Bosnian War Moratorium Lifted in Sarajevo Schools

Catherine Savitsky Articles

For over two decades, Bosnian history curricula have been silent about the recent war. In 2018, however, Canton Sarajevo’s education ministry introduced the subject into classrooms for the first time, and now other cantons are following suit. The author visited Sarajevo in April 2019 to speak with various experts in the city about what this means for Bosnian history education and the memory of the war.


The Bosnian War ended with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) in 1995, which divided the country between its warring parties. Two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and Republika Srpska (RS), were created; FBiH was divided into 10 autonomous cantons. Since the DPA made no specific arrangements for education, there are 13 education ministries in the country today. No effective mechanism has since been created to coordinate educational policy between them.

In 2000, the Council of Europe issued a recommendation that Bosnian schools refrain from teaching about the Bosnian War “to enable historians from all communities […] to develop a common approach.” The topic has thus not been addressed in the schools of any of the cantons since 2000.

New History Units

In 2017, in response to a petition submitted by the Academy of Sciences and Arts of FBiH, a committee of experts was drawn up by the Canton Sarajevo education ministry to form a writing team. This team of local history teachers, professors, and experts on genocide and modern history worked from July 2017 – January 2018, to create 5 new history curriculum units about the war:

  1. Military-political developments of the 1992-1995 war
  2. Military-political developments of the Siege of Sarajevo
  3. Everyday life in the Siege of Sarajevo
  4. War crimes and ethnic cleansing
  5. The Srebrenica genocide

The materials were circulated to teachers in April 2018, and implemented in May of the same year. The Bosnian War is now the final topic of 20th century history to be taught in the 9th grade of primary school (osnovna škola) in Sarajevo. Local education experts, in conversation with the author, identified the following three problems they see in the new units:

  1. Lack of multi-perspectivity

The narrative the units present is largely told from the perspective of Bosniaks as victims. One expert from the OSCE Mission to BiH mentioned that the units, though aimed to address the entire war, choose mainly to focus on the Siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica Genocide. She argued that this perpetuates an established tendency of one-sided history teaching, which divides the actors of the war cleanly into victims on “our side” and perpetrators on “the other side.” The 4th unit, for example, teaches a list of ICTY indictments, most of which are against Serbs, to emphasize this victim-perpetrator binary.

According to a history didactics professor from the University of Sarajevo, the units retell the same old story that has always been told of the siege without adding any nuance. She argued that multi-perspectivity would be achieved if the units had, for example, discussed the Kazani crimes (murders of Bosnian Serbs committed by the Bosnian army). In the 3rd unit, the text does state that the Bosnian army also committed crimes, but stipulates that they are not to be compared to those committed by Serbs. It is important for the units, however, to avoid mitigating the crimes of either side and to recognize that suffering was experienced by all civilians, regardless of which side of the frontline they were on.

  1. Lack of teacher training

A weak curriculum can be saved by a strong teacher, but a strong curriculum is useless in the hands of a weak teacher. Local experts have thus argued that teacher training sessions and support services would be a much better use of resources than developing new curricula. Teachers are overloaded with sources to use with the new units, but most have not even been taught how to use them properly.

Furthermore, the material that the new units cover is highly personal. The teachers all experienced the war in some way, either in the siege, in exile, or otherwise, and have vivid memories that will resurface in the classroom. How are they meant to handle these emotions while teaching? How can they manage the family stories that students will share during discussions? There has been no attempt to host psychological sessions for teachers to deal with this issue. Ultimately, without more support, the teachers cannot implement the new units effectively.

  1. Politicization of the initiative

As the new units were being implemented, Canton Sarajevo entered election season. The focus of the initiative thus became to complete it in time for the election, rather than ensuring it was done well. The process was concluded, according to an expert from the OSCE, without any thought about its application in the classrooms or its effect on other parts of the country, such as reciprocal responses from Republika Srpska education officials. In addition, the history didactics professor lamented that no follow-up feedback session was organized for the teachers after implementation, so teachers had no chance to voice their concerns or suggestions for improvement.

The region generally suffers from a lack of long-term planning and commitment in education policies. Politicians have little incentive to implement policies that take time to bring results, since they will not necessarily be there to reap the rewards and receive due credit. Instead of investing in long-term goals, they prefer to apply short-term solutions to look good for the next election.

What’s next?

Following Sarajevo’s initiative, more and more cantons are introducing the war into their curriculum, but without coordination, their approach and content are bound to vary. So far, new units have been introduced in cantons Zenica-Doboj, Tuzla, and Una-Sana, and the entity of Republika Srpska. In RS, for example, it has recently been announced that new history textbooks and curricula will be developed to be more in line with Serbian programs. It will be interesting to see how the new units of other FBiH cantons will reflect varying interpretations of the war depending on their place of origin.

Meanwhile, local experts had been optimistic that a new, more progressive government had come to power in Sarajevo. However, the new Minister Zineta Bogunić resigned this July after only 7 months in office. The reason put forth by the media was that she was under pressure by the Prime Minister to pass a new law on higher education, which would introduce more governmental control over the University of Sarajevo. In any case, the new education ministry advised education experts at a recent meeting not to expect too much, since a strong shift in policy would likely be “too radical” to survive.


Catherine Savitsky is a Master’s student at the University of Toronto, studying European Studies. She visited Sarajevo in late April 2019 and conducted interviews with stakeholders as part of research for her Master’s thesis about the politicization of the siege’s collective memory in Sarajevo’s education system.  

Which kinds of educational media triggers conflict, and which contribute to overcoming it?

