The Interwar Period Through Various Perspectives

From 18-19 November 2017, EUROCLIO ambassador Ineke Veldhuis-Meester attended the international congress “Fundamental rights in democratic and totalitarian European countries during the interwar period 1918-1939” in Tallinn, Estonia. At the congress Ineke’s role was two-fold: she gave both a lecture on the experiences of the Dutch during the interwar period, and collected many different impressions and interpretations from various international participants to create a well-rounded report from many different perspectives.

How was it possible that democratic countries became dictatorships during the interwar period in Europe? What happened and how is it perceived today?  These are the questions the congress “Fundamental rights in democratic and totalitarian European countries during the interwar period 1918-1939” in Tallinn, Estonia, sought to answer. The congress aimed to facilitate an exchange of information on how the interwar period is taught in different countries.

In the beautiful 19th Century building of the Tallinn Reaalkool, the first day of the congress was filled to the brim with general lectures on 1) the reception of the October revolution in Estonia in the context of human rights, 2) reflections on the early won Estonian Women’s Suffrage, 3) Interwar Poland and 4) Interwar Finland. Moreover, twelve lectures/workshops in two rounds were given on the different countries’ experiences of the period. These workshops were so well received, that people complained of not having had the opportunity for a third round of lectures to hear how this period is perceived and taught in more EU countries!

The full programme of the congress is available here.

About 100 Estonian teachers and around 70 students of the upper secondary classes of the Reaalkool, the Tallinn Secondary School of Science, of were present. Accompanied by twenty international teachers and teachers-trainers, all Euroclians. Translation of the event was done very well by two teachers and about twelve students of the last grade of the Reaalkool.

Below you can find the international participants’ reports on the lectures/workshops they visited.

Guido Lessing from Luxembourg reports:

As the VIIth Estonian history teachers' congress was dedicated to totalitarian European countries during the interwar period 1918-1939, the view on Lithuania and Latvia as the Baltic neighbours of Estonia was of particular interest.
Despite differences in detail, both countries went through a similar development from a newly born democratic Nation state in the wake of World War I to an authoritarian state up to the mid-1930ies. Nonetheless, the interwar period is in both countries perceived as an important moment in the national awakening. As Ansis Nudiens in his lecture on "The national issue in the Latvia's history textbooks" explained, national historiography during the interwar period (and well beyond) blanked out the strong influence by the German speaking nobility and Russian rule under the tsarist regime on Latvian history in order to create a national narrative.

Simona Stankutė and Sonata Džiavečkaitė lecturing on "Democracy and dictatorship in Lithuania" put emphasis on the perception of Antanas Smetona, the first and last president of independent Lithuania during the interbellum years. They explained that Smetona is nowadays mostly judged by his merits for the affirmation of the Latvian state and less for his authoritarian rule.

Kristian Arentsen and Trine Loo from Denmark report:

Can Norwegian newspapers in the interwar period be used to illustrate general reactions to Nazi policy? In short, the answer is ‘certainly’! Having outlined the main points of Norwegian history in the interwar period, Kristen Meadows, who works as a pedagogue in the Center for Holocaust and Religious Research in Norway, presented the participants with a series of short articles from different Norwegian newspapers on Nazi policy. The newspapers used to be either owned by or closely connected to different political parties. The articles dating from 1933 to 1939 clearly showed a development in opinion. Consequently, this facilitated a very lively discussion in the workshop to clarify the general reactions to Nazi policy.

Sonja Bančić from Croatia reports:

The first workshop I attended, “Norwegian newspapers in the interwar period - reactions to Nazi policy” was prepared by Kristen Meadows from Norway. First, Kirsten gave us short speech about Norwegian political situation in the interwar period. Then we worked with the historical sources - articles from 3 well known newspapers from that time: Dagbladet, Aftenposten and Arbeiderbladet. We had to answer a few questions about the newspapers attitude to Nazi policy. The general question for the workshop was: Is there something from the interwar period for Norway to be ashamed for? The conclusion was that there is nothing to be ashamed of, but there certainly are issues that Norway has to critically asses This workshop was very well organised and it was very interesting.

For the second workshop that I attended, The Danish interwar Period Uncovered Through Competitive Exercises, was prepared by Trine Loo and Kristian Arentsen from Denmark. The workshop was divided in four chapters: 1. A brief introduction to Danish history before, during and after WWI, 2. Competitive exercises - case: “The Kanslergade Agreement”, 3. Collective memory, 4. Summary of the workshop. The most interesting part was the second where we worked with texts in which we had to find answers for four group of questions regarding the Kanslergade Agreement. We had to find the answers very fast! As I wrote, it is a competitive exercise: whoever is the fastest (including the right answers) is thewinner. I think every student would like that kind of exercise!

Workshop on the interwar newspapers of Norway by Kirsten Meadows


Vódli Zsolt from Hungary reports:  

 Ineke Veldhuis-Meester: The Dutch Stayed Out of the War...

(A workshop of good questions)

Ineke, as always, raised several good questions. Why did the Dutch stay out of the war? How was it possible? Was it an advantage or disadvantage? What were the social changes in the Netherlands during the interwar years? How could the Dutch avoid the dictatorship?

The most interesting question was the last for me. Most of the workshop's participants live in Central and Eastern Europe, and considering our location, we have had a different history than the western European nations. For the better understanding, Ineke gave an explanation for their unique position in Europe, and an explanation for the raised question.

The Netherlands were a stable paternalistic and open society. Characterised by religious tolerance, sense of citizenship, a strive for equality and the possibility to control the state. When the young European democracies were in danger, when dangerous ideologies gained ground, the Dutch could avoid the fate of Eastern and Central Europe. They could avoid their fate, because of their different attitude, which rooted deeply in their traditions and culture.

For us, people in Eastern and Central Europe, that is the lesson we should learn from the Dutch. But in many of our countries we have, again, different experiences. We can see, again, the contrary.

"Historia est magistra vitae"?

Let's learn from the Dutch!

 Sonata Džiavečkaitė from Lithuania reports:

The lecture by teacher Nina Våntånen about Lapua's movement was very interesting and comprehensive. The interwar period in Finland is a subject of little consideration in Lithuanian textbooks. It was therefore helpful to learn more about how this movement was

born and spread in Finland. It was very interesting to me that in the interwar period, however, the Finns managed to resist the undemocratic movement of Lapua and preserved democracy. Many European states in the interwar period - including Lithuania - have moved from a democratic system to a dictatorship, while the Finns have remained loyal to democratic values. And of course the Finnish state's political evolution has evolved differently from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which were chosen dictatorial regimes."

Ineke Veldhuis-Meester from the Netherlands reports:  

In his workshop “The central lecture on Narratives from the Polish history teaching on the Interwar period in Europe”, Jacek Staniszewski from Poland painted a picture of ‘a Poland with two tribes,’ who tell the same facts, but frame them differently. This is best seen not in textbooks, but in popular magazines. Jacek showed us the controversies of ‘the two tribes’: on borders, the Jewish issue, the assassination of the 1st president, The May Coup in Wilno and Pilsudski, and the current nostalgia to the good old times of the twenties and thirties. All noticed by both, but interpreted opposing perspectives.

