How do European school textbooks tell the outbreak of WWI today?

On the year of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I we should ask ourselves to what extent history textbooks have to contribute to the civic duties of reconciliation and rejection of war rather than teach historical facts.

Image by Clapargé, CC license

Textbooks have traditionally been considered a cornerstone of nation-building shaping the attitudes of young citizens towards their own country, its neighbours and the world. These manuals and school teaching in general are sometimes charged with a measure of responsibility for the popular acceptance not to say enthusiasm in the first days of August 1914. Be it in the form of French claims to recover Alsace or the right of Germany to have its place under the sun, schoolbooks have conveyed imperialistic, chauvinistic and irredentist positions that contributed to make young citizens see conflict with neighbours as inevitable. Whereas the responsibility of school teaching has probably been exaggerated and the place of manuals today is increasingly contested by the availability of internet media, they remain important in the transmission of knowledge as well as ideology and common sense about the past.

The College and CEGESOMA recently organised a ‘historians dialogue’ , an initiative launched by the German Embassy in Brussels to promote international debates on historical issues of European importance. Kerstin Schwedes and Kaat Wils discussed the evolution of the representations of WWI in European history schoolbooks.

Faced with the question of what can we still learn today from textbooks the speakers agreed to contextualise the importance of the manuals albeit considering that these are still telling because of their indisputable nature as political artefacts contributing to construct reality in a certain way and exercise power by selecting, ordering and hiding facts. Textbooks are mediated narratives about the past that contribute to create discourses, common sense interpretations and ideologies and as such they deserve attentive analysis.

It was clear that there has been an evolution in representations since the 1920s to our days. The experience of the Second World War erased some of the chauvinistic interpretations that still existed in the 20s, although it is also worth to note that international cooperation was fostered in the 30s by the League of Nations to review manuals promoting hatred or distrust. Belgium is one of the countries where narratives of victimhood and claims against German occupation were present in textbooks until the early 60s, then giving place to more neutral presentation of facts as in other European states.

Nevertheless the fact that mutual grieves and chauvinism are no longer openly represented in manuals does not mean that they  do no longer produce relevant discourses and political representations. In this respect there is a strong diversity of approaches among EU member states’ textbooks on WWI in particular when it comes to its representation as a European or essentially a world war, to the attribution of responsibilities and to memory issues. The latter is currently the most topical question. On the year of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I we should ask ourselves to what extent history textbooks have to contribute to the civic duties of reconciliation and rejection of war rather than teach historical facts. For example, is it a good idea in the long run that textbooks emphasise how absurd the war was rather than try to show pupils the reasons and power context where the actors of the time did consider war a useful means of power?

The debate also included the question whether a European textbook moving beyond national interpretations is practical or appropriate. The first question is easily answered in the negative, as national textbooks fit national education programmes in a way a pan-European one would hardly do. The second one is more problematic. On the one hand any pan-European manual risks to be shallow because of the need to compromise on common minimal denominators, but on the other hand the very process of discussing multiple perspectives in order to forge common views is a useful exercise of mutual understanding. However the real question is whether there is a need of a common narrative on WWI across Europe or rather better awareness of the multiplicity of perspectives still existing.

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