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School textbooks issue

Zhenia Plotnikova

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I know your original question was about textbooks but it is worth considering “subjectivity” and the production of online materials.

In 1997 I made a decision to abandon textbook writing. Since then, all my writing appears online. This was partly an ideological decision. My main motivation has always been to communicate my interpretation of past events. The energy for this comes from the fact that my interpretation is usually a “minority” view. If my views on the past reflected the dominant ideology I would not have been motivated to communicate this.

As a textbook author you are restricted in what you can produce. This concerns both subject and length. It was virtually impossible to look at any topic in the depth it deserves. For example, in 1997 I was working on a book on how women in the UK got the vote. The more I studied this subject, the more I realized how traditional textbooks had distorted this period in our history. What textbook historians had done in the past was to concentrate on several key figures. Great emphasis had been placed on the work of Emily and Christabel Pankhurst of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). One of the reasons for this is that they provided an exciting and dramatic story. On the surface it appeared to be a story of great sacrifice (imprisonment, hunger strikes, force-feeding, etc.) followed by success, the granting of the vote for women. Yet in truth, these two women led a very small organization (2,000 members at its peak) that was virtually extinct by 1914. All the leading members of the WSPU were in prison, in very poor health or were living in exile. The number of active members of the organisation in a position to commit acts of violence was now very small. Nor was their any evidence that the work of Emily or Christabel was really responsible for women being granted the vote.

The main organization involved in the fight for the vote, the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), had over a 100,000 in 1914. The tactics this organization used was less exciting than that of WSPU and therefore are not covered in the same detail in textbooks. Its leader, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, was indeed a fascinating woman, but she never had to go to prison for her beliefs. However, she stuck to her principals, for example she refused to do what Emily and Christabel Pankhurst did, that is joining the propaganda campaign to make the British people hate the Germans and to persuade young men to join the armed forces. Nor did Sylvia Pankhurst, who had dropped out of the WSPU when it started its arson campaign.

My research showed that the struggle contained a lot of fascinating characters. This including many working class women whose names are never mentioned in the textbooks. It seemed to me that you could not fully understand the struggle for the vote without looking at these individual cases. This could not be done in a conventional textbook. However, it could be done via a website. This has two major implications of this for the study of history:

(1) It allows the students to carry out their own in-depth studies.

(2) It enables students to understand that historical change is not just about the activities of a couple of leaders.

This is an ideological shift concerning both in the way we study history and in the way we understand the past.


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'The Soviet version is nearer to the truth than most versions current in the west' A.J. P. Taylor.

A.J.P. Taylor could always be relied upon to make a controversial quote. That is why I always enjoy reading his books. You are always aware that he is a historian with a “point of view”. I remember being shocked when he wrote that the Nazis were responsible for killing more communists than Jews. Of course, when you think about it, he is right. It is just that historians don’t usually write like that. Taylor is a good example of a divergent thinker. At times he used this against the left and the right. I suspect that in reality he was close to being an anarchist.

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'The Soviet version is nearer to the truth than most versions current in the west' A.J. P. Taylor.

A.J.P. Taylor could always be relied upon to make a controversial quote. That is why I always enjoy reading his books. You are always aware that he is a historian with a “point of view”. I remember being shocked when he wrote that the Nazis were responsible for killing more communists than Jews. Of course, when you think about it, he is right. It is just that historians don’t usually write like that. Taylor is a good example of a divergent thinker. At times he used this against the left and the right. I suspect that in reality he was close to being an anarchist.

The Nazis intended to kill every Jew they were able to put on a train or stand in front of a ditch or forest clearing.

The early orders to death squad units were to kill functionaries of the Comintern, members of central, district and regional committees, people's commissars and Jews in Party and State positions.

Heydrich was not intending to limit the actions to Jewish radicals, the Nazis were anticipating tens of millions of deaths as a consequence of the eastward expansion of the Reich. How did A.J.P. Taylor define 'communist'?

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How did A.J.P. Taylor define 'communist'?

To get this figure he included in his calculations all Soviet citizens. I suppose he would argue that they did not all attend party meetings but not all Jews were active members of their religion.

The Nazis did not ask people if any of their grandparents were 'historic' communists in order to arrive at the criteria for death.

The attitude of the Nazis to Soviet citizens might depend on how badly pressed the military situation had become. The Nazis recruited Soviet citizens for the SS.

For example, soldiers from central Asia, the Ukraine and other occupied states took part in the campaign against the Polish resistance in Warsaw in 1944.

