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History, but not as we know it

Pupils in different countries are taught very different versions of the Second World War. Karen Thornton reports

THE Second World War began in 1941... and the Japanese lost.

So reveals an analysis of school history textbooks which recounts how American pupils are taught that the war began with the surprise attack on the US base at Pearl Harbor. And that the involvement of the Americans was pivotal to the Allies' victory.

But open your textbook in Japan, Britain or Sweden and a very different story unfolds.

Stuart Foster, from London University's Institute of Education, and Jason Nicholls , from Oxford University, analysed depictions of US involvement in the Second World War in two popular secondary history textbooks from each of the four countries.

They found American books focused heavily on events in the Pacific, from Pearl Harbor onwards. The language is dramatic and emotive, building up a picture of the US battling against overwhelming odds to ensure a free and democratic post-war world. The Soviet Union's entry into the war is a side issue and there is little analysis of the rationale for Japan's action.

In Japan, pupils are given a much fuller explanation of events leading to Pearl Harbor, dating back to their country's 1931 occupation of Manchuria, with coverage of the American-backed economic sanctions and oil embargoes.

The British and Swedish, not unsurprisingly, concentrate heavily on Europe, with the Pacific war seen as peripheral. Both start the chapter on the war with the invasion of Poland in 1939, and events leading up to it.

The British books acknowledge the significance of the US entry into the war, but as one key event of many, not the turning point.

The neutral Swedes are even more Europe-focused, following Hitler's expansion through the Continent and into the Nordic countries. Their books give far more attention to the opening of the Eastern front than the Pacific conflict, but also give some of the 1930s background to Japanese expansionism.

The British books were judged best at encouraging pupils to think critically about history, with extensive use of primary sources (maps, photographs, newspaper extracts, political cartoons) and challenging questions.

The Swedes and Japanese relied on basic "factual" narrative, with few questions, tasks or alternative perspectives on offer. The American books fell somewhere in-between, using primary documents but sometimes presenting opinion as fact. The authors of the report conclude: "All nations are to some degree guilty of using history textbooks as a means to promote a view of the past from a nationalistic perspective."

Their study forms part of a larger investigation into international textbook portrayals of the Second World War.

"Portrayal of America's role during World War II: an analysis of school history textbooks from England, Japan, Sweden and the USA", Stuart Foster, London University Institute of Education, and Jason Nicholls, Oxford University.Email:

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