Barbara Christophe Articles

Before delving into this topic, two remarks on the limitations of my reflections must be noted. First of all, the focus will lie mainly on narrative strategies as conveyed in textbooks. Although this does not really tell us what is happening on the ground in history classrooms, textbooks offer us a window into official national discourses. Furthermore, questions of feasibility will largely be ignored when pondering the type of textbooks that may be able to break vicious cycles of fear and suspicion so typical of conflict. From observing processes of negotiating new textbook-content, we know that you usually can choose between two evils: either you include government officials into the process early on and then risk that they impose thousands of little compromises on your project, something that has happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or you exclude them in order to protect the process but run the risk that the product will be banned from classroom use. This is exactly what has happened with the PRIME project in Israel and Palestine. As frustrating as these insights may be, they will be put aside and textbooks as a source of conflict resolution will be discussed without taking into account likely political restrictions. 

Which textbooks trigger conflict? 

Antagonistic narratives 

Starting with the question of which textbooks trigger conflict, two points need to be made, one of which is well founded and probably not surprising at all while the second is more tentative and may pose a somewhat tough challenge to deep-rooted modes of thinking. Antagonistic narratives based on rigid binaries provide the necessary ingredients of conflict. The tricky thing about binaries is that they presuppose ‘the other’ even if (s)he is not mentioned. There is no hero without a villain and there is no victim without a perpetrator. Thus, there are at least two different types of binaries based on either heroisation or victimisation of the self. According to Bramsen & Poder (2018), there is reason to believe that self-victimisation has greater potential in triggering conflict than heroisation because fear and suspicions are much more powerful emotional weapons than pride. The one who is afraid of becoming a victim again is much more likely to be mobilised in what appears to be a defensive move than the one who is sure that she will be able to master all challenges ahead of her. In short, insecurity and the feeling of being exposed to threats creates a greater risk in terms of triggering conflict than an overemphasis on pride and superiority. 

As convincing as the insight into the psychologically devastating effects of binaries are, they do not have much relevance in a world in which global textbook standards of paying superficial tribute to the idea of human rights have proliferated around the world. Blatant examples of vilifying ‘the other’ are few and far between. There are, however, watered-down versions of stereotyping ‘the other’, which may include silencing everything that does not fit into the picture one wants to draw. To name just a few examples: research shows that many people in Israel do not know very much about the harsh living conditions Palestinians face in the occupied territories; and the predominantly celebratory memory in the US causes the Smithsonian Institution, as the leading mnemonic institution, to place significant emphasis on Americans as liberators from evil while keeping almost silent about slavery and the extinction of Native Americans. 

Furthermore, in many discussions a somewhat misplaced focus on stereotyping on the basis of ethnicity or religion can be observed. At the same time, social stereotyping is no less dangerous: Lebanese civic textbooks published after 1997 - praised for their orientation towards human rights education - would, for example, depict middle class families as being able to conduct a calm and reasoned dialogue whereas working class people are shown predominantly as being violent. 

Cosmopolitan narratives

Based on recent insights from memory studies, it can be argued that even inclusive, cosmopolitan narratives can at times contribute to conflict. While this may sound completely unlikely at first, it is nonetheless accurate. Narratives which are too good to be true first fail to take root in the minds and hearts of people and then fail to prevent die-hard populists and nationalists from taking over. An almost forgotten example, besides former Yugoslavia, would be the Soviet Union. Hegemonic version of peace, love and harmony among the family of Soviet people neither hindered the beak-UP of the federation nor the break-OUT of deadly war and conflict. 

Furthermore, at times, cosmopolitan narratives are so abstract that they appear to be disconnected from everyday life. A good case in point would be post-conflict textbooks in Guatemala where the rather vague concept of culture of violence" is ascribed responsibility for mass atrocities and crimes. Very much in line with cosmopolitan approaches in citizenship education, the same textbooks emphasise individual agency and responsibility, apparently very much at the expense of talking about structural causes of violence. 

Another “cosmopolitan” strategy of talking seemingly open-minded about violence while keeping silent about structures of inequality enabling such violence, is treating conflict as exceptional. As a rule, this goes hand in hand with an overreliance on ideals with little reference to realities on the ground. A rather typical example, for which the Georg Eckert Institute has empirical data on their effects, are Lebanese textbooks published after the curricular reforms of 1997 which strongly propagate a civic Lebanese identity, treat the civil war as an exceptional and somewhat abnormal event in the usually peaceful Lebanese history and put significant emphasis on individual human rights. Various studies prove that students showed low levels of motivation to learn from these books as content was perceived to conflict too heavily with the reality they know. Accordingly, the books did not affect any change in terms of the types of belonging expressed by students. Students continued to identify strongly with their religious communities. According to a study conducted by UNDP in 2008, i.e. 10 years after the implementation of the reforms, more than a third of the students believed they should vote only for parties recommended their own religious leaders. 

In order to point out that this problem is not restricted to so-called fragile democracies, a similar kind of drawing of rigid boundaries between violence and injustices of the past and a present constructed as having overcome all these problems, can be found in US textbooks on African American history. Phenomena like racism are mentioned, but at the same time they are incorporated into a narrative of successfully eradicating all evils of the past. 

In a preliminary attempt to sum up, two versions of presenting history at school can trigger conflict: history that bites and stirs up emotions; and history that bores and thus fails to encourage students to seriously deal with the wounds of the past. 

Which books could contribute to overcoming conflict? 

The second, and arguably more important question, is the question of which kinds of educational media is best equipped to challenge the sectarian and partisan views that have either triggered conflict or emerged as an outcome of it. 

The one and only statement that can be made with the utmost certainty in a field which still suffers from a lack of empirically grounded studies, is rather simple and perhaps slightly frustrating: there will likely be no one-size-fits-all approach. Different societal situations and different types of students require different treatments. 

It is of particular importance to map the levels at which significant differences may occur. The most important difference pertains to the role identities play in conflict. There are numerous conflicts rooted in powerful interests of looting, which are easily pursued in times of war-driven chaos. However, identities can be either the cause or the consequence of a conflict. Another crucial difference has to do with power differentials between groups. A prominent study on Israel has shown that Jewish students profit from a rational, enquiry-based approach to history teaching, which would generally aim at equipping students with the disciplinary tools of the historian and thus enable them to deal critically with sources and other kinds of historical evidence. However, the same study also indicated that Palestinians would first need emotional recognition of their own, usually marginalised, position before they could attempt casting a critical look on their own group. 

