Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič



Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Presented at the International Conference on Teaching History, Calcutta, 30 July- 1 August 2015.

Today I would like to share with you some reflections on the rather fundamental question whether and how textbook revision can contribute to reconciliation in post-conflict societies. How can we come to terms with a violent past? How do we arrive at narratives of remembering that reflect painful experiences without triggering a new conflict? Is there a way of remembering that is not based on rigid images of self and other?

These are some of the issues I would like to address.

I will proceed in two steps.

First, I will be looking at three crucial concepts—memory, history and history textbooks. I will point to the ambivalences inherent to all these terms in order to prepare the ground for a discussion on strategies for remembering and teaching a violent past.

Second, I will elaborate on the advantages and disadvantages connected with different approaches to using history teaching as a resource for reconciliation. I will comment on several choices that are to be taken: Do we want to remember or do we prefer forgetting? Is there something that we can learn from other cases in terms of timing and sequencing? What are the strategies of writing the history of conflict that we can chose from? These are some of the questions I am going to address.


I begin with my exercise in terminology.


If I think about the first of my three terms, if I think about memory it seems to me that remembering is a rather ambivalent thing to do. When we remember, we constantly oscillate between past and present. On the one hand, memory is based upon past events. What we remember is dependent on the experience we were exposed to. On the other hand, my recalling, the past is heavily shaped by the present I am living it. Culturally defined and socially shared norms leave their imprint on my memory work. The people I am interacting with will influence me. As a result all my memories, even the most personal and intimate ones are co-produced by the social and discursive universe I am living in.

Actually, this cannot be different for at least two reasons: First, memory is not a reflection, but a construction of the past. It is selective. I constantly have to decide what is worth of being remembered and what not and I will do so referring to culturally defined criteria of relevance. Moreover, my memories are expressed in the culturally formed medium of language which rather unconsciously predetermines the way I will perceive the world. Second and partly as a consequence of the first, remembering is closely intertwined with constructing and performing identity. By deciding, what was important in my childhood years and what not, I am obviously producing a certain image of myself.

Social rules do play a role in this kind of identity work on two different levels. They help to distinguish between the relevant and the irrelevant. To illustrate that with a rather banal example, in the modern achievement oriented societies of our times, almost all of us would sooner or later mention the type of education we got when telling the story of our life. But social rules and norms also help us to assemble all the chunks of our memories in a coherent story. To be more precise, what we consider to be a coherent story is to great extent influenced by cultural norms.

The aspect of coherence is rather important when it comes to remembering and story-telling. As a rule, we attach the highest value to things that are rather difficult to obtain. This holds true for coherence as well. Life tends to be rather incoherent. We are exposed to different experiences; we change with age; we entertain multiple identities as daughters, historians, Germans or Indians, Christians or Muslims or Hindus, adherents of leftist or rightist political ideologies. To translate all these complexities into memory, into a coherent story, thus tends to be a rough challenge we can never hope to fully master. Biographical narratives of remembering always show a certain degree of incoherence.

To give you one example: in a project on the memory of the Soviet Union we conducted life story interviews with history teachers in Kyrgyzstan. One of them came up with three rather opposite accounts. When he talked in his capacity as a loyal state agent of newly independent Kyrgyzstan, he would give us a rather negative picture of the USSR as a colonial and totalitarian empire, pointing for example to the fact, that his father and his grandfather had been repressed due to their noble family background. When he spoke from the position of a history teacher who had experienced a dramatic loss in income and social status after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he would describe the same Soviet state as caring and thoughtful, reminding us that he could have studied only with the support of the party and the state after his father had died when he himself was only eleven. In the end he spoke as a person deeply embedded in the values and codes of a traditional society, for whom social status is an issue of first priority and who would thus face no difficulties in comprehending how his father could simultaneously endure repression as a member of the ancient Kyrgyz nobility and serve as a high ranking state official in Soviet times. To my mind, this traditional narrative plays an important role in creating coherence as it allows the narrator to reconcile rather opposing views on the same phenomena.

What holds true for individual memories, the fact that they are selective and ambivalent is even more relevant as soon as we talk about collective memories of social groups from families to nations. Here we do not only need to decide what counts as valid memory, we also have to choose whose experiences are worth to be remembered. Looking back at the history of our group we determine who is important and who not, who is a hero and who a villain.

What follows from this are two crucial things. Taking these decisions, memory is always political by its nature and being political it is always an object of controversy. The question thus is, how should we, how should society deal with such a potentially divisive thing as collective memory.

In order to suggest a cautious answer to this question, I would like to draw attention to two demands collective memory should live up to in my eyes.

