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Remembering and Teaching a Violent Past: Choices, Challenges and Chances - Dr. Barbara Christophe


Updated: Oct 16, 2023

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 of 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 and 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 in all these terms in order to prepare 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 of 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 of the 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 that 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.

To illustrate this point, I will cite 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 of 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 happened or do they rather show us how certain people do perceive what has happened?

Normative cogency means two things at once. Historical narration should be transparent in terms of rendering visible the values that inform their judgements and at the same time these values should be in agreement with the normative foundations of the respective society. Again, this appears to be convincing at first glance. At second glance, I would, however, like to bring into consideration that most of the time we do not argue about the validity of certain values, but rather about the question which actions would follow from certain values. Take the example of the American intervention in Afghanistan. The controversy spins not around liking or not liking the idea of human rights but rather around the question whether you can justify a military intervention with reference to human rights.

Last not least, narrative cogency requires a historical account to be coherent. To name just a few concrete demands: Theoretical arguments should be congruent with what is narrated. If a narrator claims that all history is about class struggle, but continues to talk exclusively about ethnic groups as main actors, the requirement of narrative cogency would have been missed. Conclusions should be grounded in explanations and arguments. It would not be sufficient to claim that the Soviet Union is the origin of all evil without providing any evidence to support that claim.

Instead of taking sides in the controversy about the status of history as either science or a special form of memory, I would like to conclude with pointing to a dilemma that can emerge from the opposing views I have just described. The tricky question is what are the purposes history has to serve? Is it truth or is it moral aims like reconciliation and mutual understanding? And what if there is a tension between the two? Are we obliged to temper the truth if it would hurt the interests or feelings of others? Can we adapt narratives to humble aims without straying into moral relativity? Again, I am fine with raising questions and leave the answers to you.

In order to add some concreteness to the rather abstract dilemma, I would only like to point to a rather difficult situation inside the Polish-German textbook commission that had started to meet in the seventies. At that time Poland still belonged to the socialist bloc. It still had to take into consideration the interests of the Soviet Union as the hegemonic power. As a consequence, the Polish members of the commission would strongly reject any mentioning of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in a joint resolution on the history of the twentieth century. Historian all over the Eastern bloc would as a rule conceal this treaty, that was concluded between Nazi-Germany and the USSR in 1939 in order to find an agreement about splitting up Poland and the Baltic republics between them. For the sake of mutual understanding, the German historians in the commission accepted that attitude just to be blamed of having sold the truth upon coming home.


Coming to my third and last term, I would like to stress right from the beginning, that textbooks are no less ambivalent than memory or history. Quite the opposite, ambivalences are to be found at least on three different levels.

First, textbooks are on the one hand reflective of hegemonic discourses. They are perhaps the most important instrument in the hand of state elites when it comes to the transmission of national narratives about the past. On the other hand they are a classical border object located in-between the spheres of politics, science, didactics and economics. They are political insofar as they are shaped by political elites. They are scientific insofar as they are to convey scientific insights. They are didactic insofar as they are designed to steer learning processes. And they are economic insofar they are the product of profit seeking publishing houses. As a consequence, the actors as well as the rationalities dominating in all these different spheres can be expected to leave their partly contradicting imprint on textbooks.

Second, textbook are probably among the most selective media we have. They choose and they omit, they condense, structure and generalize information. As a rule, they do all this under the pressure to present a maximum of knowledge on a minimum of pages. Selectiveness does not only lead to rather subjective decisions. It moreover fosters meaning making. Let me provide you with an example from Polish history textbooks. Again and again, authors would summarize a lot of different events from the middle ages to present times as contributing to one and the same moral insight about Europe that has repeatedly abandoned Poland to its fate although no one would embody European values as perfect as Poland did throughout centuries. At the same time and despite their selectivity, many people would credit textbooks with a special trustworthiness. Being as a rule authorized by the state, they would be often perceived as being particularly objective, truthful and relevant. Despite many efforts to convince them of the reverse, many students all over the world tend to believe, that everything that is written in a textbook must be true.