Broad strategies for textbook content

All approaches to presenting textbook content to-date come with certain advantages and certain disadvantages. This has often been described, but it is hardly ever spelled out explicitly. 

Textbooks based on a critical, enquiry-based approach at times suffer from a lack of emotional appeal and thus may not succeed in asserting themselves in competition with the more passionate voices of partisan groups. This has been observed, for example, in Northern Ireland. Giving voice to multiple perspectives may have a destabilising effect as it may be misunderstood as an invitation to moral nihilism. The same holds true for approaches which try to cater for emotional needs they may then not be able to control. 

What can be learned from this is that the pro’s and con’s involved in any strategy have to be carefully weighed. In clear contrast to earlier debates, there is one crucial exception to the general rule of being context sensitive. Whereas there was a time when imposing a moratorium on any dealings with recent pasts was discussed as a serious option in post-conflict settings, today it is understood that silence in school and in the history classroom mainly contributes to reproducing the divides that initially triggered the conflict. 

Agonistic memory as a potential solution

Having presented all these rather disturbing thoughts without really to a promising solution, the concept of agonistic memory is worth discussing. This concept recently emerged in the field of memory studies but can be easily adapted to history education.

Frustrated by the ease with which the antagonistic memories of populists, which have dominated discourses in the global North for some time, push cosmopolitan memories into the corner, Bell & Hansen (2016) have introduced the notion of agonistic memory. According to them, this type of memory should present us with a better, more effective antidote to the seductive power of neo-nationalism. 

In their understanding, agonistic memory is based mainly on the juxtaposition of competing narratives on one and the same events. At first glance, that seems to be nothing more than the familiar concept of multiperspectivity that has long since informed debates in history education. However, upon closer inspection, the new concept of agonistic memory involves something more, something innovative. 

The aim of giving voice to competing perspectives is not only to render history more complex and more nuanced, but to point to inescapable dilemmas. Students should thus not only learn to check the plausibility of competing narratives with reference to evidence, first and foremost, they should develop an understanding for the tough choices historical actors had to take during times of more adverse circumstances. Such an approach ties in perfectly with concerns that have been raised again and again by history educators;  that students are frequently encouraged to make judgements too easily about people in the past without taking into due consideration the difficulties and challenges they might have faced. 

To add a little more flesh and bones to this rather abstract argument, a promising example comes not from a textbook but from an exhibition at the Military History Museum in Dresden, Germany. The museum was re-opened in 2011 in a city that, at the time, experienced considerable right-wing violence. In the midst of such a disturbing social climate, the exhibition found a very innovative way of dealing with the aerial bombing of Dresden towards the end of the Second World War, a topic that was traditionally manipulated by the Far Right. 

What is so interesting about the exhibition is that it moved beyond the classical comparison to aerial bombings of Coventry, Rotterdam and Wielun and instead presents opposing voices of witnesses for every city. Visitors can listen to a Jew who only survived the Holocaust because the bombing of Dresden saved him from being deported to a death camp; and get to know an American journalist who is full of regret that his fellow countrymen sunk to the moral level of the Germans. Visitors can learn about a young Pole who was severely traumatised by German occupation, but is nowadays nevertheless very committed to the cause of German-Polish reconciliation; and are faced with a Dutch man who, against the backdrop of similar experiences, claims that he still hates all Germans. 

Again, it can clearly be seen how agonistic memory moves beyond traditional multiperspectivity. Where multiperspectivity often restricts itself to juxtaposing nationalistic and antagonistic narratives that are easily discarded, especially when it comes to conflict, agonistic memory introduces mutually exclusive voices, all of which appear to be convincing and legitimate. It thus contributes not only to a broadening of narrow stories, but also underlines the legitimacy of competing perspectives. 

Last not least, by constructing dilemmas agonistic memory creates a sharpened awareness for the illusionary character of all claims to historical truth; supporting the understanding that no account could ever hope to be complete or definitive. All narratives are selective. All stories are the result of taking a certain perspective from which some things can be seen and others not. 

As simple and convincing as this may sound, to transplant such an approach from the museum to the textbook creates several tough consequences: first, the difference between history and memory must be relinquished, so to the illusion that teachers can be neutral and objective; and second, it must be acknowledged that an enquiry-based approach creates not only a solution, but also problems, by implying that following a rational, disciplined approach we may arrive at superior conclusions. 


Written by Dr. Barbara Christophe, Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research


Further reading:

Bellino, Michelle J. 2014. Whose past, whose present? Historical memory among the postwar generation in Guatemala. In: James H. Williams, ed.: (Re) Constructing memory: School textbooks and the imagination of the nation, Rotterdam, 131-151.

Bull, A. C. & Hansen, H. L. 2016. On agonistic memory. In: memory Studies 9:4, 390-404.

Bull, A. C. & Hansen, H. L. 2019. A reply to Nathan Sznaider.

Hourani, Rida Blaik. 2017. A call for unitary history textbook design in a post-conflict era: The case of Lebanon. In: The History teacher 50:2, 255-284.

Loewen, James W. 2007. Gone with the wind. The invisibility of racism in American history textbooks. In: Idem: Lies my teacher told me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, New York: 137-170.

McCully, A. & J. Reilly (2017): History teaching to promote positive community relations in Northern Ireland: tensions between pedagogy, social psychology theory and professional practice in two recent projects. In: C. Psaltis, M. Carretero & S. Cehajic-Clancy (Eds.): History Education and Conflict Transformation. Social Psychological Theories, History Teaching and Reconciliation. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 301-320.

McCully, A. (2012): History teaching, conflict and legacy of the past. In: Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 7 (2), pp. 145-159.