The second workshop I attended “‘activities run’ through Hungary’s Age of Trauma and Contradictions”, was energetically managed by Zsolt Vodli. After every round of skilfully and attractively presented information, the participants had to fill out a short rehearsal test as given to his Hungarian class; the check was handled by Zsolt efficiently, so that we saw what happened under Horty’s regime. What struck me most was how Hungary had been beaten by the consequences of the lost war: a post-Trianon Kingdom without a king, and ruled by an admiral without a sea, a country with around 70% of its territory lost and 31% of its fellow country men living outside its borders. How heavily the lost war drew on the people is felt until today.

Juraj Varga from Slovakia reports:

 Last weekend I had a chance to visit Estonian capital Tallinn to experience congress of Estonian history and civics teachers. The warm welcome at the headmaster's office on Friday's evening was a pleasant kick off of the whole event.
Looking back at the event I'm still amazed by the organisation, by the organizer and all the students participating. The high school students have been fantastic! They have been able even to consecutively interpret workshops for their Estonian teachers from English into their own language.

Now thinking about the two workshops I attended, well, I was pleasantly surprised and unexpectedly satisfied. My first experience was with Miguel Monteiro de Barros’ presentation about Portuguese path to totalitarianism designed as mini lecture and well crafted. Handouts and audiovisual aids were masterfully mixed together. Miguel's presentation skills and smartly chosen keywords cemented the facts in my memory and I'm still able to recollect most of this mini lecture's content and I guess I won't forget 3 Fs (Fátima, Football, Fado).

My second experience was with Zsolt Vodli's Interwar years, which compared to Miguel's was a completely different approach. This workshop was full of activities and as dynamic and innovative as it gets. One feature of the workshop struck me and stayed - it was the irony and paradoxes of interwar regime. This perspective is rare, but I highly appreciate and those contradictory phenomena still keep me reconsidering rhetoric and actions - what is being said and what is being done.

Sadly, I have to address design deficiencies also. Mini lectures and workshops are a good format, but the time for them was limited and too short with little time to discuss presented approaches in depth. There were many workshops and mini lectures (about 20) which I wanted to attend, obviously, because of the presenters and their crafts, but I had to choose two only, which is another point that I would rethink for such event.

All in all, I'm grateful for such event. These events are great for exchange of ideas and experiences and enrich my own set of practices.

International participants of the congress

Teaching the Ends of Empires

Map of Dutch Colonies ca.1840

In early November, the Bronbeek Museum hosted a day-long conference, sponsored by the National 4/5 May Committee of the Netherlands on how to teach decolonisation in former empires. Ethan Mark, a modern Asia historian from Leiden University, was there and shared the following insights with EUROCLIO highlighting the themes and outcomes of the day. 

Oscar Van Nooijen from the International Baccalaureate was also at the event, and made detailed notes (available here), that also provide a useful and insightful overview of the context of Ethan's piece, with an outline of the content of the various speeches and workshops that took place at the event. 

Teaching the Ends of Empire

Empire:  In today’s Europe, there is nothing so implicit and yet somehow less explicit.  From the streets to the stock exchanges to the very categories and hierarchies through which we think, in the Netherlands as much as anywhere, the colonial empires and their legacies are everywhere.  Yet if there was one takeaway message of a remarkable day of lectures and workshops on the teaching of “War and Decolonization in Netherlands-Indies/Indonesia,” hosted by the Bronbeek Museum and sponsored by the National 4/5 May Committee this past November 3rd—all the more remarkable for the presence of education experts from neighboring countries who provided a fascinating comparative perspective—it was the shared experience of a yawning gap between the ubiquity of empire in our histories and presents on the one hand, and a general unease and reticence when it comes to confronting empire in our school curricula and in our thinking more generally on the other.

In her opening address to the morning’s plenary session, Chair of the National 4/5 May Committee Gerdi Verbeet sensitively set the tone with a personal anecdote that highlighted the political fault lines perennially running through Dutch reckonings with their former colony and its ending in the bloody decolonization war of 1945-1949.   She recalled how she and her classmates in high school in the early 1960s had often called upon their history teacher, a certain Mr. Mulder, to talk about his personal experiences in the Netherlands Indies, a place to which he was still so romantically attached that once he got started, he lost all track of space and time, thus freeing the students from boring obligations like following the standard curriculum or taking exams(!).  More than a decade after the fact, her teacher still blamed the loss of the colony on Indonesian nationalist leader Sukarno - who he condemned as a “communist” - and on the “meddling” of the United States, which had backed Indonesia’s independence bid in the U.N.  For Verbeet, who grew up in a socialist milieu (and more recently represented the [left-leaning] PvdA party in the Dutch parliament), it was not hard to recognize in her teacher a partisan apologist for a Dutch imperialism she had been raised to see as wrong.  But she also noted that the views of a classmate who was son of a former member of the Dutch colonial army or KNIL (staffed predominantly by local minorities such as Molukkans, Ambonese, and people of mixed Dutch-Indonesian descent or “Indo's”) aligned rather more closely with those of her teacher.  And at home her own father, meanwhile, preferred to avoid the subject altogether.  Sent to Indonesia in 1947 to participate in what were euphemistically described as “police actions” and “expecting to be greeted there as a liberator,” he had instead experienced horrors “that he never talked about to anyone in the family.”

As Verbeet noted, such traumas and contrasting, competing perspectives and investments have made it difficult for the Netherlands to come to terms with its colonial history, above all with the violent nature of its ending.  In the school curriculum, and in the wider society, the predominant narrative of the Second World War for the Dutch has remained the “easy,” black-and-white one of victimization at the hands of the Nazi Germans “at home” and, to a lesser extent, at the hands of the Japanese in Asia.  The “grey areas” in between the black and white, or even the possibility of a role-reversal implied in acknowledging a Dutch role as victimizers in colonial Indonesia and its violent ending—the latter recently highlighted for example in a well-received  study on the Dutch military’s systematic use of terror tactics by scholar Remy Limpach—have up to now been largely avoided.

As Professor Remco Raben (University of Amsterdam, Utrecht University) observed in his subsequent keynote lecture “Colonial Past and Present,” colonial history in general is (safely) quarantined in Dutch school textbooks as something that happened a long time ago and far far away, in a limited and piecemeal fashion:  “there was a cultuurstelsel, there was slavery,” etc.  Not only in textbooks but indeed in the wider scholarly field as well, questions of the effects and implications of the colonial experience and its ongoing legacies for the Netherlands itself—“a great part of the story” but full of complexity and difficult to fit into a “clear moral narrative” (Raben)— get passed over altogether.  While one or two largely unheralded, independent scholars such as Ewald van Vugt have focused on unmasking the ugly histories of racism and violence that lay at the heart of the colonial order and continue to haunt the present—what Raben refers to as its “structural elements” of coercion and violence—the dominant “undercurrent” in public discourse has remained rather one of quiet colonial glorification:   The Netherlands, as symbolized by the East India Company and the glory of the Golden Age that it underwrote, most often appears in the guise of the Little Country That Could, a nation with a remarkable capacity to punch above its weight in the global competition for riches and prestige.  Such all-too-common self-congratulatory understandings of Dutch colonialism are reflected in a widely circulated poster for a current exhibit on “The East India Company and the World” at the Dutch National Archives, in which a man in 17th century garb from the neck up sports a contemporary business suit from the neck down, accompanied by the slogan “No Business Without Battle.”   Thus, noted Raben, does the colonial experience live on as “shared myth.” But it has never been reckoned with as a real-life “shared experience.”