Third, textbooks are in many countries adapted to the changing needs of the present. Whenever there is a change in the curriculum, new textbooks would be published. Especially in authoritarian contexts, even changes in government would be followed by the adoption of new textbooks. But there is another side to the coin. Upon careful reading, we can often discover that textbooks resemble in many ways a palimpsest, one of these manuscripts in the middle ages from which the text has been either scraped or washed off so that the page can be reused. Traces from narratives that had been produced in different times can thus be found in one and the same text. To illustrate this with one example, quite often pictures painted in current German history textbooks from the United States appear to be rather contradictive. Partly they are still influenced by stereotypes from the times of the Cold War, when America would be equated with noble principles like democracy and freedom. Partly, they are affected by the rather nasty experiences from the post-cold war era, when the image of the US had been compromised by Guantanamo or the NSA scandals.

All this leaves us again with the question to whom are to what the ambivalent media of the textbook should respond. Should they follow political programs? Should they accept scientific “truth” as the one and only guideline? Or should they strive to give space to different social positions?

Instead of answering I would like to point to the rather successful example of how Lithuanian textbooks deal with the divisive issue of the Soviet past. To begin with, the Lithuanian society is deeply divided with regard to that period of time. Whereas some people would perceive the Soviet state, its institutions and all its officials to be an embodiment of totalitarian foreign rule, others would appreciate the contribution the Soviet Union made to the economic, social and cultural modernization of a previously rather backward Lithuanian society. Actually, you can come across both positions in Lithuanian textbooks. Both of them are thus recognized as being legitimate. This contrast to a certain extent with the way GDR history is represented in German textbooks. In many of them West Germany would be the showcase of a highly successful development, whereas the socialist East would be equated with economic decay and political repression. Having conducted interviews with history teachers in both Lithuania and Germany, I came to the conclusion that the open debate in Lithuania created an atmosphere in which people would seriously and almost without fear interrogate them-selves, confronting questions of guilt and shame, reflecting in moral categories about their own behavior during socialism. At the same time, quite a lot of teachers from the former GDR would feel compelled to engage in justification and escape responsibility by emphasizing compulsion and victimization.


In the second part of my talk I will narrow down my focus, concentrating on the choices, challenges and chances involved in textbook revision in post-conflict societies.


I start with the most fundamental choice, the question of whether we should rather forget or remember a violent past. If we follow the scientific debate, we will come across both positions.

Some experts argue in favour of remembering as the only way leading to sustainable reconciliation. They would mainly point to lessons drawn from the work with individuals whose chances at recovering are said to depend on their ability to translate traumatic experience into a story they can retell and share with others. Others would opt for social amnesia especially when talking about a violent past would involve the risk of opening up old wounds and thus triggering new conflict.

This second line of reasoning did not only motivate countries like Ruanda or Bosnia to suspend teaching about the immediate past partly or wholly. For quite a long time Germany also believed in the wisdom of a moratorium. More than two decades had to pass before topics like the Holocaust were discussed in public and in school.

There are two main arguments that can be mobilized in order to challenge the appropriateness of such policies. Usually conflict and violence are a topic of social discourse outside the school long before textbook authors decide to tackle these issues. It is mostly families, popular culture and media who will fill in unopposed the space left open by educational institutions. And they are most likely to reinforce boundaries instead of approaching sensitive topics in a less confrontational way. Moreover, since Freud we know about the return of the repressed. As long as it is not addressed, hatred does not necessarily fade away as time passes by.


Taking into consideration these insights, debates on adequate approaches towards memory and reconciliation have moved away from these rather general question. Experts no longer ask whether forgetting is fundamentally better than remembering. They rather look at issues of timing. Is it better to start memory work right after the conflict in order to prevent the emergence of distorted and rigid versions of the events? Or is it better to wait for a generational shift?