Meyer, John; Bromley, Patricia; Ramirez, Francisco. 2010. Human rights in social science textbooks: cross national analyses, 1970-2008. In: Sociology of education 83:2, 111-134.

Paulson, Julia. 2015. Whether and how? History education about recent and ongoing conflict: A review of research. In: Journal of Education in Emergencies 1:1, 7-37.

Rohde, Achim: "Learning each other's historical narrative: a road map to peace in Israel/Palestine?" In: Korostelina, K.V. & Lässig, s. (eds.): History education and Post-Conflict Reconciliation: Reconsidering joint textbook projects. London-New York: Routledge 2013, 177-191.

Shuayb, Maha. 2015. Human rights and peace education in the Lebanese civic textbooks. In: Research in Comparative International Education 10:1, 135-150.

Wills J. S. 2005. Some People Even Died: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement and the Politics of Remembrance in Elementary Classrooms, in: International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 18:1, 2005, 109-131.

Wineburg, Sam. 2001. Historical Thinking and other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Zembylas, Michalinos; Bekerman, Zvi. 2011. Teaching contested narratives. Identity, memory and reconciliation in peace education and beyond, Cambridge.

Safe Schools and Spying Students

Madison Pagel Articles

On Monday 1 July 2019, EuroClio convened a meeting for experts in the field of history education to discuss the role of high-quality history education in conflict prevention and resolution. During the meeting, Eyal Naveh presented the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in history education, which centered on the inclusion of the Nakba and Holocaust in the countries’ curricula. During his informative presentation, Naveh touched upon Im Tirtzu, a right-wing, non-profit organisation in Israeli that has launched a web platform where students can report their teachers for promoting ‘anti-Israel’ views. Entitled ‘Know Your Professor’, the project asks students to report teachers who “teach at publicly funded universities yet promote BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], encourage international pressure on Israel, accuse the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] of war crimes, and call to refuse service in the IDF,” with the claim that such behaviour is an inappropriate use of tax-payer dollars. 

Initially, some in attendance were surprised to hear about such tactics. However, upon further discussion, the experts were able to conjure many other examples and it became readily apparent that Im Tirtzu’s actions are not unique; rather, they are part of a broader pattern of increasing calls for student to surveil their teachers. This sparked a greater conversation about the concept of ‘safe schools’ and what the term should be understood to encompass. It became clear that the safety of teachers, both professionally and physically, is an integral consideration for history education reforms. 

Teachers are the most important link between students and content, through whom textbooks, curricula, and government initiatives are filtered. Even if teachers are provided with unbiased, inclusive content, if they feel uncomfortable or unsafe teaching it, the success of history education reform can be greatly compromised. The encouragement of students to report or otherwise publicly denounce teachers who teach controversial subjects can lead to an inability of teachers to educate in a way that highlights multiple perspectives or interpretations of the past. If teachers believe their careers or reputations are vulnerable, they may choose not to teach controversial subjects or otherwise censor themselves. It can stifle debate and critical thinking skills. In short, the unsafe teacher is a choke point that threatens the success of even the most well-thought out reforms. This makes the prevalence of the surveillance all the more concerning.

Take, for instance, the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), which called for students to report teachers for violations of neutrality laws. Here, a political party that denies or questions the extent of the Holocaust is asking for students to report teachers who question or speak ill of the party. Analogous tactics are being employed in the Netherlands, where the Forum voor Democratie (FvD) is similarly politicising the education system. Over 1,500 Dutch educators have signed an open letter against the education policies of the FvD, specifically claiming that the reporting hotline—touted by FvD as a way to reduce bias in the classroom—is simply an attempt to coerce educators into teaching the party’s brand of history. 

In addition to political parties, interest groups sometimes lead the charge: one notable example of this is the Professor Watchlist, in the United States. The site was created by Turning Point USA, a conservative non-profit organisation. While the website claims to only publish those teachers whose alleged offenses are corroborated by pre-existing news sources with credible reporting, the sources listed are often extremely partisan. Campus Reform, a self-described conservative watchdog publication, is often the sole publication cited. Professor Watchlist is a particularly alarming iteration of this dangerous practice as it publishes images of the educators, as well as their workplace, potentially threatening their physical security. This website also illustrates how easily the practice can backslide from the ostensible goal of preventing bias in the classroom to ensuring bias in the classroom through the censure of certain views and the restriction academic freedoms. 

Consider the following example. Patricia Williams made the watchlist for claiming that the history of the right to bear arms was based in racial and gender privileges. The website linked to Williams’ opinion piece, where she discusses her interpretation of this history. As proof of her bias, the website also links a report on gun ownership by the Pew Research Center, a legitimising move that attempts to align the think tank with the website’s view despite the irrelevance of the report to the article’s argument. Williams’ opinion piece does not explicitly renounce an ideology, but rather asserts a perspective. The website’s publishing of Williams and other teachers harms the promotion of multiperspectivity in classroom by disparaging their views and, as a result, attempting to harm the credibility of the educators. William’s claim uses concrete evidence to advance a point with which the website does not agree; she is not denounced for being a poor academic, but rather for being a ‘wrong’ one. While this particular website is not influential or salient in United States, a similar website in Brazil shows what can happen when the websites gain traction in the community or government.

Escola sem Partido, or Schools without Party, is a right-wing movement calling for the end to the politicisation of schools in Brazil. The movement gained popularity through government support, with President Bolsonaro endorsing the movement. Personally encouraging students to film teachers who criticise his rule or agenda, he went so far as to share a video of a teacher ‘indoctrinating’ students against his regime. Having received the consent of the ruling party, this movement can pose significant risks to the teachers and schools that are denounced by it. In part as a response to claims of partiality for the left, the Brazilian government proposed extensive budget cuts to three large publicly funded universities who were reported to have engaged in such anti-government behaviour, providing monetary disincentive to contradict the ruling party’s views, including those on history. The current situation has been satirised in a comedy video, which, although facetious, illustrates the pressure on educators, in particular history educators, in Brazil.