How to break through this wall of silence and address such difficult “grey areas” in a productive way?   According to Verbeet, Raben, and several other speakers (including the curators of the current Bronbeek museum exhibit “The Story of the Netherlands East Indies”) an answer can be sought in exposing students to the voices and narratives of multiple participants in history and their often competing agendas and perspectives, an approach summed up in the word “multiperspectivity.”  As one provocative example of an appropriate theme for such an approach in the case of the colonial Indies and its decolonization, Raben proposes prison camps.  The conventional, dominant narrative of “the camps” in the Netherlands is indeed one of Dutch victimization, first at the hands of the Japanese during World War Two and subsequently at the hands of Indonesian nationalists afterwards, who ironically compelled many of the imprisoned to remain in the camps after the long-awaited Japanese surrender for their “own protection” against Indonesians with more radical, violent intentions towards them,  thus piling trauma upon trauma.  For the “Indo” community that had mostly remained outside of the camps, meanwhile, this was a period of infamy in which several thousand met death at Indonesian hands, a period known to them by the Indonesian term “Bersiap.”  It was under the slogan of “restoring order” amidst such “chaos” that the Dutch returned to the Indies.

Yet a more balanced and less “Dutch-centric” historical understanding of this experience—one that among other things allows room for Indonesian experiences of the Dutch return as a rather different, more menacing form of “restoring order”—can for example be fostered by considering prison camps and violence in the context of a longer colonial history of political repression and internment, including violent wars of anticolonial suppression in Java and Aceh that preceded the revolution  (with casualties in the hundreds of thousands) along with the prewar incarceration of Indonesian leftist activists at the infamous Boven Digoel prison island, and the exile of nationalist leaders Sukarno and Hatta to the distant islands of Flores and Bengkulu from 1934-1942 (indeed, one might well ask, how long might this imprisonment under the autocratic “emergency powers” of the Dutch governor-general have lasted, if not for their unexpected “liberation” at the hands of Japanese?)

If the day’s lectures and workshops were any indication, the appeals of such a multi-perspectival approach to colonial pasts and legacies for history pedagogy are being recognized more widely in Western Europe.  Particularly impressive and ambitious in its sophistication is a French initiative for students in their last year (year seven) of high school to explore competing and conflicting memories of the Algerian War through the approaches of memory studies, which was introduced in a workshop led by history, geography and geopolitics instructor Delphine Boissarie.  In this dedicated unit, students are introduced to the analyses of leading memory interpreters such as Henry Rousso, who argues that French society’s memories of the Algerian War have moved through a sequence of phases that also characterized the postwar evolution of memories of that other better-known national trauma--the Vichy regime that collaborated with Nazis during WWII—including a “phase of amnesia” and a “phase of progressive return.”  But they are also confronted with alternative interpretations that dispute the very existence of anything like a “collective memory.”  These rather emphasize the existence of multiple and often incommensurable postcolonial memories and their various instrumentalizations by multiple, often conflicting, postcolonial interest groups in contemporary France.  Those who occupied higher status positions in the colonial hierarchy such as the elite, white, Christian “pieds-noirs” often have quite different memories of the Algerian War than the Muslim working class “harkis” who served as subalterns in the French colonial army, and the two postcolonial groups continue to stand in different relations of power and influence vis-à-vis the postcolonial French state as well.  In the eyes of the many Algerians and their descendants who emigrated to France after the war, meanwhile, both groups are viewed negatively, the pieds-noirs as “exploiters” and the harkis as “traitors.”

This is social and ideological territory ripe for analysis via the nuances of memory studies, but Boissarie acknowledged some great challenges confronting the initiative as well.  Teachers are only allowed a total of three or four hours of class time to cover the unit, the intellectual demands of the approach are high, students without a direct investment in the history often remain indifferent to it, and the focus remains very much on the French side of the story.  Above all, the study of memory is here postulated as a method to explore the postcolonial contours and conflicts of contemporary French society—as opposed, that is, to a means of exploring, comparing, and contrasting French and Algerian experiences or narratives as such.

While their target audience is younger and their expectations somewhat less ambitious, Cees van der Kooij and Paul Holthuis, two high school curriculum developers interviewed regarding a current project to address the Dutch decolonization war in a dedicated unit for 3rd-year high school students (aged 14-15) in the morning plenary session, also agreed upon the urgent need for “multiperspectivity.”  Up to now, they noted, the decolonization experience had only occupied “a page and a half” in standard textbooks, hardly enough space for nuance or multiple perspectives.  As one example of the unit they are designing, they described including “three lessons on making choices:  what would you do” for example as a member of the Molukkan minority—many of whom were distinguished from other Indonesians by their Christian religion and service in the Dutch colonial army—when confronted with Dutch authorities on one side and Indonesian nationalists on the other competing for your loyalty?  The experience of such minorities from the “outer islands,” who shared with other Indonesians a low “native” status in the Dutch colonial hierarchy but did not necessarily feel at home or welcome in the promised Indonesian republic either, highlights the quintessential complexities and grey areas of colonial societies and their decolonization.  The experience of such groups was again often quite different from that of Eurasian “Indo’s,” whose Dutch status situated them in a relatively privileged position under Dutch colonial rule, but also put them in an even more precarious and antagonistic one vis-à-vis Indonesians and their struggle for independence.   What both groups shared was that great numbers of them both eventually chose a “safe return” to a Netherlands to which they had never been—and in which they were in fact rarely warmly welcomed— over remaining in a Indonesian “homeland” where they no longer enjoyed the privileges or security they had known under colonial rule.

As with the French example, the incorporation of the experiences of such hitherto unrecognized groups into history education can be said to highlight the strengths of a “multiperspectival” approach to the Dutch colonial past, but also some of its potential limitations and pitfalls.  In both cases, questions arise regarding the inclusion of the voices, experiences, and perspectives of the vastly larger number of former colonial subjects who stayed behind:  that is, Algerians and Indonesians.  Even as Molukkans and “Indische Nederlanders” both struggled for recognition and respect from their new homeland in ways that paralleled those of France’s “pieds-noirs” and “harkis,” their large-scale exodus from Indonesia resulted in a great over-representation of their voices and perspectives in the postwar Netherlands relative to the exponentially larger number of Indonesians who stayed put.  This presents an accessibility problem for historians and students eager to include the Indonesian side of the decolonization story, one compounded by the language barrier between the two societies.  Both issues distinguish the postcolonial Netherlands from other postcolonial societies such as the UK, Belgium, and France—all with larger and more vocal postcolonial diasporas—and represent an extra barrier to the development of a truly balanced multiperspectivity.   Symptomatic of such a problem, when asked to what degree Indonesian perspectives were included in their project, van der Kooij and Holthuis acknowleged that “Indonesia is missing” and decried a “lack of Indonesian sources.”  The imbalance of scholarly attention to the Indonesian experience of the decolonization war up to now is an issue also raised by Limpach in his prominent study.  Citing this, the two educators added optimistically that they expected this problem to be addressed four years from now, when the results of an ambitious new Dutch government-funded research project on “Decolonization, Violence and War in Indonesia 1945-1950,” recently kicked off to much fanfare, become available.

