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Emerging from the totalitarian shackles

Frances Rafferty reports from a symposium which addressed how a new Europe should study its past. In countries where history teachers have been major collaborators with the secret police, a great deal must be done to enhance the profession and retrain the staff, Marie Homerova told the conference.

Ms Homerova, a secondary school teacher in Prague, capital of Czech Republic, said history teachers in her country had been the front line for peddling the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the Soviet Union. Children learned that capitalist democracy was wrong and were told about the immoral life of the ruling class and the starvation of the working class. "Christian values were not taught . . . We have a generation of people, including history teachers, who are incapable of understanding the basis of European civilisation," she said.

She told the conference that when Czech 14-year-olds, in a survey conducted by the ministry of education in the early 1980s, were asked who fought against the Soviet Union in the Second World War the typical answer was Germany, France and Britain.

A total overhaul of the profession, textbooks and the curricula was needed, but in many east European states the resources to do so are not there, she said. Other speakers reported that the brightest graduates would not be attracted to teaching because of poor pay and difficult conditions.

Ms Homerova said history teachers should be encouraged to learn languages so they can draw upon foreign textbooks and make contacts with teachers in other countries. She said the Council of Europe should draw up a charter for history teachers to protect them from political interference.

But resistance to such changes was predicted by Professor Tzvetana Gueorguieva, of Sofia University. She said the volatile nature of the Balkan region made Bulgarians proud of their traditions and past and said that any radical changes to the history curriculum would be greeted with suspicion.

The Council was also asked by Dr Gita Steiner-Khamsi of Basel and Hohere to monitor textbooks and curricula in the new states and new democracies of the East to make sure they are free of racism and do not exclude the view of national minorities. She told the conference: "History is often used to generate symbols that bond some groups or some nations together at the expense of others. The rationale goes like this: nations, groups or people who have a common past will also have a common future; the others will not."

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