The real legacies

5th May 1995 at 01:00
Monday will be a day of justifiable nation- al celebration: sales of the Union Jack are expected to beat all rec- ords, and children will have a day off school. But what will they understand by it all?

They will understand that VE Day marks the end of something awful - not just the war against Germany (Italy always gets forgotten) but against tyranny in general and against the death camps.

It is the death camps that predominate in the minds of the young. Books like The Wooden Horse and Reach For The Sky have been replaced by documentary-style television: unbearable footage from Belsen and the seminal programme Holocaust.

By means of these later images, a national consensus now exists that such inhumanity must never happen again. It is a solemn consensus, crossing generations.

But it is not to belittle the past to point out that VE Day also marks a beginning. That fact places a clear if delicate responsibility on formal education.

The situation is complicated by the way events since the war are at variance with popular conceptions. What has actually happened provides a wealth of facts: the rise of the superpowers, the Cold War, economic recession, the threat of nuclear war, the collapse of Communism and the end of the Soviet Union come immediately to mind. If history is concerned with how the past bears upon the present, these facts are the stuff of today's education.

But what of Europe as popularly conceived? And, specifically, what of Germany?

Is Europe still to remain "over there", the dimly understood habitat of Johnny Foreigner, good for little except cheap holidays, televised football competitions and alleged prime ministerial triumphs? And is Germany forever to remain the land of "Ve heff vays of mekking you talk"? Or can the conceptual gap be closed between the serious past and the serious present?

There are other facts teachers should pass on to their pupils. One, since the end of the Second World War, a recurrence of war in Western Europe has been unthinkable. Two, Europe, including the United Kingdom, is now a political entity guaranteed by treaty. Three, West Germany, during its years of partition, moved as far from its own history as any country could and became a modern western democracy. Four, with reunification, Germany ensured the unprecedented stable existence of western democracy from the Channel to the Polish border. Five, Chancellor Kohl has repeatedly said that Germany needs to be anchored in a union of western democratic states if it is to resist the shadows of its own past.

There is an important agenda here, too important to be smothered by ignorance and prejudiced Euro-bashing, whatever conclusions ultimately recommend themselves.

It needs to be taught because it is materially about the peace-time Europe that was achieved in 1945 and which, by dint of great sacrifice, has been bequeathed to the children of 1995. Let them go on to re-model it in the light of 21st century needs. But first, let them understand fully what was made possible for them on the original VE Day.

* The national curriculum for history requires that at key stage 2, children should study "Britain since l930" including "Britons at War" - looking at the way people were affected by the Second World War.

At key stage 3, pupils should study "The 20th century world" and have an overview of the First World War and its consequences; the Second World War, including the Holocaust and the dropping of atomic bombs; the legacy of the Second World War for Britain and the world.

Dr Colin Butler is senior English master at Borden Grammar School, Sittingbourne, Kent

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