With a budget of over 4 million euros, led by three Dutch institutes (the Royal Institute of Ethnology  or KITLV, the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation  and Genocide Studies or NIOD, and the National Institute for Military History or NIMH) and involving a team of some twenty researchers including Limpach, the project has indeed been billed as a critical turning point in the study of this traumatic period, signalling the potential for a welcome sea change in Dutch scholarship and attitudes towards a colonial war that has thus far escaped a balanced and honest reckoning.   Symbolic of this, when briefly interviewed in the mornings’ proceedings, Limpach highlighted the new research as animated by an awareness of the need for a replacement of long-used Dutch euphemisms such as “summary justice” and “police actions” for what they “really were”: “murder” (moord) and “war” (oorlog).  Comparisons would again seem to be in order with French experience, in which official acknowledgement of the conflict in Algeria as a “war” came only in 1999.

Still, a closer look at the contours of the research project as currently conceived—and indeed also at the composition of this day of lectures and workshops itself—raises concerns regarding the degree to which the perennial structural underrepresentation of Indonesian perspectives on the decolonization experience in the Netherlands can be so easily addressed.  The research project has sparked critical controversy for its direct connection to the Dutch state, and for its rather limited provision for Indonesian involvement and input.  At the very start of the day’s session in Bronbeek, meanwhile, the audience was informed that there were no Indonesian scholars or speakers present, and that this had “everything to do with the sensitivity of this subject in Indonesia.”  In their rather uncomfortable absence, a survey of Indonesian history-writing on the period 1945-50 in the morning’s final lecture was instead presented by Professor Henk Schulte-Nordholt, head of research at the KITLV, one of the institutions involved in the project.

Historically, Schulte-Nordholt observed, the Indonesian side of the story is “incredibly complicated.”  But historiographically, at least from the perspective of the Indonesian state, he argued, it is “incredibly simple.”  The lion’s share of his presentation focused on historical complexities he identified on the Indonesian side that bely the image of a unified national struggle against the Dutch propagated by the Indonesian state, including internal conflicts between diplomats and fighters, between nationalists, communists, and Islamists, and between social elites and social revolutionaries, with ordinary Indonesians often caught in the middle—conflicts Schulte-Nordholt  summed up in the question of whether the Indonesian history of this period should be indeed be categorized as “a revolution, or a complex of conflicts?”  In Indonesian history-writing thus far, he argued, the answer has been remarkably simple, and simplistic: “The Republic is THE central actor, and the state is unified.”  A “second dogma” in Indonesian history writing, he continued, has been the central role of “the army as saviour of the Revolution and the cornerstone of the Republic.”  Such characterizations of the past, he added, have in turn been instrumental in legitimizing subsequent social interventions in the name of preserving the unity of the nation-state, above all with regard to the army-led anti-communist terror and mass murders of 1965-1966.   Also reflective of such instrumentalization of history for state ends, Indonesian narratives of the revolution have shifted over time in their identification of the primary enemy of national unity from “Islamists” to “communists” in step with shifting official anxieties about each.  The long list of what is missing from all such accounts, he argued, includes attention to regional dynamics, to the fate of a federated Indonesia (which the Dutch attempted to organize as a more friendly alternative to the Republic), to the terrors of the “Bersiap” period and indeed to the stories of Indonesian war casualties as well (there are “no victims, only heroes”), or to any sense of uncertainty regarding the final outcome of the Revolution.  When Schulte-Nordholt offered apparent visual confirmation of the superficial and politically skewed nature of Indonesian historical accounts of the era with a visual collage including “little dolls” (poppetjes) that he noted were a commonplace in Indonesian musea, the room filled momentarily with laughter.

Closing on a more serious note, Schulte-Nordholt alleged that the new Dutch research project is seen in Indonesia as constituting a “threat to the army’s monopoly over the history of the revolution,” a monopoly Indonesian officials have recently shown a willingness to protect through the public intimidation of scholars seeking to reopen the books on 1965.  “The result is that the Revolution remains an extremely sensitive subject,” he argued, adding that while critics of the Dutch research project in the Netherlands have problematized the limited role of Indonesian participants and the possible reduction of their role to that of mere data-collectors for the Dutch, “the much more important question” is whether Indonesian scholars will be bold enough to engage in historical research whose results might conflict with the official narrative.

While the issues raised by Schulte-Nordholt are certainly valid cause for concern, his assuredness in speaking for Indonesian scholars and their concerns, along with the generally rather dismissive tone of his presentation with regard to Indonesian historiography, struck at least some of those present awkwardly.  The audience was not informed about which or what sort of Indonesians were invited to the event and/or who might have turned down the invitation, but the suggestion that the prospect of intimidation by their own government is the main source of hesitation among Indonesian scholars toward participation in such an event as well as in the new Dutch-sponsored and Dutch-led research project on the Indonesian independence war would seem premature to say the least.  From the standpoint of multiperspectivity championed by so many of the presenters at the days’ events, it would also seem rather ironic:  surely before reaching any conclusions about Indonesians and what motivates their behavior, a minimum demand in both contexts would seem to be the provision of a space and an opportunity for a range of Indonesian scholars, and Indonesians more generally, to represent themselves.  Ideally not just to speak, but also to help shape the conversation.

Whether intended or not, the manner of this presentation on behalf of Indonesians also raised pertinent questions regarding the power-effects of our own narrative framing of the (former) colonized.  As noted by Delphine Boissarie in her workshop on teaching the Algerian War, whether intended or not, accusations of an alleged “failure” on the part of the former colonized to critically examine their own histories, including those that ascribe this problem to the autocratic nature of postcolonial states and a corresponding lack of scholarly freedom and objectivity of the sort that “we” enjoy in Western Europe, can carry an uncomfortably neocolonial ring.  Particularly when accompanied by a failure to provide proper historical-contextual counterweight, for example in the form of reference to the role of antidemocratic, repressive colonial regimes in the genesis of such postcolonial states, as well as the often symbiotic role of Western interests in the formation and maintenance of such regimes post-“independence.”  As neatly stated in a recent interview with Charles Esche, curator of the currently-running Europalia Indonesia exhibit “Power and Other Things” at the Musee de Beaux Arts in Brussels, “For 350 years, Indonesia existed under Dutch colonial administration.  This means that every discussion about power requires a discussion about the ongoing effects of colonial domination.”

Highlighting the need for an awareness of the residues of colonial domination in the stories that we tell about the (former) colonized, Esche’s astute comment calls attention to the fact that when narrating colonial history, “multiperspectivity” that consists simply of a multiplicity of voices is not enough.  Such histories must also be informed by an awareness of the particular structural imbalance of power characteristic to the relationship between (former) colonizer and colonized.   This problem demands the fostering of a critical consciousness both among ourselves and our students not only with regard to the choice of stories we narrate and whom is speaking, but also to the power that resides in how such stories are told.