In the absence of discernable differences, the Nazis used the religious observance of a person's grandparents to determine their "race."

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I think there is a major problem about the “objective reality” of a school textbook. This concerns the sources that the historian uses. History is initially written by journalists. Let us take the example of the Battle of the Somme. We now know that those first accounts written by journalists were deeply flawed. This was because of the sources that the journalists were forced to use in order to compile their account of what happened. These sources were very much under the control of the various governments involved in this conflict. It was not until many years later that an accurate account of the battle could be written. This was partly because it was a long time before soldiers gave their accounts of the battle (most of these did not appear to the late 1920s). It took even longer for the government to release its “secret” documents on the war.


It was not until 1935 that the activities of the War Propaganda Bureau became known to the general public. This was a British covert operation that recruited leading writers Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett, John Masefield, Ford Madox Ford, William Archer, G. K. Chesterton, Sir Henry Newbolt, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Gilbert Parker, G. M. Trevelyan, H. G. Wells, etc.) and publishers (Hodder & Stoughton, Methuen, Oxford University Press, John Murray, Macmillan and Thomas Nelson) to produce a government version of the war.


David Lloyd George did not publish his account of this battle until 1938. It was not until recently that we discovered that the film taken in 1916 did not really take place at the Somme but was re-enacted miles behind the battlefield. In fact, the government kept a close control over photographs and films taken on the Western Front. These sources were heavily censored. For example, photos were never released showing dead British soldiers. (It is indeed an eye opener to visit one of the Belgium of French museums on the Western Front to see these photographs that we have never been allowed to see in Britain).

Of course it is over 90 years since the Battle of the Somme took place and most school textbooks provide a fairly accurate account of this event. However, I have yet to see any textbook really deal with issues such as the War Propaganda Bureau and other aspects of government control over the sources.

My concern is with the way that modern events are dealt with in school textbooks. The vast majority of these “narratives” are based on the journalistic accounts or the early books published on the subject.

Take for example the ten year period that followed the end of the Second World War. We now know that the American government used massive funds during this period to influence the elections that took place during this period in Western Europe. For example, it used an organization called the International Organizations Division (IOD) to take over the control of European newspapers, magazines, radio stations, publishing houses, etc. The IOD, which was controlled by the CIA, obtained its funds by illegally siphoning off funds from the Marshall Plan. This money was also used to bribe politicians and trade union leaders to move to the right. This had a dramatic influence on the type of governments that held power in Western Europe after the war. This included the 1945-51 Labour Government in the UK. This is the real reason why this government moved sharply to the right during this period.

This is no longer a secret. In 1967 Ramparts Magazine published a series of articles about this operation. As a result, the CIA carried out a covert operation against Ramparts and eventually got it closed down. The full story was not told until Frank Church’s Senate Committee on the US Intelligence Services published its report on this in 1976.


By this time leading figures in this highly successful operation had told their story. Thomas Braden, head of the IOD admitted in a 1975 television interview: "If the director of CIA wanted to extend a present, say, to someone in Europe - a Labour leader - suppose he just thought, This man can use fifty thousand dollars, he's working well and doing a good job - he could hand it to him and never have to account to anybody... There was simply no limit to the money it could spend and no limit to the people it could hire and no limit to the activities it could decide were necessary to conduct the war - the secret war.... It was a multinational. Maybe it was one of the first. Journalists were a target, labour unions a particular target."

Even though the full story behind these events will never be known (the CIA refuse to release all its documents it holds on this operation) we now know enough to know that our history books got it wrong. Although it is now over 30 years since this story was fully documented, it has yet to appear in any school textbook that I have ever read.

Another part of this story is Operation Mockingbird. This was a CIA operation to manipulate media reporting in the world. This was revealed by Ramparts in 1967 but was not believed. It was only confirmed in 1976 by Frank Church’s Senate Committee. Despite being criticised by the Church Committee for undermining democracy in the Western world, the CIA have never agreed to bring an end of this operation (this of course explains the recent WMD disinformation campaign). The only concession the CIA made was to stop employing full-time agents as journalists. Now they concentrate on “buying” individual journalists and news organizations. Although official confirmation of Operation Mockingbird was released over 30 years ago, I have never seen it appear in any school textbook. In fact, it has appeared in very few history books and until recently the Wikipedia entry for Operation Mockingbird described it as an “urban myth”.