The success of the German-French common history book would be an argument in favour of the latter as the project gained speed long after the grievances that fuelled the conflict had been a thing of the past. At the same time, it may be difficult to define the right moment as conflicts do not always have a clear end. Some of them linger on and take new forms long after peace accords had been signed officially.

Controversies also revolve questions of sequencing. Where exactly should one begin with memory work? Is schooling and the revision of textbooks an adequate means in order to break the ice? Or should we expect other sectors like religion, popular culture and the arts, i.e. film, theatre, music and literature to take the lead? A certain inertia characteristic for the school, the curriculum and the textbook would be an argument in favour of the latter. Changing them takes as a rule much more time as the implementation of reforms requires a consensus among a broad range of stakeholders. Moreover, textbooks are seldom credited with being particular innovative. At the same time, they normally enjoy rather high social status in most societies. Thus, change promoted by them could be expected to be very much effective because they would create ripple effects.

I am rather hesitant to opt for a certain solution. As usually many things depend on concrete circumstances. May be societies who simply lack a dense network of civil society organiation will be well advised to use the school and the textbook as agents of change.


If that decision is taken, one still needs to choose from many different strategies we have in order to rewrite history and to revise history textbooks. Let me quickly look at each of them, entering in a discussion of the chances and the risks involved in each of them.

The approach that is probably most demanding is the entangled history approach. Two sides would agree on one and the some narrative that would cover issues relevant to both of them and stressing interconnectedness. With some exceptions, the common French-German textbook tries to follow these lines. There is one problem and one risk involved with this solution. With recent changes in history didactics putting more emphasis on working with sources and historical thinking, the author text had lost in importance. The risk could be the emergence of compromise narratives that are presented in an objectified and de-emotionalized manner and thus create the illusion of coming close to an objective truth.

This risk would definitely be avoided by the dual narrative approach that was implemented by the common Israeli-Palestinian textbook. The main idea is to juxtapose two competing narratives within one book and to present all events from two perspectives. The aim is to inspire critical self reflection among pupils concerning the contingency of their story. Listening to the story of the other should make them aware that everything that is said could have been said differently. Moreover they have the chance to discover the blind spots in their own story. The main danger is twofold in my eyes. First, differences are essentialized. Second, controversies inside groups are rendered almost invisible. Taken together all this seems to support the idea of two ethnically homogeneous parties to the conflict, an idea that contrast with a much complex empirical reality. To give just some very few examples, the Israeli-Palestinian textbook neither mentions Hamas nor the Palestinians living in Israel nor political forces opposed to Zionism in Israel.

The third approach which is based on the idea of multiperspectivity answers to some of these shortcomings. It allows for the inclusion of perspectives from other discourses in the national books. The focus would be moreover rather in teaching how to deal with different sources than on controversial context. Ideally this could help to escape strife. Moreover differences become a virtue. We do not need to hide them behind compromise narratives. There may however arise a problem with victims who are often keen to establish historical truth, as the didactic principle of multiperspectivity is alien to many education systems.

This brings me to my last approach, the so-called biographical approach which is based on focussing on individual experiences. The most prominent examples are probably Guatemala and Colombia where stories of victims of the civil war were gathered by Historical Clarification Commissions. The aim is to move beyond the impression that the other side has only propaganda and no facts, and to draw attention to the suffering inflicted on people on both sides. The problem may be that, moving to the foreground the experience of victims does not really help us to ascribe responsibility for the violation of human rights as long as perpetrators are not confronted.


Dr. Christophe studied History and Slavonic studies and received her PhD from the University of Bremen in 1996 for a sociological study of current issues in Lithuania. She is the head of the Memory Cultures Research Forum at the Georg Eckert Institute. She uses textbook research as an instrument in a wide range of projects reflecting a cultural studies-based approach but principally a practice-theoretical approach to research in memory practices. She is also involved in a comparative study exploring the debate surrounding memories of socialism through two different kinds of texts: history textbooks and biographical narratives of history teachers.

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