How to foster such a critical awareness among students in a classroom setting?  Via a remarkable afternoon workshop entitled “Shifting Representations of Congolese Colonialism and Decolonization:  An Historical-Didactic Perspective,” professor of history education Karel van Nieuwenhuyse of Leuven University offered one innovative idea for a productive way forward.   Students are presented with selected short excerpts from the writings of David Reybroek, a prominent author generally perceived as a progressive critic of the way Belgians remember their colonial past.  Yet a close reading highlights the dangers of such simple characterizations—and thereby the subtle ways in which colonial power and patterns of thinking continue to haunt the present.  After reading an excerpted text in Reybroek’s bestseller Congo:  A History that negatively compares a speech by nationalist leader Patrick Lumumba on the day Congo gained independence to famous speeches by Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama, students are asked to “analyze this excerpt and the language used.  Mark in green all words that ascribe to Lumumba a positive connotation, in red all negative connotations, and in blue all neutral ones.  What is your conclusion?   Through which lenses does Reybroek view Lumumba’s speech?  Western or Congolese?”  In a second chosen passage, after noting they had never lived a day under a democratic regime, Reybroek argues that it was therefore unsurprising that Congolese nationalist leaders Kasavubu, Lumumba, Tshombe and Mobutu “wrestled with the principles of democracy.”  He then proceeds to reduce the interaction among them to “who should be the follower of King Boudewijn,” illustrating this with reference to Kasavubu’s choice of gala-uniform  as “an exact copy of that of Boudewijn.”  “Who is ascribed agency in the failed decolonization?  Who much less?” asks Nieuwenhuyse of his students.  “What sort of continuity is suggested between the historical kingdoms and [the situation of] 1960?   How is the Congo thus represented?  Connect this to the fact that Lumumba had no gala-uniform….”

Nieuwenhuyse’s lesson:  In our narratives of colonization and decolonization alike, fostering an awareness not just of who is represented but also how we do so can make the difference between genuinely working to overcome the tenacious imbalances and injustices of the colonial past—and reproducing them.

Push for Copyright Reform in Education

Jaco Stoop Articles , ,

Early next year, the Legal Affairs (JURI) Committee of the European Commission will vote on a new directive concerning the use of copyrighted materials for educational purposes across the EU.  The directive, in theory, aims to expand upon existing exemptions from copyright legislation in education at an EU level. While this sounds desirable, in reality the directive falls short of this goal, and contains numerous caveats that would in fact hinder the continuous development of high quality, cross-border educational resources. In response to this, EUROCLIO, in partnership with COMMUNIA and the Lifelong Learning Platform, amongst others, are advocating for the development of a more open and effective copyright framework that would allow educators the freedom to fully take advantage of the technologies available to them, thus making high quality education more accessible for all.

Representatives from EUROCLIO and a variety of other institutions including COMMUNIA, Wikimedia, and SPARC Europe, met at the offices of the Lifelong Learning Platform in Brussels in November to strategise and streamline these advocacy efforts for better copyright in education. As it stands, the directive would serve to allow for the sharing of copyrighted materials for educative purposes, but only under certain circumstances that we believe to be inadequate for the modern teaching and learning environment, and the meeting provided a space to articulate the most pressing of these concerns.

The meeting arrived at the identification of the following primary concerns with the current directive:

  1. Limited scope and clarity of the exception: in order for the exception to be effective and beneficial in a practical learning environment, it needs to apply across the board, and make clear to educators what they can and cannot do. Currently, the directive does not do this. Instead, it allows for the exception to be overturned by certain licenses, and essentially provides an “exception to the exception”, maintaining an unclear and fragmented system that would not allow educators the freedom needed to deliver high quality education in a digital world.
  2. Exclusion of key educational stakeholders: The exception remains limited to “formal” education institutions, meaning that professionals from museums, libraries, civil society organisations, and other organisations providing “non-formal” and “informal” education, would still be limited in what materials they can use. This would be harmful to the development of adult education and the work of those providing useful workshops in the voluntary sector, for example.
  3. Closed Networks: Under the current directive, the exemption to copyright legislation would only apply within the boundaries of formal education institutions, including online materials (so, materials could only be shared through an internal network). This is unrealistic in the 21st century, where education takes place in a multitude of locations, and across many different platforms. With technology that allows for EU-wide accessibility to high-quality education, it is detrimental and illogical not to take advantage of this and to restrict the sharing of materials to an internal process.

The issue was highlighted further by EUROCLIO Deputy Director Steven Stegers when collecting the award for Best Practice in Education and Innovation Pedagogy for Historiana‘s eLearning Environment at Lifelong Learning Week, as the current directive would seriously impact the efficacy and quality of the Historiana platform, and received further support from various people present at the awards.

Follow @EUROCLIO on Twitter and Facebook for continued updates and calls for further input on this issue, as well as the Lifelong Learning Platform, who will be coordinating a taskforce on the issue.

New Narrative for Europe

By Stefan Haagendoorn

On the 12th and 13th of October, I was in Leuven, Belgium to partake in a youth event organized by the European Commission, which was focused on the question on how to form a New Narrative for Europe. As a historian, many questions immediately come to mind. What makes a narrative? Can we talk about just one narrative or are there as many narratives as there are Europeans? Or even; can we just create a narrative like that, and when is the group deciding this, representative enough?

In other words, it was bound to be a discussion-laden two days. The main set-up was as follows. Gather a large bunch of young Europeans in a big room and let them discuss around four main questions interspersed with seminars and presentations. The idea was good, but given the strongly varied background of the participants, some guidance was needed. As such, the whole event was centred on 4 main questions, namely ‘’becoming united in diversity’’, ‘’employment and education’’, ‘’freedom of movement’’ and the ‘’changing climate’’. One can question whether taking these four topics is preventing an open discussion. In hindsight, I would argue that it made sure the arguments stayed on track. After reflecting on the most important issues within each of the 4 main topics, and thereby gathering our thoughts, we were asked to focus further. This was to be on no more than three ideas in total, per main question. This resulted in essentially 12 broad topics in total, which we more or less democratically decided upon to be the most critical. This caused some heated arguments, but we eventually managed.

What followed next was the fun part. In a small group of about three to four, we worked on our chosen sub-topic in order to form a narrative. The idea here was to create a newspaper front-page of about 20 years into the future, with associated headlines, pictures and text. This was to be based on the results of our group discussion. The topic I decided to partake in was centred on ‘’a common European identity through education and history’’. A contentious issue, to be sure. To give it a frame to work with, several questions were posed to us as a group, on how to form this narrative. These included: ‘’what are the actions that should be taken?’’, ‘’what are the steps required to achieve this New Narrative?’’ and ‘’who should take these actions and when?’’.