There are other recent examples of how intelligence agencies like the CIA have joined forces with governments to use its power to distort our understanding of the past. One good example of this concerns the relationship between the United States and Cuba since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. At first the CIA worked on behalf of the US government in its attempts to assassinate Castro and overthrow its left-wing government. After the Cuban Missile Crisis JFK changed his policy towards Cuba. This included instructions to bring an end to Operation Mongoose. The CIA ignored this order and continued to plot against Castro. As one of JFK’s political advisers, Arthur Schlesinger, has pointed out, the government and the CIA both had their own foreign policies during this period. Unable to control the CIA, JFK decided to keep his attempts to negotiate a new “friendship deal” with Castro, secret from his own intelligence services. He therefore used journalists and diplomats such as Lisa Howard, Jean Daniel, William Attwood, etc. to secretly negotiate with Castro. However, what JFK did not know was that the CIA had bugged the UN. In this way the CIA were able to discover what JFK was up to. It is not clear what the CIA did about this and therefore we are left to speculate. However, many researchers into this period of history have suggested that these events are linked to the assassination of JFK.




The assassination of JFK is another area where school textbooks are not to be trusted. Although they often mention the fact that some people (the vast majority according to all public opinion polls ever taken on this) do not believe the findings of the Warren Report, this is rarely covered in any detail. It is also rare for the textbooks to refer to the findings of the House Select Committee on Assassinations that was far more comprehensive than the Warren Report. Books might mention the possibility that the Mafia was behind the assassination but are highly unlikely to mention the possibility of it being a CIA/Anti-Castro Cuban operation. Nor will the textbook author raise questions about why the CIA and FBI are still unwilling to release important documents that they have about the assassination and related events. The argument put forward by the CIA and the FBI is that their publication will “undermine national security” is not taken seriously by historians of this period. There are clearly other reasons why these agencies are unwilling to release these documents. Maybe it is just about covering up CIA and FBI incompetent past. Maybe there are other reasons for this strategy.

Another example where our textbook authors let us down is over the Watergate Scandal. The story presented in books comes from the Sam Ervin Senate Investigation into the case. Sam Ervin was no Frank Church and was highly successful at covering up what Nixon was up to during this period. One way Ervin did this was to concentrate on Operation Gemstone rather than the far more important Operation Sandwedge. This is understandable as if he examined Operation Sandwedge he might well have discovered that Nixon’s covert operations resulted in the deaths of several Americans.


This willingness to accept the “official” version of recent events is reflected in the recent reporting on the identity of Deep Throat. Virtually every newspaper has accepted Bob Woodward’s claims that Deep Throat was Mark Felt of the FBI. Ever since the publication of All the Presidents Man, experts on this story have realized that Mark Felt was indeed one of Woodward’s informants. However, a large amount of the information supplied by Deep Throat could not have come from Felt. Deep Throat was either an amalgamation of several individuals or he was working from a central body that was accumulating information on the case, for example, the CIA.

Yet the press, including newspapers like the Guardian, have accepted on face value the press releases that have been released by Bob Woodward and his publisher (newspapers have ignored the fact that this story was used to publicize a new book by Woodward on Watergate). I think we can already predict what schoolbooks will say about Deep Throat over the coming years.


How can this situation be improved as regards textbook writing? For a start, textbook authors must not immediately accept the “official” version of the past. I know it is time-consuming but textbook authors need to look at all the important sources that are available. This includes asking questions about why some sources are not available.

Life for the textbook author is easier now than it has ever been. They can use the web to do their research. So also can school students. Maybe the school textbook author will become redundant. Why not cut out the middle man? That is the economics of the internet. See for example how people get their airline tickets direct from the airline. Why use a travel agent? Why use a textbook author.

Another possibility is to use the web to open up a dialogue between the author and his audience. See for example these historians discussing their books on the forum:


These discussions could be used to write second editions (it has definitely been a factor in Larry Hancock’s second edition of Someone Would Have Talked). However, it takes a brave and confident historian to submit his work to this type of scrutiny.

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  • 2 years later...

After the distractions of the last 12 months, I finally got around to doing some sorting and clearing out of my old website which I am turning into an archive. Because I am currently working with my new IB students on their coursework, I had cause to read Zhenia's work on school history textbooks. I realised I had never shared her work with many of the people who made it possible. If you contributed, once again thanks. You may find yourself quoted (esp. in the appendices) and hopefully you approve.

Zhenia achieved maximum marks for the work and a seven (the IB maximum) in history. She was also awarded the maximum 45 points for the diploma which is achieved by about 15-20 students worldwide annually.

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