Examining Potsdam and after through national perspectives offers a startling insight into how narrowly focused our own history can be, says Joke van der Leeuw-Roord.
The start of the Cold War? The defeat of facism? The carve-up of Germany? Or the green light for the subjugation of eastern Europe? There are as many viewpoints on the significance of the Potsdam Conference as there are nations affected by it. But, due to the sharp divisions in Europe which it heralded, it was for too long impossible for history teachers from either side of the Iron Curtain to meet and share their knowledge and ideas.
Throughout the Cold War history was divided along the same fault line, although since the end of the 1960s, at least in Western Europe, there has been some softening of the more extreme interpretations. Now the barriers created by the Treaty of Potsdam have come down and old nations are re-emerging we may find history being used to legitimise ultra-nationalistic causes.
Without presuming that history teachers can prevent future wars, Euroclio, the European Standing Conference of History Teachers' Associations, tries to present history from different professional angles and perspectives and organised a conference in Berlin a fortnight ago, at which 60 history teachers from 30 countries met to discuss "History Teaching about the Potsdam Conference and its Consequences".
Though there will be hardly a history textbook throughout Europe which does not mention Potsdam, the Berlin conference made the participants aware of the many different national emphases and the genuinely European dimension of the topic.
The different national viewpoints could be tracked down in lectures and textbooks from across Europe. In the official USSR textbooks Potsdam was seen as the ultimate co-operation between the allies and the termination of the world war in Europe. Any relation to the beginning of the Cold War was absent. In most West European textbooks, on the contrary, the decision at the conference by Truman to test the atomic bomb is mentioned as evidence of the growing tension between the Great Powers.
In Britain predominance is given to the Polish question. In Russia it is the victory in the war and the need of reparations for the immense damages, whereas for Germany Potsdam is seen in the first place as the official start of the Allied occupation, which lasted until 1990. In France attention is paid to the fact that it was not invited to the meeting. For the Spanish historians Potsdam has meant virtually nothing.
When Chris Durbin, education officer of BBC Education, asked delegates to think about the difficult issues in their national history concerning the Second World War, it emerged that England has a special preoccupation with Dresden. One of the English participants confessed that he had never been really aware that Berlin was so badly damaged. The bombing of Dresden always seemed an exception, without recognition of the almost endless bombardments of German cities.
A strong feeling of guilt is felt in several countries concerning the extermination of the majority of the Jewish population in the occupied countries. In the Netherlands we discuss the lack of interest of the majority of the population and the large group of collaborators as a possible explanation for this disaster. French students discuss the role of the Vichy government in the tragedy. Pupils in Luthuania have to come to terms with a situation where 70 per cent of the Jewish population was killed by Germans and Lithuanian collaborators.
This attitude has to be seen in the context of the 1939 occupation by the USSR, the atrocities of the Germans against the Lithuanian population during the occupation and the deportation of many thousands by the Soviets to Siberia. Up to 1953 the fight for independence continued despite the agreement in Potsdam that Lithuania should become Soviet territory. Another 35,000 Lithuanians lost their lives.
Teaching a controversial topic when survivors are still alive demands special approaches. Chris Durbin gave some examples, which seemed to be very useful for many Eastern European participants. During the conference I realised that using the Finnish example could be very effective too. A discussion with pupils about how to survive stuck between the rock of Germany and the hard place of the USSR during the war, and between the Western World and the USSR in the post-war era could help students to gain empathy in the controversial issue of collaboration. Finnish pupils are asked in their textbooks whether their country had any options other than fighting with Germany against the Soviet Union. Pupils untouched by national emotions can perhaps feel more free to judge for themselves why people in that time could be forced to co-operate with Hitler.
On the question of how we could improve our teaching of this topic all participating nations showed an impressive unanimity. Sources from either side of the former Iron Curtain which deal with the everyday life in the post-war era and further in-service training are a must for modern teaching about the Cold War. Reviewing the content and vocabulary in textbooks was also frequently mentioned by delegates.
The fall of communism is causing an almost continuous process of change in history curricular and textbooks, particularly in Eastern Europe. Tamara Eidelman, a history teacher in Moscow, demonstrated in her impressive contribution the changes taking place since 1987. Before then, students in Russia were told that after Potsdam Poland received "the territory lost to the Germans in 1939". The Polish question was not mentioned nor the deportation of the Germans, the war captives or the Prussian question. The latter, at least, has now made it into the latest edition of the official textbook.
In a new experimental textbook, published by the Moscow Institute for Development of Educational Systems, the Potsdam Conference is treated in the chapter on the Cold War. It is not only seen as the end of the Second World War but also as the beginning of a new era. It gives students the different point of views of Stalin, Truman and Churchill Attlee and asks them to discuss controversial agreements.
Teachers in many Eastern European countries are also in a process of reviewing and rewriting history textbooks on the post-war era. Hungarian teachers were given very different perspectives on the events of 1948 and 1956 when they were at university. Now they use oral history in classroom. They tell their pupils to go out in the streets and ask their grandparents and other older people about their experiences and viewpoints on the events of post-war Hungarian history.
The programme of the conference offered too much to find space for the suggestion of one of the participants to try to write an exemplar teaching plan from a genuinely European perspective on the Potsdam conference and its consequences. This would not have been a prescriptive plan for general application in Europe, but it could have been an enriching and fascinating exercise to find a European dimension in history education.
Meeting active practising teachers from so many countries dealing with the same topic seen from such a variety of perspectives was a unique experience. The summer bulletin of Euroclio, edited by Martin Roberts, will be devoted entirely to this conference in Berlin and its results.
In September 1995 Euroclio will organise with the Ministry of Education and Science of Spain a conference in Toledo, Spain, on Philip II and his time. The Spanish government is offering eight scholarships for British history teachers.
Joke van der Leeuw-Roord is president of Euroclio. The secretary is Hel ne Bude-Janssens, Patrijslaan 12A, NL-2261 ED Leidschen dam, The Netherlands.