In the end, the result might be considered by some to be unsatisfactory. There was no real New Narrative, rather a list of hopes and dreams, focused on changing policy, not the people tweet about or tell each other over a drink. However positive this may be and however hopeful it may feel to collect a large group of diverse Europeans into one room, all starry-eyed about the future, it does not solve any real issues. Some uncomfortable questions were posed, mostly at the very end of the conference, such as ‘’how do we reach those Europeans that are not self-motivated to engage with it?’’ A comparison was made between a ‘’funny cat-video’’ getting a million views within the hour and Juncker’s State of the European Union address not getting any further than a few thousand. The EU and its leaders, it seems, are just not appealing. The heart of the matter here was not discussed. Other politicians (Obama, Macron, even Trump in his own way) manage to reach millions through savvy social media campaigns and appeal, at least in part, to the youth. So why not Europe? Another argument against the near-utopian narrative is its inherent tendency to always go forward. Forward sounds good and positive. But what if the best course of action (for example because the current political situation does not allow for steps towards further integration) might be a step sideways, or even backwards? This was not a popular view. Connected to this is the issue of developing something that only those that are already in the ‘’bubble’’ can identify with. How do you speak to youngsters from a Eurosceptic background? They are not going to be attracted to the same ideals as pro-EU youth are.

Notes from the meeting (picture by Stefan Haagendoorn)

As such, all the great ideas offered might then eventually be in vain. To finish off the program was a member of the European Parliament. He brought what we lacked as a group, namely an actual narrative. In short, the narrative has been, since the end of the Second World War, a negative themed narrative under the guise of ‘’never again’’. This obviously appeals less to the youth of today. As such, he proposed a positive spin, in a sense. This was that Europe is, in fact, alone. The United States for example, though still connected through shared institutions such as NATO, is seemingly carving path away from Europe. Obama had its pivot towards Asia, Trump is doing his own thing altogether. There is no other region anywhere else in the world that can then truly be called a reliable friend. This makes Europe our home and our only one at that. This should invoke a level of solidarity, which can be seen in sharing responsibility and deepening ties.

In the end, it might seem that such an exercise as this was futile. But one can’t deny the positivity that was there in the room. The last question that remains is then: ‘’where do we go from here?’’ Though some ideas were offered in the spirit of bringing this group back together at some indeterminate point in the future, I remain doubtful of that being useful. I would see more use in bringing together various other groups first (thereby making sure to try and attract those from conservative and Eurosceptic backgrounds), and then perhaps picking representatives from each of the groups to go even deeper. More serious personal contact with policy makers in both national and European governments would be another point. That more work, much more, is needed remains abundantly clear.

How to Deal with Colombia’s Violent Past? Part II

This is the second part of a report made by Meena Pankaj Malhotra and Senada Jusic on their study visit to Colombia. It is the eleventh article in a series of blogposts and reports on all study visits made for the project “Dealing with the Past in History Education”. In this project civil society actors from different backgrounds, visit schools and institutions in countries that are struggling with a difficult past. For the first part of this report, please click here.

Pedagogy in the MNM

During our visit to Colombia, we learned that there are a number of ways and methodologies that are being used across the country to deal with the violent past. The theme across all methodology is to keep memory alive so that it never happens again. Here museums have a very important role to play to not only institutionalize memory but also to put structures in place that transform individual memories into collective memory.

One of the most important projects of the Centro Nacional de Memoria Historia is the plan to set up a museum.  Land has already been acquired for this purpose and a call for the museums architectural design has been sent out. Catalina Orozco, through her presentation, explained in detail the plans and the pedagogical approach that the museum will use to educate citizens about Colombia’s violent past.

She began the presentation by outlining the objectives of MNM:

  • Pedagogical Function—Sensitization, Historical Analysis, Ethical Reflection
  • Clearing Function—Truth, Responsibility, Consequences, Impacts
  • Communicative Function—Listening, Interpretting, Debating, Inspiring, Motivating
  • Asset function—Cultural and Environmental Collection
  • Memorial function—Recollection, Duel, Ritual, Commemoration

Catalina spoke in great detail about the very interesting project Volver La Mirada/ Look Back. This is a very layered project where the process of dealing with the past happens in an extremely systematic manner. It involves every aspect of society from the individual to the entire community, and also includes the layered approach of several positions: victims, perpetrators, students and so on.

The pedagogical function of the museum promotes the creation of a community that understands the past and seeks to transform the present. It reflects on the conditions that made the Colombian armed conflict possible  and the responsibilities of the actors who promoted it. It criticises the use of violence and sensitizes citizens to issues of violation of human rights while adapting a participatory approach to the defense of life and liberty, democracy, equity, and respect for difference.

One of the most important goals of this project is to educate for non-repetition. This is long term work and the process seeks to understand cultural and intergenerational dimensions from the position of various diverse actors. In order to achieve this long term goal, connections between museum, family, school, organisation, and media is essential. The priority prevent the repetition of violence. Learning for non-repetition is an approach that has two dimensions: emotive and analytical. The emotive approach uses art and the analytical approach uses historical memory. These diferent aproaches then lead to interdisciplinary research.

These conceptual guidelines define the museum content, the languages, the educational programming, the activities, and the principles of interaction.

The pedagogy is transverse and transcends the educational, which is reflected in:

  • Exhibitions
  • The public area
  • The organisation

The exhibitions serve as a social space shared with family, friends, and colleagues, facilitate different approaches towards disseminating information, reach out to different audiences in different ways, taking into account the various ways to build knowledge create intellectual, emotional and sensory experiences, offer the opportunity to engage visitors in everyday life, connect to a variety of sources that allow multiple readings, and offer a moving and mobilizing experience.

However the challenge with exhibitions as a medium of educating about the past is the short duration of interaction. Hence it is important to build motivation before and after activities around the exhibits.

Catalina then shared with us how they plan to counter this challenge and maximise the depth of experience for the exhibition visitors. The plan is to appoint educators and mediators at the museum. These will include victims to sensitize and inspire empathy and local interpreters to translate and establish identities thereby linking the worlds of the exhibits and the visitors as well as artists to bring creativity to the entire process.

Observatorio de Paz

One of the highlights of our study visit was meeting and interacting with Vera Grabe Loewentherz who founded Observatorio de Paz in1996. Vera Grabe Loewentherz was a member of the Guerilla group M19—the only urban guerilla group and one that was formed by highly educated and intellectual people. Here we were interested in listening to two perspectives—the personal and the professional. We requested Vera to narrate her story and the journey of the organization she founded.  In 1990 M19 surrendered arms, and Vera initially was a member of Congress in the parliament. Later she became a part of a group for human rights at the Colombian embassy in Spain. 1996 was the turning point when she began to focus all her energies towards peace building and peace education. Having seen first-hand the breakdown of an ideology she firmly believed and the damage that it left in its wake, she now very passionately believes in promoting and invests all her energies into promoting peace. The journey from ex guerilla to peace builder has not been an easy one, she said. But she has been determined and also thought it was necessary to acquire an education on peace building so she first earned a PhD in the subject before commencing her work in this area.

Observatorio de Paz works with women in the villages and remote rural areas that were deeply affected by the armed conflict by using the powerful medium of the arts to intervene and educate the community on the values of peace. Their approach is very different, Vera says. They look at the entire process through a reverse lens by looking at conflict and violence from the spectrum of peace. She is opposed to teaching conflict and violence. “Teach peace,” she says, and through the teaching of peace, understand the context of conflict and violence.

