Teaching history: the path towards reconciliation in the Balkans

9 May 2007

Marijana Grandits, Director of Working Table I (Democracy), Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, described how teaching a joint history of the Balkans was part of the reconciliation process.

She said current history teaching and text books in the region were very dogmatic, based on ‘rote learning’ and used to bolster national identity, with a complete lack of regional perspective. For example, Croatian or Serbian text books stress their opponents’ crimes while playing down their own, using history to support current political platforms.

The heads of state and governments of the South-East European Cooperative Process (SEECP) support the idea of ‘modernising’ history, and want to use it to stress European standards. Ms Grandits said Balkan governments should “give space to civil society” by, for example, bringing in organisations such as the European Standing Conference of History Teachers’ Association. One of the Stability Pact’s important partners was the Centre for Democracy and Reconciliation for South Eastern Europe, which produces text books for the region.

She acknowledged that there was a “substantial misunderstanding” about the purpose of producing joint history books. Some people felt it was too soon to do this, given that the conflicts had taken place so recently, pointing out that it had taken France and Germany many years after the war to publish a common history text book. However, in her view, this issue had to be debated now “before the train was gone”.

There had also been complaints about imposing joint history projects on the region, but Ms Grandits said this gave teachers and students the opportunity to learn how their neighbours interpreted events and introduced “multi-perspective teaching methods”.

The European perspective

Vassilis Maragos, Directorate-General for Enlargement, European Commission, said that although the EU had no legal competence in education, it agreed it was crucial to revise history books so that past conflicts could not be used as a pretext for future ones. It was important “to leave past conflict and stereotypes behind” and for history to be “pluralist and tolerant”.

The EU’s relationship with South-eastern Europe has entered a new phase, based on “enhanced regional ownership”, and the planned regional cooperation council would signal a dramatic improvement in regional cooperation and activities.

Mr Maragos said he was aware that teaching history was a sensitive issue that needed to be guided by scientific rigour. He welcomed the fruit of joint work by historians in the region, which demonstrated countries’ capacity to cooperate. It was important that these countries adopted EU standards and left the legacy of the past behind.

Verena Taylor, Council of Europe, described how the Council had realised the significance of history teaching since 1949 when it had discussed the need to reform the teaching of European history to avoid a third world war.

The Council wished to create an environment where people understood the importance of protecting human rights and the rule of law, so did not want history used to reinforce preconceived ideas.

Following its 2001 Recommendation on ‘Teaching history in the 21st century’, the Council had launched a project on the European dimension in history teaching, focusing on some major historical dates, such as 1848 (the year of revolutions), 1919 (looking for peace) and 1989-90 (Central and Eastern Europe). This presented significant events in a new way to encourage young people to reach their own conclusions.

A second important project was on ‘The image of the other in history teaching’, which promotes a multicultural view of history, demonstrating that education can encourage multicultural societies in Europe, said Ms Taylor.

The way that history is taught can be a decisive factor in reconciliation, as taking a concrete, project-oriented approach encourages young people to develop their investigative skills. In this vein, the Council has organised seminars on the teaching of history across the Balkans over the past year.

Jean-Pierre Dubois-Montfort, Head of Mission for Franco-German relations, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, focused on the production of a French-German history text book Europe and the World after 1945. The idea for this originated in 2003 when a group of French-German young people suggested a common history book on Europe for use in all French and German schools.

A ‘scientific council’ of academics, and government representatives had been convened to oversee the project and ensure the text book reflected both the different administrative structures in France and Germany, and the different approaches to teaching history - the French method is based on documents and illustrations, while the German one is based on debate.

Other important factors were to ensure that the book was attractive enough for teachers to use and had ‘added value’. The book takes a two-fold approach to historical reality: for example, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles is described differently in the French and German versions; the German version emphasises the history of the Länder (the German regional entities), while the French stresses the decolonisation process, and the assessment of the United States’ role in Europe and of Eastern Europe in the Soviet era differs in the two versions.

Sales of the book are going well, said Mr Dubois-Montfort, and there have been enquiries from Japan and China about producing a similar joint history book.

History teaching in the Balkans - the new challenge

Nenad Sebek, Centre for Democracy and Reconciliation for South Eastern Europe (CDRSEE), said his organisation was working to counter the ethnocentric approach to history in the region, and the view that “we are innocent” and “the other is the guilty party”. He added that national text books were also unbelievably dull and dogmatic.

The Centre has produced four workbooks for the region, choosing relatively controversial themes: the Ottoman Empire, nations and states in South-east Europe, the Balkan Wars and the Second World War. These provide supplementary texts for teachers, giving differing views of how people see the same event.

All the books have been conceived and written in the Balkans, and have so far received high approval ratings from teachers (84% in Serbia). The Centre’s work has been attacked by some governments, but Mr Sebek believed that every attack was a sign it was on the right track, as it had been accused “of conspiracy, not of incorrect facts”.

Joke van der Leeuw, EUROCLIO, European Standing Conference of History Teachers’ Association, described how the organisation, which has 60 members in 48 countries, has established a network of history educators in the Balkans.

While history education is not normally on the political agenda, people began to realise its importance after events in Kosovo, particularly given the “worrying development” of politicians and the media to enhance the importance of national history and its glory and suffering.

EUROCLIO has set up projects in Albania, Bulgaria and Macedonia in the framework of the Stability Pact, to be followed by projects in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia, to encourage people to look at common issues. However, after a promising start, EUROCLIO has found that interest in joint history projects in the Balkans is falling and they are short of funds.

EUROCLIO is faced with several challenges, said Ms van der Leeuw. Governments view its work as “subversive”, so given the impossibility of writing text books for the national market in the Balkans, EUROCLIO is concentrating on producing teaching resource materials for teachers.

Secondly, most current teaching materials hardly mention ethnic minorities in the Balkans at all. Thirdly, international resources tended to focus on emergency aid and “the spectacular project”, rather than on conflict prevention or long-term reconciliation. Support is also needed for projects with a comparative regional perspective. A long-term financial investment, backed up by patience and persistence, is crucial.