This week, HumanRightsEurope places the spotlight on history teaching in Europe.
Over the next seven days, articles, videos, interviews and weblinks will highlight the changes to history teaching in Europe which helped guide the region away from conflict towards reconciliation.
The Council of Europe has been a leader in this project these past 60 years.
That role is now as urgent as it was in the post-World War Two era, as Europe confronts globalisation, international terrorism and social tensions which threaten to provoke a return to old ways.
The article below reviews the changes which paved the way for decades of relative peace in Europe, gradually supplanting centuries-old obsessions with royalty, parliaments, wars, winners and losers.
How History Teaching Helped To Re-Shape Modern Europe
History is the midwife of the Council of Europe.
The organisation came into existence in 1949 after Europe’s second crash and burn experiment in 30 years reduced the region to rubble.
A determined effort was made to move national narratives, with their ready concepts of eternal allies and permanent enemies, towards a consideration of historical memory which stressed the region’s shared experiences and understandings.
To many, this seemed like the most formidable of the many challenges facing a post-World War Two Europe.
However, it was a task embraced by the Council of Europe, which worked with member states to free history from the jingoism, stereotypes and bias that made Europe a byword for enmity.
As set out in a 2001 Committee of Ministers recommendation, a clear set of principles governed the organisation’s approach to history teaching from its inception.
History teaching would no longer be “an instrument of ideological manipulation, of propaganda or used for the promotion of intolerant and ultra-nationalistic, xenophobic, racist or anti-Semitic ideas.”
Instead, history teaching would be “an instrument for the prevention of crimes against humanity,” so as to prepare the ground for “a freely-agreed building of Europe based on a common historical and cultural heritage, enriched though diversity, even with its conflictual and sometimes dramatic aspects.”
A measure of the success of the Council of Europe’s history and education project is the enduring relationship of former enemies, who reconciled as the organisation’s membership swelled to 47 member states.
Economic and political imperatives may have been at the heart of these improvements but an emphasis on Europe’s shared political and cultural inheritance provided the invisible glue binding the region to a common purpose and shared values.
In member states where conflicts did arise, the Council of Europe and partner agencies worked to make history teaching less the hostage of politics and more a tool of peace.
This is made plain in a 2009 Parliamentary Assembly recommendation on ‘History teaching in conflict and post conflict areas.’
It declared that: “History teaching can be a tool to support peace and reconciliation in conflict and post-conflict areas as well as tolerance and understanding when dealing with such phenomena as migration, immigration and changing demographics.”
“Conflict resolution is a process at a political level, from peace keeping, to peace making and finally onto peace building. History teaching is a process too in terms of teachers being consulted, trained, retrained, supported, resourced, encouraged and protected in the delivery of new approaches to controversial and sensitive issues. Both elements must be addressed if the political process is to attain long-term success with the new generations growing up.
“What is taught, how it is taught and when controversial issues can be addressed rely on a process of building new skills and confidence within both the teaching and student cohort. These need to be underlined by new political attitudes and policies towards history in its role of reconciling difference and developing tolerance.
“Conventional history teaching stressed a single interpretation of events as being “the truth”, which was politically expedient. It is now internationally accepted that there can be many views and interpretations, which are based on evidence.
“There is validity in a multiple perspective approach that assists and encourages students to respect diversity and cultural difference, in this increasingly globalised world, rather than teaching, which can reinforce the more negative aspects of nationalism.”
The dividends of the Council of Europe’s “blame-neutral” approach to teaching history are easily identified – stability, prosperity and international solidarity.
They are also easy to forget.
The venom of ancient disputes and bitter quarrels could have rent asunder the Council of Europe. Yet more than 60 years after it came into existence, the organisation is thriving, the oldest and largest international assembly in Europe with its member states mostly at peace.
However, the challenge of using history to promote reconciliation– for some, the ultimate irony – demands renewed commitment, as Europe confronts the forces of globalisation, insecurity, terrorism and nationalism, all well-equipped to test the post-war consensus.
A new recommendation on history teaching will be discussed next April updating the organisation’s priorities in the new century.
‘Multi-perspectivity’ and redefining ‘the image of the other’ are central to the Council of Europe’s activity. Teaching history in a multi-cultural environment and striking the right balance between content and the acquisition of competence are equally prized.
The Council of Europe’s urgent task in the mid-1950’s was to persuade Europeans that the riches of unity were greater than the profits of division.
The challenge of the future is to maintain this dialogue with Europe’s citizens so that their wish for deep security is not threatened by extremist revision.
Committee of Ministers Recommendation (2001) On History Teaching In 21st Century Europe
Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation (2009) – History Teaching in Conflict And Post-Conflict Areas
CoE Website: Education For Europe