First of all, memory should be sufficiently inclusive in order to open up enough space for different versions of the past supported by different members of societies. We could study what happens, if memory fails to provide such a space, in the Post-Soviet republic of Georgia under its former president Saakashivili. Serving the political needs of the ruling elite, who tried to gain legitimacy in the eyes of western donors, Soviet socialism was at that time officially declared to be a deviation from the normal development path of human mankind. As this interpretation heavily contradicted to the worldviews of most people, who tended to cast a rather nostalgic view on their Soviet past not at least under the impression of post-soviet poverty, official views of history were largely ignored or even openly rejected. In the end, Saakashvili even had to remove a statue of Stalin in the shadow of the night in order to escape public protest.

Second, collective memory should be self-reflexive. Apparently, it can serve different needs. It can contribute to social cohesion, but it can also reinforce social division. And as a matter of fact, it can do both at the same time. It can strengthen in-group solidarity by means of othering, i.e. is means of emphasizing the difference between us and them. To give you a rather unexpected example, the success story European identity could partly be attributed to successful othering. In the early days of the European project the Soviet Union played the role of the significant other, against whom European nations at least in the West had to  unite. During the Iraq war this role was ascribed partly to the US. Some European intellectuals tried to define what it means to be European by means of distinguishing themselves from the belligerent Americans. After nine eleven we could observe populist attempts to present Islam as the constitutive other. To a certain extent, all this seems to be inescapable. In order to know who we are we need to know who is different from us. There simply is no self without the other.

But although othering is thus without alternative there are different ways of othering, some less harmful than others. Probably the most inclusive version would be a self-reflexive form of othering. Again Europe could be a kind of role model. According to its own self-description the other of the European Union of our days would be the old Europe from the first half of the 20th century that has inflicted two of the most brutal wars on mankind. It is this gloomy past that has become the significant other of a European Union that strives to replace narrow-minded nationalism with tans-national solidarity. This is at least the story Europe wants to tell about itself and may be also the story that helps us to understand how we can create inclusion without risking exclusion.


I will now approach my second term, history, mainly trying to reflect on its relation with memory. This is, actually, a very much controversial issue. In academic debates we come across two different views.

Some would argue history is but one institutionalized form of memory. As it involves narration it is as selective as memory is. As it is selective it involves the same distinction between what is relevant and what not, as memory does. And as it is distinctive it is as much based on values as memory is. To cut a long story short: Everything that is said and written by historians could always be said and written differently. There is thus no valid claim to any form of objectivity.

According to this perspective, the subjectivity of all history starts with the decision what is mentioned and what is omitted.

To illustrate this with point a simple example of my current research: When writing about the Cold war all history textbooks in Germany would sooner or later dwell on the Cuban missile crisis as one of the key event in the whole story. All of them would describe in detail how the decision to dislocate Soviet missiles on the Cuban Island, i.e. in the direct vicinity of the US had almost caused the third world war. But only very recently, some textbooks started to talk about the American missiles that had been dislocated in Turkey, i.e. in the neighbourhood of the USSR already long before. I guess it goes without saying that providing this tiny piece of information gives a totally new twist to the whole story and has even the potential to change our mind about the main actors.

But as with memory, the role of values in history writing is not confined to the decision what is narrated and what is silenced. Values also inform the way how a certain thought is realized in linguistic terms. When expressing ourselves, we can always choose between different options. Let me give you a rather simple, though subtly example again from German textbook stories about the Cold War. As a careful reader you would notice very soon that Soviet and American actors are labelled quite differently. Kennedy would often be introduced as President Kennedy—without using any article and even without any word on whose president he was. The effect seems to be quite obvious in my eyes. The one who is not marked, is one of us, a member of our we group, he belongs to us, we know him, so there is no need to define him. The same books would, however, always talk about the Soviet head of State or the general secretary of the communist party thus representing Soviet politicians as unfamiliar, as alien to us.

A much more outspoken proof to the hidden power involved in labelling would be the recent decision of the state authorities in Texas to impose a ban on the use of the word capitalism in textbooks. Authors are advised to replace the nasty word with the much less discredited term market economy.

But as I mentioned in the beginning, some people would nevertheless claim that history is different from memory because as a science it is obliged to control for the cogency and soundness of its narrations. The scientific literature actually distinguishes between three different forms of cogency, i.e. empirical, normative and narrative cogency. Let me very quickly look at all of them.

Empirical cogency refers to factual correctness. In practical terms that would mean that sources do possess something similar to the right of veto. Phrased differently, do not say anything that contradicts to the sources. As nice and simple as that sounds, it leaves open the question of what different sources can actually prove. Do they tell us what has actually ha