In 1912 Marc Bloch began his career as a history teacher in the Lycee of Montpellier. He was surprised when his superior told him he could teach on any aspect of his subject. Did this mean, he asked, that he could talk about the Dreyfus affair, that most divisive and controversial of matters? Of course, came the reply. But then came the warning. When you come to the religious wars of the 16th century, you must be very careful what you say.
Teachers of history always have to be careful what they say. If southwest France was less affected by the Dreyfus affair than was Paris, it still suffered from the enduring bitterness of religious wars. How then could one produce a history text-book which would be acceptable for the whole country? Those who write books for sixth-formers encounter a variety of exigencies, legends and susceptibilities. If their subject is a war in which their country has been involved, then patriotism and officialdom create a new partisanship.
But, it is argued, there are some important areas of history where historians may now speak more boldly and confidently. The Second World War may have seen the greatest of upheavals, but it ought to be possible for historians of different countries to agree about its origins, its course and its conclusion. The existence of the European Union, the collapse of Communism and the effectiveness of modern methods of communication, have created a new international intimacy that must affect the historical treatment of this war.
It was to test this that the Regional Council of Lower Normandy, the University of Caen and the newspaper Le Monde brought together historians from eight European countries, the United States and Israel. Their task in Caen in the summer was to examine the textbooks in use in these countries, one book per country being chosen by the organisers.
Naturally, it was immediately apparent that each country devoted most space in the textbooks to its own affairs. Thus in the German, three pages are given to German resistance to Hitler (while stating that there was no massive opposition to the Nazis) and only two lines to the French resistance. In the French textbook there are eight pages on de Gaulle and other aspects of the resistance, including a discussion on why people took to armed resistance, but the German resistance movement is only evoked by a quotation from a tract. In Greece, where it is said that school textbooks change as governments change, much space is devoted to the Greek resistance movement, which is said to have united the populations, and to the civil war which followed, the effects of which are, we are told, still felt. Such horrors as the famine that hit the Greeks are presented as unique in the war. The British textbook, Keith Robbins' The Eclipse of a Great Power: Modern Britain 1870-1992, all but ignores the resistance efforts, although, unlike other British books, it mentions de Gaulle.
The authors reflect the preoccupations of their time. Thus Keith Robbins is concerned with Britain's economic power, and also with British attitudes towards continental Europe. The American textbook, Western Civilization Volume Two: From the 1400s by Mervyn Perry, surely reflects student interests when it discusses President Truman's decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945, rather than continue with more traditional methods of warfare. French-speaking Belgians prefer to concentrate their teaching on the aftermath of the war, which means the unification of western Europe.
There are some surprises. The Polish textbook writes of the German announcement that the bodies of Polish officers had been found in the forest of Katyn, near to Smolensk. It recounts that for a year and a half the Soviet government offered no explanation for those deaths, and therefore it was assumed that it was the Kremlin's affair. This is very mild. Although no Russian textbook was available, the conference was told by Russian teachers that the new textbook complements but does not revise preceding textbooks and that the affair of the Katyn massacres has to be seen in terms of many years of Russo-Polish relations and their disputes over the Ukraine and Byelorussia. This is unacceptable. Russian teaching on the war is still based on the premise that the aim of the Western allies was to see Russia weakened, not supported. The German textbook claims it was obvious that the war had been lost by 1942 and that the allied attacks on German towns are examples of senseless destruction. Was it obvious?
As is usual in meetings of this sort there was a call for the making of an international textbook that could be used in all of Europe's schools. But it was easier to agree that a common problem of teaching history is trying to interest pupils who are easily bored by studies they find fastidious. It was also easier to remember Sir George Trevelyan, who said history cannot exist without bias. The imagined textbook would probably be impossible and certainly boring. But for historians the comparative study of textbooks is most stimulating.
Douglas Johnson is emeritus professor of French history at University College, London.