Very often in memory work we focus too much on the negatives—it is important to focus on all the perspectives.

Observatorio de Paz's runs several projects, most of them with ex guerilla soldiers and victims. The goal is to develop the understanding that although their backgrounds and vantage points are different, they share the same issues and problems particularly pertaining to Colombian society, simply by virtue of being women. This approach helps in building an initial connection within the group. The other important issue they deal with is the circumstantial nature of life and the fact that we all may be compelled by circumstances to play multiple roles. The perpetrator can easily become a victim too! Understanding the fact that conflict and violence affects every single person in the community helps in making an individual’s role more meaningful in the work for peace.

“It empowers you!” Vera believes. “Talking about violence only breaks you. You constantly feel like a victim.”

Observatorio de Paz uses diverse methods and tools in dealing with the subject of violence—different games, role play, and other activities rooted in the powerful medium of theatre.

The well designed and thought out process has several steps: conflict is studied as a scientific phenomenon, the difference between conflict and violence is understood, and the final step is teaching peace. This process is followed up by active engagement in the community.

Role play invokes empathy and helps overcome self stigma. Another important pedagogy is reconstruction. Individuals are asked to reconstruct their lives on a timeline in small groups. This helps in acknowledging other life stories, comparing them with their own, and creating bonds.

Another very important process is the use of Japanese pottery, exploiting the therapeutic powers of working with clay. In groups of 30, women work together to make pottery products which are then exhibited.

The intergenerational approach involves the sharing of life experiences, a cleansing process which is called “Irene” after the Greek Goddess of Peace. The aim here is to overcome prejudices and gain self respect and respect for each other.

Observatorio de Paz runs Peace Schools that are approved by the Ministry of Education and award their students a Bachelor degree in Peace Studies. These schools are very flexible. With their foundation based on peace, they work on preventing violence especially within violent families.

Observatorio de Paz has covered a very wide rural area with their work, but there are challenges. The most important one being funding and impact assessment. Arts intervention is a process that brings about a very deep change in individuals and society, but it is also a process that is slow, takes time, is intangible and hence difficult to assess in short durations. One very tangible outcome is the fact that the women Observatorio de Paz has worked with have become active within their communities helping take the organisations work further. Their active involvement with peace building and peace education is proof of success.

Inspired by their work, we enquired about the possibility of their pedagogy becoming a state policy in the future. Vera is quite cynical about that because she feels the state focuses on signing peace treaties rather than working on transforming attitudes of violent culture in society.Introducing these methodologies through the education system is also difficult because of the decentralized nature of the education policy in Colombia.


This concludes the the report of a study visit to Colombia made by Meena Pankaj Malhotra and Senada Jusic. This study visit has been a part of the project “Dealing with the Past in History Education”, supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. For more information on this project, please visit the project page.

How to Deal with Colombia’s Violent Past? Part I

This is the first part of a report made by Meena Pankaj Malhotra and Senada Jusic on their study visit to Colombia. It is the tenth article in a series of blogposts and reports on all study visits made for the project “Dealing with the Past in History Education”. In this project civil society actors from different backgrounds, visit schools and institutions in countries that are struggling with a difficult past.

For over five decades Colombia has experienced intense violence associated with multiple unresolved social and political conflict—a violence that has been changing its characteristics over the decades with regards to its agents, motivations, intensity and mechanisms. Hundreds of thousands of fatalities have occurred by massacres and assassinations. Over and above that, innumerable Colombians have become victims of forced disappearance, forced displacement, abduction, extrajudicial executions, unlawful recruitment, torture, abuse, and sexual violence. Resistance to suffering is inherent in human nature. Today in Colombia one sees a strong sense of this resistance—in political will, in civil society, in individuals. Our study visit intends to highlight some of these efforts by individuals, civil society, education institutions and the state.


Our hosts, CNMH, had selected two Colombian schools (one public and one private) as case studies for our research on dealing with difficult pasts in post conflict society. Our first visit was to the public school — Colegio Leonardo Pozada Pedraza followed by a vist to the private school— Colegio Campoalegre. Both the schools have their own approach to confront their difficult violent past along with the reality in which they live. Their approaches and methods are different, but in accordance with the needs and background of students who attend these schools.

Colegio Leonardo Pozada Pedraza uses art, literature, film and theater as a medium to educate and sensitize students about what is happening in society and how peace can be restored. Teachers Adriana Abaunza, Diana Beltrán, and Bibiana Seguro took personal initiative along with a group of students interested in the subject of human rights education to think about how school, literature, and history in Colombia have contributed to the construction of falsehoods and realities regarding human rights in the country. Looking at the concerns of young people together, they intended to propose and carry out an inter institutional forum, which would enable them to investigate and understand students' thoughts not only in the Leonardo Posada Pedraza School but also involve students from other schools and places for an open and frank dialogue in order to unearth diverse voices on the issue of human rights, Colombian literature, and school. Art is one of the most powerful means of expression and also one of the most powerful means of therapy. Engaging students in art and literature helped with dealing with individual internal conflicts, too.

They were convinced that perhaps the only way for their country to find a promising future in which citizens can have a dignified life and develop fully is through education in Human Rights. It would encourage them to relate to their environment and thus reduce intolerance and levels of violence. However, this process of educating in human values must be initiated at home and it must be strengthened in the school if it were to have far reaching consequences. This important realization has made the government and public educational policy makers’ work with greater focus and invited Colegio Leonardo Pozada Pedraza for human rights training .The project has been very successful and the work continues. In 2016 another new project began— Youth Thinking about Peace (Los jovenes se piensan La Paz). The goal of this project was to recontruct the past to develop critical thinking by researching and writing about all the actors of the conflict including the perpetrators, the victims, the para military, and the guerillas. We interacted with the students and found that they welcome this activity and enjoy working on the project. They were extremely interested, curious, articulate, and active during the dialogue session as well.

The other visit to a private school Colegio Campoalegre was a very different experience. In every imaginable way the two schools were different from each other. At Colegio Campoalegre the first impression was that of affluence. Set in an extremely picturesque surrounding with mountains you could touch by simply leaning out of the classroom window, this school simply took our breath away at first glance. The physical difference aside, after interaction with the students, we found the same level of interest and passion in the projects they were involved in as the students of Leonardo Posada.

The project being implemented here is based on the premise of lived experience that brings about a genuine deep change from within. Developed and led by the individual passion of just one teacher, Ana Maria Duran, it involves students travelling to El Salado, a village that was deeply effected by the conflict in 2000 and living there for a period of a week to ten days and interacting and working within the community of survivors. This first hand experience for students coming from privileged backgrounds proves to be a very valuable education.

The group that we interacted with had recently returned from their visit to the town that had been battered with violence. During their visit they helped build four dry toilets on sidewalks that do not have access to water supply. They donated school desks, soccer uniforms, and other useful items. They interacted with members of the community, learning about their traditions and culture, their music, and their very difficult past. The students were received by the locals as if they were old friends and Lucho Torres, icon of the town, personally accompanied them around town, telling them the history of this corregimiento where 1500 people live and are with great resilience building a future on the ashes of their difficult past.