While most of the examples of politicians or interest groups encouraging students or providing platforms for students to report on their teachers are less severe than that of Brazil, the case illustrates the detrimental affect such an environment can have on the quality of education, and how it can threaten even the most well-thought out history education reforms. Teachers cannot employ the strategies integral to high-quality history education if they feel threatened by the state or fear professional retaliation. It is incredibly important that schools are safe for students to debate freely; it is of equal importance to recognise that teacher’s safety is key to effective reform, and decision makers would do well to remember and consider the aforementioned examples.

Written By Madison Pagel, IHJR Research trainee.

The Fatalism of Enmity? In conversation with Mirosław Filipowicz

Jilt Jorritsma Articles

In 2012, a group of Russian and Polish historians joined hands to come up with a transnational approach to historical issues that could help overcome mutual stereotypes. Their collaboration resulted in a Polish-Russian companion to history for teachers in Poland and Russia, which is made available online for free.

Polish professor Mirosław Filipowicz was head of the Institute of East-Central Europe (IEŚW) in Lublin, one of the main organizations behind the project. Filipowicz wanted to revive Polish-Russian dialogue, which had already been initiated a few years earlier by the Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Matters. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, however, the work of the Group stopped. Before, they had published a collection of parallel histories by Polish and Russian scholars who recounted each country’s version of important historical events. In addition, Filipowicz wanted historians from both countries to combine their perspectives by working and writing together.

Filipowicz was appointed as the new co-head of the Group for Difficult Matters by the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2016. But unfortunately, the IEŚW was closed down by the Polish government in December 2018. It’s staff was expelled from work, and Filipowicz resigned from the position in the Group. Now there is no official scholarly channel for Russian-Polish historical dialogue.

I talked to professor Filipowicz about the importance of such dialogues, and the problems he encountered when working on these educational materials.

Jilt Jorritsma: Why was this shared Polish-Russian history necessary – why now?

Mirosław Filipowicz: History of Polish-Russian relations has never been easy, but after 1989 (collapse of communism in Poland and the whole region) and 1991 (collapse of the Soviet Union) the problem of Polish-Russian peaceful and normal coexistence became even more crucial than before. One of the best ways to overcome old stereotypes is solid and openminded education.

When thinking of initiating our project, I had two goals to achieve. One addressed to Russians: to enlarge empathy there for Polish sensitivities. The other of more domestic nature: to help Polish pupils/students to understand the other – in this case, to help us understand Russians. When we initiated the project in 2012, this was quite important. Now, after the Smolensk catastrophe (in 2010 ed.) and with right-wing ‘patriots’ at power here in Poland, this task is of greater importance: not only to produce historical knowledge, but also to have present impact.

I was quite surprised when the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs in his first expose before Polish Parliament in 2018 mentioned our project as the only positive achievement in Polish-Russian present relations.

JJ: How did you ensure that local histories, contexts and sentiments were not overlooked in a broader, transnational frame of analysis?

MF: History, as I look at it, is a combination of broader perspectives and of more human, ‘micro-historical’ details. It’s not good when one of these elements is missing. So we have tried not to overlook the particular human beings (both Russians and Poles) when writing this companion for teachers. We also tried to put the history of Polish-Russian relations in the broader context of European history.

JJ: Were there any (methodological or substantive) problems when working together with scholars from another country?

MF: Sure, there were many difficulties. First, I was under the impression that for Russian colleagues (not for Russian authors, but for their supervisors from the Academy of Science) our project had more political importance than for us. I was positively impressed by the work Polish and Russian historians and teachers have done together. But later the Russian ‘editorial team’ proposed so many changes that we felt it was not a revision, but censorship instead.

The only way to overcome such tendencies was persuasion. When they started to understand that we were not politicians, things became a little bit easier. One funny situation took place when we discussed the chapter concerning mutual stereotypes. Someone from the Russian supervisors felt indignant, so both Russian and Polish authors had to explain to him that the stereotype analysis was not the same as stereotype reinforcement – just the opposite.

JJ: Were there academics involved from countries other than Russia or Poland – what was their role in the process?

MF: Sometimes we asked some German colleagues for advice. They have a long history of both German-Russian and German-Polish historical dialogue. That was useful for us. And, to our surprise, our project, when we published the first two volumes, appeared to be interesting not only for our Belorussian colleagues, but also for Japanese and South-Korean historians and historical educators. They found useful methodological patterns for their own historical dialogue.

JJ: How do you ensure that the publications will be widely used by teachers in both countries?

MF: We have no guarantee that the companion we prepared will be introduced in Russian schools. In Poland, fortunately, the question is of less bureaucratic nature and if teachers are interested, they can use our materials. All the results, both in Russian and in Polish, are available online and free of charge. That’s the most easy way to make the results useful for teachers.

JJ: How did you take the different teaching environments in both countries into consideration during the production of these didactic aids?

MF: That was a real problem. Even though Russian history and history of Polish-Russian relations is essential for Polish history, we cannot say this is also true the other way around. That’s obvious: Russia is much bigger than Poland and has many more neighbors, not only European. But after many visits to Moscow, I can tell that Poland is very important for many Russian people and is quite interesting to them. When working on the companion we had to keep both Polish and Russian school programs in mind. If teachers would like to use our books, they can do so, even if just for some additional lessons or school activities.

JJ: How can a transnational approach help overcome stereotypes in the classroom?

MF: We had a unique experience to visit Moscow schools and to work with Russian teachers. As far as I know, that was really the first time when Polish historians could work with Russian history teachers. It was quite fantastic opportunity for both sides. Russian colleagues visited our schools here in Poland as well.

Normal contacts – that’s the first step to overcome stereotypes. And later: talks, readings, discussions.

The third and last volume of the shared Russian-Polish history (which focuses on the 20th century) will still hopefully be published later this year:


Written By Jilt Jorritsma, EuroClio Former Research trainee.

