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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special Issue - April 2005   
 In Brief

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Title  The prism of national memories

Memories of the last world war can give a distinctly national slant to the historical perspective of the principal countries engaged in the conflict. Despite some remarkable works devoted to a genuine European history of Europe, schools provide little scope for an objective view of a cross-border past. Researchers are now calling for a new approach, one based on ‘multiperspectivity’. What is more, the 1992 Maastricht Treaty stressed the need to promote the European dimension in the classroom.

Every country has its heroes and every town its equestrian statues. While national history is alive and well in the classrooms, less than 10% of textbook content is devoted explicitly to European history.
Every country has its heroes and every town its equestrian statues. While national history is alive and well in the classrooms, less than 10% of textbook content is devoted explicitly to European history.
European integration has changed the teaching of history. After the Second World War, it was clear that reconciliation would only be possible if the former enemies desisted from nurturing hatred of the adversary in future generations. Beginning in 1951 between the French and Germans, and from the 1970s between Germany and its Polish and Czech neighbours, committees of historians, working under the aegis of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), looked at how to define a dispassionate teaching of history, while not drawing a veil over any of the responsibilities for the conflicts that scarred the 20th century.

The Council of Europe, a pan-European institution of 45 Member States, then took up the task and is today working on reconciling some very heated histories, in particular in the Caucasus and Balkans. “The key word in this research is multiperspectivity, understood as a decentring of the educational approach, with the aim of making the student aware of the many different points of view that are possible – that of a state, a social class, a minority – of a given event in history,’ explains the British historian Robert Stradling.

The view from the ground
Whatever the merits of such studies, they come up against a solid obstacle: teaching programmes continue to be defined in a national or even regional framework. The Georg Eckert Institut in Braunschweig (DE) studied the teaching of Europe in the textbooks of 20 European countries.

The results are instructive: less than 10% of textbook content deals explicitly with European history. Even when it comes to subjects that lend themselves particularly to such an approach, such as the Middle Ages or the Age of the Enlightenment, the level does not exceed 40% and with major variations from one country to another. “The longer countries have been members of the EU, the higher this percentage. Conversely, in the Newly Independent States, textbooks relate a very national history stressing the age and originality of the nation,” points out Falk Pingel, deputy director of the Georg Eckert Institut.

Our war was not your war
This very prominent national memory is particularly evident when it comes to the settlements reached at the end of the First World War in eastern Europe. The Treaties of Neuilly, of Saint Germain-en-Laye and of Trianon remodelled Europe, putting an end to multisecular empires (the Ottoman Empire) and dynasties (the Habsburgs). Therefore, it is hardly surprising to find that they have left very contrasting memories.

“For the Czechs and the Slovaks, these treaties are symbols of liberation that mark the rebirth of nations repressed since the Thirty Years’ War,” notes Anton Pelinka, Professor of sociology at Innsbruck University (Austria). “But for their Hungarian neighbours, they are an absolute disaster because half of the population found itself outside Hungarian territory as a result.”

Even events further back in history – for which one would have thought any wounds would have long since healed – continue to be taught differently depending on the country. One example is the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). In Germany, the stress is placed on the loss of life and destruction. For Sweden, it is the heroic age of King Gustave Adolphe and the country’s arrival on the European stage as a major power. In the Czech Republic, it is a painful political, social and religious upheaval whose memory fuelled nationalism until independence. While in Spain and France, the principal warring nations, the Thirty Years’ War has simply disappeared from the curriculum.

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