Late February 2000 the town experienced almost two weeks of torture, beheading, and rape of an undetermined number of defenseless peasants, including a six-year-old girl and a woman of 65. Perpetrated by at least 450 men belonging to the paramilitary group that also destroyed the houses and the commerce of the population, this is one of the ugliest massacres in the country's violent past.

Personally coming face to face with a history that they had so far only learned about objectively made the students introspective and encouraged them to actually analyse what they came back with. One of the students who was the daughter of a military member recounted how throughout childhood she felt deprived because her father was always away on work. Her father had eventually been killed due to the conflict, and she carried deep feelings of anger due to this loss. The visit to El Salado, she said to us, made her understand the true meaning of forgiveness. She realised there were hundreds like her who had experienced loss, and who was to judge and decide what justice meant under circumstances of this nature.
This project which is implemeted as part of the Social Responsibility and Social Pedagogical approach of the school has been extremely successful and they plan to continue this with each group of Grade 10 students.


One of the visits on our study trip was to the Ministry of Education in Bogota, Colombia. We spoke with a group of seven people who work directly with the Minister of Education on formulating policy, pedagogy processes, best practice etc.
We began the meeting by explaining the background of our visit and why we chose Colombia. Senada and I come from a background where working with government is really not the easiest of options. Having already been exposed to the workings of civil society and education institutes over the past two days we were extremely curious about the realities in Colombia. Our primary question to the ministry related to the symbiosis between the government and civil society. We enquired about the structures that are in place and interestingly Professor Chaux said he could not think of structures—he preferred thinking about people. He went on to admit that Colombia has achieved a level of cooperation between various stakeholders that surprises the world and is quite admirable. His colleagues in Canada express wonder over the ease with which researchers and the ministry function together. He has been helping the ministry for thirteen years.

We also learned about the autonomous nature of the workings of the Ministry. While this can be a very useful reality, in Colombia this is actually a cause for concern as it is leading to a huge gap between state policy and actual classroom practice. Peace Studies was made mandatory across the country and across all stages of education. However, lack of proper material and lack of any policy or guidelines related to textbook publishing have led to an overall disarray in peace and human rights education. Currently this is the ministry's prime concern and to overcome the problems in this area, they are working towards bringing together NGO's and local secretariats of education. However, because the education secretariats are decentralized, the ministry has implemented a policy of direct collaboration with civil society in order to speed up the implementation of new policies. The civil society organizations design and develop pedagogical materials based on policies and make them available for classroom use. In some cases they are also directly involved in classroom implementation. Also, teachers have taken great initiative and created many networks across the country enabling them to work together and share ideas and resources.

Colombia is very decentralised. The government does not develop a single national level curriculum. The schools do. Government has developed some guidelines which are strongly recommended, but not mandatory. The students undergo a national test that measures how they are faring in terms of the recommended guidelines. In 2004 the government developed standards for mathematics, language, natural science, social sciences, and for citizenship competencies. Students undergo tests in 5th, 9th and 11th grade that test competencies of pluralism, good citizenship, and democratic values based on the standards. The schools, local secreteriats, and NGO's are supposed to develop tools that promote competencies stated in the government guidelines. There is substantial work being done in this area but definately not enough. There is a need for many stakeholders to work harder in this area. In 2013 a new law was implemented that made it mandatory for schools to work on preventing aggression, violence, and bullying. Those who do not are liable for legal action taken against them by any citizen. And for private schools, if protocols are not adhered to the government can revoke the school's licence. However, so far no legal action of this nature has been taken against any institution. This was followed by another law that made peace studies and human rights education mandatory since 2015. However this law was implemented without the consultation or support of the Ministry of Education, and there is a big gap between the state policy and what is actually happening on the ground. The proper tools for implementing this most recent law do not exist.

The discussion on autonomy brought us to the question of textbooks, and we discovered that there is a huge problem in this area. Schools are prescribing their own textbooks with publishers deciding what to publish in the textbooks. But often within the same region there are no similarities in what is being taught. The Ministry offers extra materials but there is no guarantee on how these materials should be used. Usage of these materials is up to individual teachers.
And finally we came to the most important question—what is the Ministry's policy with regards to Colombia's conflicted past. In a post conflict society, where a classroom has students that have personal histories of either being children of victims or perpetrators, how does one deal with this and how does the history teacher deal with this? The answer according to Olga is two fold; one is the teacher's competencies. Teachers themselves have been through the violent past and in most cases have been affected by the violenc and they have lived the history they are teaching. They have to build the strength and resilience to be neutral and take an unbiased position. The other aspect is the tools, material, and pedagogy. The Miniistry has yet to develop these to help the teachers.
In 2015 the ministry held a series of interactions with teachers to suggest how recent difficult histories may be approached in the classroom and one of the major suggestions was to start with the point in time that the students were living at the moment and then connect it backwards to the past.
This is a struggle still because the peace accord is very recent—2016—and there is development in best practise related to teaching the recent difficult Colombian past. Centre for Historical Memory has done some wonderful work in this area and the Ministry is hugely inspired by the work that Facing History And Ourselves is doing and plans to pilot projects based on their approach. They hope to contruct bridges between the recent and distant past by studying social dynamics and how identity plays a role as well as how prejudice functions. Their goal is to not just look at conflicts from the past but also at the stories of peaceful positive resistance.

However despite all these efforts by all stakeholders concerned, the discussion on how much to teach of the recent past and where to start continues. They have not arrived at a consensus yet..
There is a lot creativity happening in Colombia! And yet how to deal with the difficult past is not an easy question to answer. In Colombia it is currently an ongoing movement involving some very dedicated passionate people.

This concludes the first part of the report of a study visit to Colombia made by Meena Pankaj Malhotra and Senada Jusic. This study visit has been a part of the project “Dealing with the Past in History Education”, supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. For more information on this project, please visit the project page.

Following in the Footsteps of Revolutionaries

The year 2017 marks the centennial of a series of events that changed the course of history: the Russian revolution. In order to commemorate these turbulent times, EUROCLIO – in cooperation with the St. Petersburg Academy of In-Service Teachers’ Training, led by Konstantin Bityukov  – hosted the International Scientific and Practical conference “Revolutions in Contemporary History: Facts, Interpretations and Educational Strategies” in Saint-Petersburg, Russia on 27 and 28 October 2017.

Over the course of these two days more than 150 history educators from all over Europe and Russia came together at various venues, such as the local school Gymnasium 209, to listen to lectures, participate in workshops and to exchange their ideas and teaching strategies about the Russian revolution. With the beautiful city of Saint-Petersburg as a backdrop, the participants were truly immersed in history. By visiting the Hermitage, wandering through the same opulent rooms as the Bolsheviks did one hundred years ago, and the Museum of Political History, showcasing the famous balcony Lenin held his fiery speeches from, the participants got a chance to walk in the footsteps of the revolutionaries.

To broaden the scope of this conference, EUROCLIO has developed a survey, which we would kindly like to ask you to fill out. By means of this survey we would like to expand the findings of the conference and identify different approaches to teaching the Russian revolution. To fill out the survey, please click here.

Group picture of the participants in the conference