Hidden in plain sight: Teaching the history of people with disabilities

Helen Snelson Articles

One of the many wonderful things about EuroClio - is the opportunity it provides to meet and learn from other people with teaching and research interests and perspectives that challenge and inspire better practice. Thus it was, during a project meeting in EURCLIO’s office in The Hague in 2017, when Dr Monika Baar came to share with us her work on the history of people with disabilities and the ‘Rethinking Disability Project’. Much of the content of her presentation was new to me. For example, I did not know about the protests triggered by the UN’s intention to make 1981 the ‘Year for disabled people’. Nor had I heard of the 1990 Capitol Crawl that helped to bring about the US 1990 Disability Act, which has influenced legislative approaches beyond the USA. Search for an image of this event and you will see the powerful expression of physically disabled people crawling up the steps of the Washington Capitol building to powerfully demonstrate how they were excluded, literally and metaphorically, from US democracy. Monika stressed to us the importance of all people being able to know about their past. Why had I not seen this before? How had I been letting down my students, by not enabling them to learn about the historical context to our attitudes towards disability today? Were they ignorant of how hard the road has been towards our relatively positive attitudes? What of students with a disability, was the past relevant to part of their identity to be absent from my classroom?

The 2010 Equality Act passed by the UK Parliament places on all teachers a duty to nurture the development of a society in which equality and human rights are deeply rooted. For history teachers this poses the question: ‘Does our history curriculum reflect the diverse pasts of all people in society?’ and ‘Do all the children sitting in front of us have the chance to learn about people like themselves?’ And yet, the school history curriculum is so full already, so how could any more content be shoe-horned into it?

With food for much thought from Monika and various vague ideas, I went straight back to my inspiring colleague and friend Ruth Lingard back in York and we put aside some time to think and do some reading.

Two useful key texts we found were ‘Disability Histories’ edited by Susan Burch and Michael Rembis, and ‘Madness: a brief history’ by Roy Porter. We also discovered that various museums and heritage organisations have made good progress with providing material online that was relevant to our work. Meanwhile, a friend who is undertaking doctoral work in the field of disability in early modern literature gave invaluable help with this period. For example, pointing out to us the many times that disability features in Shakespeare’s work and how often this aspect of his character’s identity has been over-looked in the history of performance. For example, the reference to Kate in the ‘Taming of the Shrew’ as ‘limping Kate’. Her gender, rather than her disability are usually the focus in performance. For a discussion of this see Hile, R. (2009) ‘Disability and the characterisation of Katharine in The Taming of the Shrew’ – in ‘Disability Studies Quarterly, 29, no. 4

From this reading we were able on construct ‘a very short history of disability in western Europe’. This took a particular focus on Britain because we were planning resources for use in history classrooms and we had to make the resources connect to the curriculum so that teachers would be able to use them. Our short history was not intended for students, but to help teachers build their knowledge. We assumed, I think correctly as it has turned out, that most colleagues would be as ignorant as we had been about this aspect of the past.

Using the short history we had written, we created a mini thematic activity. A thematic activity is one which enables students to learn about change and continuity across time and also to enable them to learn about how different factors work together to cause change. Students were given texts and images to arrange in chronological order. A teacher-led discussion was then held, with the purpose of making explicit for students the change and continuity, including enabling students to identify turning point moments. That is, moments of significant and lasting change. From this discussion students identified, for example, that shifting ideas about the human body and new kinds of religious beliefs resulted in new thinking about disability and changed attitudes to people with disabilities. We wrote the material in such a way that students could learn that the situation was sometimes complex. For example, although the 19th century was a time of progress in medical science, it was followed by changing, but not progressive, attitudes towards people with disability. Finally, students used post-it notes to identify on their timeline where factors were at work; for example, factors such as ‘religious beliefs’, ‘the development of scientific thought’ and ‘war’. We then discussed how the factors were working together to cause change.

As a result of our reading we discovered that people with disabilities in the past were ‘hidden in plain sight’. For example, there is a famous picture of the 16th century English king, Henry VIII. It is of Henry and his family. However, there are two other people in the picture: Will Somers and Jane the Fool. Both of them were people with learning disabilities who were part of the Royal Household able to make the king forget his worries and to ‘speak truth to power in a way that other courtiers could not. Once we started looking, we found other people present in stories already told in history lessons, for example, Benjamin Lay, the Quaker campaigner for the abolition of transatlantic slavery who was also a dwarf. As a result, we have developed a format called a ‘slot in’. A slot-in is a knowledge rich worksheet about a character, or event, or place, which adds diversity to a topic and which can easily become part of existing lessons.

We recommend these principled actions for history teachers working with disability:

  • Take time to gain knowledge and make connections.
  • Be prepared to admit to ignorance and ask for help from people who are knowledgeable about how to represent people with disabilities.
  • Make a review of existing teaching materials looking for where you can ‘slot in’ diversity.
  • Say something rather than nothing, enabling the voices of past people with disabilities to be heard.

Two years later and we have written an article about our work for the UK Historical Association’s journal ‘Teaching History’ and presented at two Historical Association conferences. We have produced resources for students in English schools including:

  • a timeline activity tracing changes in attitudes to disability in relation to changes in ideas about being human (described above),
  • a timeline activity specifically focused on attitudes to mental health over time,
  • sources as evidence activities, including using records from the archives of the pioneering Retreat asylum opened by Quakers in the 18th century,
  • slot-ins on various people and places important to the story of disability and society,
  • and, of course, teacher guides for all of these.

These are freely available in downloadable format via the blog and we would be delighted if colleagues were to find them useful and to improve them.

Written By Helen Snelson, EuroClio Ambassador 

Teaching Democracy: Balancing between Free Speech and Offensive Expressions

Jilt Jorritsma Articles

Event: Far-Right Extremism in the classroom

13-14 June 2019, Berlin, Germany 

History education is more and more perceived as a means to strengthen democratic values among students. In order to become full and active members of society, students need to learn about mutual respect, tolerance and peaceful resolution of conflicts. This requires methods of teaching that allow freedom of thought and expression of opinions in the classroom.

