoctrinated. They meant in the school, by newspapers and television etc. I answered at that time clearly and loudly “ I do not think so”!

I just made fast a pretty rational assessment between what I went through during my school time in Czechoslovakia and what I could se around me at the Swedish school I was teaching at.

Today I know how foolish I behaved.

Of course the history will be rewritten al the time. Sometimes it has to do service socialist policy in the country. Next time it has to suite the conservative way of seeing things. Today the history stress European unity more than European division. And of course there is history told by people who have lived through “the History” others only read about.

My conclusion is that the history will always be just only interpretation of events.

Does it than matter that John Simkin change the articles written by him when approached by family members demanding corrections? Will we understand better the suffering of Germans during the last months of the last war after reading Günter Grass or Beavors recent books when we had have members of own family in concentration camps? Or killed by Germans?

Will then there ever be an ultimate and just schoolbook used throughout Europe trying to promote the true “History of Europe”? I doubt it very much. Why ? Because history is a powerful weapon in the hands of people who do have interests and gains to change it whenever it’s suitable.

Edited by Dalibor Svoboda
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Dalibor,

I think you are right there never can be an "ultimate" history book and history is always more than a collection of dates, numbers, and facts and of course, books or lessons reflect political, academic, social tendencies and developments.

But I personally think that we should be united in our attempt to show our students that there are some a-historical values which in their essence must not be changed; I think of values like tolerance, freedom of speech, thought, conscience; human rights- so to speak. I know that these values have been interpreted differently in different times but they have not been changed in their core meaning and you find them in nearly all religious texts - and I do not only mean Christian religion - you find them in philosophical texts etc.

I think that guided by and based on these principles it might be possible and fascinating to compile a textbook maybe not covering world history but maybe European history.

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I would like to reply to you in a nice way. I red a lot of yours other contributions. It seems to me that you have a profound humanistic approach to many discussed topics.

Still I can’t see how somebody could succeed in writing (or putting together) a “ultimate and just European history schoolbook” based on “tolerance, freedom of speech, thought, conscience; human rights “ as you wrote.

It is according to my view sadly impossible and contradictory task. Actually you yourself answered in your response why: “these values have been interpreted differently in different times”.

And they will most probably be interpreted differently even in the future.

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And they will most probably be interpreted differently even in the future.

Yes they will, at that is the right of every generation. But isn't it the historian who makes the history?

I think a venture of compiling a textbook based on universal values is challenging.

As Ulrike pointed out some basic values appear in almost every major religious/philosophical text. The trouble :blink: with Europe is perhaps that we are 'forced'into a common history that does not exist. But that does not necessary mean it cannot exist in the future. To much time people spent at pointing at differences between themselves, why not look at what they have in common.

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