Historians clash over nationalism

4th November 1994 at 00:00
Frances Rafferty reports from a symposium which addressed how a new Europe should study its past. A call to end the teaching of nationalist history led to tension between western and former eastern bloc countries last week in Sofia, Bulgaria, where historians, educationists and politicians met to discuss the role of the subject in creating a united and "tolerant" Europe.

Professor Wolfgang Hopken, of Leipzig University, speaking at the Council of Europe's history symposium, said: "Even taking into consideration that the ending of communism in eastern Europe has meant a re-establishing of a formerly threatened or subordinated national identity, it is still highly questionable that history textbooks and curricula be centred around the national history. "

Instead, he said, national history should be integrated into a wider context of European and world history.

And where, in former times, history was used to promote a particular political system and ideology great effort must be made to introduce textbooks which do not merely replace that view with another nationalistic demonology. Instead textbooks must include as many perspectives and historical points of view as they can.

But his argument met opposition from the floor and was picked up later by representatives taking part in the four-day event. Marie Homerova, a teacher at a Czech secondary school in Prague, said: "We have had our history stolen from us. It is important to us that we can rescue our country's past. Of course it is necessary to be careful that we do not make the same mistake by having a monolithic view of history; but it is something we all feel passionate about."

She did admit however that already, since the division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, textbooks had appeared which treated the other as the "enemy".

But Mariusz Misztal, director of the English Language College, Pedagogical University of Cracow, argued that it is important for his country, Poland, to know about its enemies: "It is important for Poland to understand its national identity and to be allowed to hear about its national heroes."

Professor Hopken was also taken to task by Professor Jure Kristo, assistant professor, at the Institute for Contemporary History History, Zagreb, Croatia. "The problem is that the West always thinks it is right."

The proliferation of country names at the conference - there are 16 new states, including Albania, Belarus, Slovenia, the Ukraine, which take part in the Council's education programme - is a graphic indication of just how fast Europe is changing; and shows just how much there needs to be done for historians, textbook publishers and history teachers to make sense of these changes.

Professor Hopken said the experience of the recent unification of Germany shows that historical interpretation must be synthesised from both western and eastern perspectives.

He said: "At first schools in east Germany were pleased to be able to use textbooks from the West. The paper is of much better quality and it was all new and exciting. But as the euphoria of the unification wore off, so did the euphoria for the 'new' textbooks . Now teachers from the former GDR complain that they are being taken over."

Tensions also surfaced in the three workshops organised as part of the conference. Professor Svein Lorentzen, of the Institute of Teacher Training, Trondheim University, Norway, said history could be taught by region. The Nordic and Baltic states, including Russia, were working on a project which looked at history beyond the nation state.

But other countries were less keen to be part of an umbrella group including the Russians.

Carmel Gallagher, from Northern Ireland representing the United Kingdom, said where she came from people were killing each other because of history and that the teaching of nationalism had provided the IRA with its ideological ammunition. She said one syllabus which had been popular because it provided a different perspective was one which made pupils look at historical problems as if they were detectives. She said: "They were given a topic, for example the murder of the princes in the Tower, and were presented with various source materials. They learned the skills of solving historical problems. Chronology was not seen as important, nor learning a list of dates of battles."

But this approach did not convince Dr Misztal: "So they would not necessarily know who Henry VIII is? That cannot be right. Pupils need to know the facts before they can go on to other things."

He later said: "In my opinion it will be impossible for east European countries to give up a nationalistic perspective. It has been said that nationalism is bad - and that can be true.

"But it is also important to have the feeling of belonging to a group and history teachers in Poland will not be persuaded that it is better to do social history or world history."

The symposium, titled "History, democratic values and tolerance in Europe: the experience of countries in democratic transition", was opened by Maitland Stobart, deputy director of Education, Culture and Sport of the 32-member European Council.

He told the conference that history if taught well could be one tool in the Council's campaign to combat racism, xenophobia, anti-semitism and intolerance.

But at the end of the conference he admitted that the Council had a lot of work to do to reconcile the different views expressed in Sofia. "It is now my task to find more money to enable us to continue these debates," he said.

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