However, one of the difficulties that teachers face when they want to engage students in open discussions, is how to deal with expressions that are offensive, discriminating, or even racist. What to do with these statements and the students expressing them? How can you, as a teacher, address the difference between ‘just expressing opinions’ and offensive statements; and how can you uphold a climate of open debate while at the same time condemning certain statements made by students?


Far-Right Extremism

These questions lay at the heart of the Far-Right Extremism in the Classroom meeting, organized by the Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN), which brought together teachers, policemen and academics dealing with far-right extremism (FRE). Because of its strong online presence, youngsters across Europe are likely to come across FRE ideas, and bring them to school. These are often xenophobic, racist and white supremacist messages about immigration, nationalism, history and democracy.

Efforts to prevent these ideas from spreading, or to silence them during discussions in class, are framed by FRE students as censorship and a violation of their freedom of speech.

Teachers from different countries expressed their concerns. In Greece, the renaming of North Macedonia earlier this year has fueled right-wing and nationalist expressions in schools. In Belgium a school was confronted with a group of students who shared racist comments and pictures online, threatening to kill international students. When organizing a ‘week against discrimination’, a school in France saw it’s promotion posters against antisemitism and homophobia being removed by students. And a school in Finland had to deal with parents hiding outside the schoolyard, reporting every time they saw a student with an immigration background doing something wrong.


Pitfalls: the Will to Control

One of the pitfalls when dealing with racism and discrimination in class are what Christer Mattsson (University of Gothenburg) refers to as ‘controlling pedagogies’: interventions by teachers aimed at altering the mindset of the student in question. Examples of such pedagogies are (1) walking in someone else’s shoes, a strategy by which teachers ask students to alter their perspective, and (implicitly) urge them to change their mind; (2) the hot seat, a strategy by which teachers make the student in question the center of attention, and fire questions at him/her; (3) physical separation, a strategy by which the student is sent out of the classroom and separated from the group.

Although, these teaching strategies are often applied with the best intentions, their results can be counterproductive. Teachers use them to control what is said and expressed in the classroom. Controlling what is expressed (or even forcing desired expressions) can produce distrust against authority. Students will learn that some expressions are desired by the teacher. They will avoid saying what the teacher doesn’t want to hear, and just say what they know the teacher wants to hear. This will not lead to any significant change in the students’ mindset.

Furthermore, excluding particular students from the classroom, or grouping difficult students together in a different class, will only further distance them from their classmates and might even further radicalize their ideas. Physical separation often produces mental separation.

Controlling pedagogies are therefore merely quick fixes: they might work at the time being, but they won’t establish any long-term change in the behavior of students, and won’t enable them to reflect on where their ideas and beliefs come from.


Changing Teaching Culture

A shift in focus is needed: from quick pedagogies of control towards sustainable pedagogies of emancipation. Teachers need to help students understand themselves, and this can only be done in a non-judgmental environment. Such an environment demands teachers that are non-judgmental, and this often proves to be problematic. In a lot of schools, teachers who are non-judgmental are considered to be soft, whereas acting harsh is considered to give teachers the appearance that they are firm.

In order to empower students to become more aware of their own values, we first have to empower teachers to be able to do so as well. Instead of secluding or separating offensive expressions, teachers need a to be able to convey a message that is more positive and inclusive. They need to understand where students get their ideas from, and why some students feel the need to express them. Teacher training can help them achieve this.


The RAN EDU meeting will result in a paper that shows schools and teachers how to respond to FRE.


Written By Jilt Jorritsma, EuroClio  Research trainee.



Memory and Education – what is the role of education in preserving memory?

Judith Geerling Articles ,

Presentation by Judith Geerling – Senior Project Manager EuroClio – Inspiring History and Citizenship Educators

Today I will talk about the role of memory and collective memory in history education. How should we negotiate differences in memory and differences in history? How can we respect the past while respecting the different people involved?

Memory refers to the ways in which individuals and societies choose to remember (or forget) certain moments and events in their history. This can be in the form of statues, buildings, memorials, but also stories and textbooks. What emerges from academic research in different fields is that individual memory does not work as an archive of lived experiences, but is rather constructed anew at each moment of recall. It is a construction.

A collective memory of the past is what binds a greater group of people together. It examines how ordinary people understand and use the past. This is why shaping a country’s collective memory is an integral part of nation-building. At the same time, powerful collective memories can be root causes of prejudice, nationalism and even conflicts.

History is the study of the human past as described in written documents. It exists of an analysis or interpretation of facts.

Both collective memory and history can be misused to reflect a so-called mirror of pride and pain. On the one hand a trauma  - or pain - is chosen that exists of horrors of the past that are influencing the future. On the other hand instances of glory – or pride – are chosen that form myths about a glorious future, as a kind of re-enactment of a glorious past. Together these form important elements in the forming of group identity. A key component is formed by this connection between a common past, and a desired shared destiny that is legitimised by the creation of a sort of master commemorative narrative.

Memory and history do not coincide without problems. And this is becoming more obvious in the last decade with protests spiking up on contested memories. Look for instance at the Rhodes must fall movement. A protest by students of the University of Cape Town for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes turned into a broader protest that also spread to other universities in South Africa and across the world to bring out in the open institutional racism and decolonize education. This is an example of tendencies that are happening globally.

History education in turn focuses on how students learn about the past.

My organisation, has been active and involved in the Western Balkan region for over 20 years. As an umbrella organisation we work together with history teachers associations in the countries on responsible history education. We advocate for a different way of teaching history and tried multiple approaches in the region:

  • We have looked at the role of memory and remembrance in relation to the 1990s wars. Funded by the Europe for Citizens Programme we worked together with our member associations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro on how to deal with this history that is by many not considered as history yet.[1] We discovered that teachers find it difficult to deal with recent sensitive history in their teaching, for several reasons. They do not feel confident enough on the content – they do not know enough of the issues at stake. Also, they find it difficult that students come in the classroom with strong perspectives, often based on memories that have been handed over generations, by their parents and grandparents. And finally they have their own memories that play a role. Nevertheless, there was a strong belief that the time has come to deal with this topic in the classrooms, exactly to ensure that students’ knowledge and understanding exceeds personal (family) memories.


  • Secondly, we have worked on curriculum analysis in the framework of a common project with CDRSEE, to see how collective memory is currently integrated into the formal education system. This formed the basis of a research into the needs of history teachers to deal with memory in their teaching. In this research[2] we reached out to around 1300 history educators across the Western Balkans and asked them about their views and perspectives on their teaching. The results showed that teachers strongly feel a need for more training on how to deal with these difficult topics in the classrooms.


  • At the same time we worked on building the capacities of history teachers associations in the region, as they form the voice of history teachers in their respective countries.


  • Finally, we have organised public events with professional discussions on the issue across Europe.

Politicians often find it easier to go along with the majority collective memory of their own group or country, and history education often follows. The region does not take a unique position in this, it happens across the world. Political elites oftentimes continue the war through collective memory.

Responsible history is based on evidence and exists of different perspectives. By basing oneself on this evidence one can come to a substantiated historical interpretation. However research has shown that it is challenging to take different perspectives when it relates to sensitive and controversial history, especially when it becomes personal.

Why? Because these issues are emotional. Emotional as they encompass multiple generations with their own perspectives and experiences, and emotional as they are often influenced politically.

Education should be a sanctuary for different memories and responsible history, based on professional ethics. At the same time, history teachers need competences and skills to feel empowered to take that space. As we indicate in our manifesto on quality history education[3] future generations should not be burdened with feelings of hatred or guilt. Young people should become aware that the past is perceived differently and must be valued in the context of their values and time. Teachers across the region indicated in our research that they lack these skills and need more training. Apprehension about the possible reaction of parents or other community members also plays a role.

When it comes to preserving history and memory there is a field of memory studies that is working on collecting testimonies and oral histories, for instance by interviewing survivors. Documenta in Croatia is a good example of this. The role of education is to deal with this content in a critical way, considering multiple perspectives, and being sensitive towards other person’s feelings, historical background and experiences.

At the same time a transnational justice process is on-going. Law is playing an important role in shaping collective memory. From documentation, like in the Nuremberg trials, to collecting oral testimonies like in the Eichmann case and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Although this forms a very important part of the reconciliation process, the categorisation of people in boxes of ‘perpetrator’, ‘victim’ and ‘bystander’ often does not do justice to historical complexities. It forms an easy basis for creating or feeding a constructed collective memory by politicians if not properly included in education. Evidence that manifests such processes is important, but it should be put into context and that is where historical rigour and education is important.

In the project I touched upon previously, dealing with the sensitive history of the 1990s wars, we worked together with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.[4] A group of history teachers visited the Tribunal and were introduced to the materials developed by the Outreach Programme and SENSE Agency, making use of some of the archive materials. This was a very enlightening experience for the teachers, where they realised they were not as confident in using these materials in the classroom, partially because they did not feel knowledgeable enough about the topic themselves. So teacher training is an important element to address when we talk about the role that education can play in preserving memory.

History is more than just what people did or what people said. It is much more complex. If you for instance look at the stories of members of the national socialist movement in the Netherlands during WW2 you see it is still not clear what to do with these stories. Even after almost 75 years. The Dutch share in the SS was bigger than any of the other occupied countries. Why did these individuals decide to volunteer? Was it their idealism and connection with the national-socialist ideology? Were they adventurers that wanted to escape their occupied country? Or did the Nazi propaganda machine persuade them? The answers are not black-and-white or straightforward. And that is what makes it complex, and difficult.

Intergenerational dialogue is also very important. It can transfer memories and with that prejudices and intolerances to future generations. At the same time it offers a potential for more open dialogue about the issues at stake, and an opportunity for students to use their historical skills to make sense of the stories they hear. There is need for this, not just in the region but European wide. The EU remembrance programme is very important in that light, and some of the countries in the region are already part of this programme. It would be great if this programme would be extended to the Western Balkans. The expertise on this front already exists within Europe. But currently there is a clear division between EU and non-EU countries in the region when it comes to participating in the programme. This has been an obstacle to deal with memory in the region, and it is not in line with historical realities. This is where the EU can play an important role.

The Western Balkans Strategy speaks of the role of education in terms of fostering greater tolerance, promoting European values and strengthening the cohesion of society.

Trust plays a very important role. And there are definitely positive examples where memory and education connect. If you look at the Friendship Treaty that was signed last year between Macedonia and Bulgaria, it acknowledges a shared history, but also the right to take a different view on some topics. The established committee with experts on history and education covers how history is portrayed in the educational systems and advocates for a scientific way.

History education has a role to play when it comes to memory and when it comes to reaching these goals. Collective memories are what bind groups together, and therefore it is only natural that these are considered important in the young states in the Western Balkan. At the same time, the risk of politicisation, prejudice, nationalism and even conflict make it vitally important to include different memories and complex perspectives on the matter in the classroom. Teachers should be trained and feel empowered to deal with memories in their education, having their students look at them critically and putting them into their context.

Finally, the Western Balkan Strategy speaks of a need for investment in the younger generation to give them a perspective for the future, not the past. Dealing with the past is however a necessary condition to imagine a shared future. And this is where history education comes in. By understanding each other’s and one’s own biases, and being considerate towards someone else’s history, we can work towards more cohesion and a common future.


[1] See:

[2] The research report is available to download in English, Albanian, Bosnian, Croatian, Macedonian, Montenegrin and Serbian here:

[3]See for Manifesto here:

[4] For more information see public report here: