History teaching as a matter of war and peace? Introductory remarks to "Understanding and overcoming conflict"

Can history teaching make young people ready for war? – It would be difficult to answer this question on the basis of irrefutable evidence, but it seems reasonable to assume that textbooks and teacher narratives contribute to shape collective “perceptions and misperceptions” (Robert Jervis) relevant to issues of war and peace. In my introductory remarks I would like to focus on some examples of narratives that are likely to generate tension between nations. In some cases it is quite difficult to trace a clear line between politics of memory and history teaching – and this seems to be part of the problem: The politics of memory is about “making sense” in some (often national) way or another, it is not always linked to sincere effort to understand what happened and why it happened. This effort, however, is crucial for peacebuilding between hostile nations or groups. People will hardly be able to overcome the tensions between them as long as one side denies or trivializes facts crucial to the experience and memory of the other, even if they know each other’s narratives perfectly well. What scholars studying German history teaching call “multiperspectivity” is without doubt an important element in processes of history-based peacebuilding, but it is by far not enough.

If we really want to overcome history-based conflict, it will only be the first step to acknowledge different interpretations of the past. We will have to transcend the mere comparison of conflicting narratives, because people did not – and do not – live in different universes. In recent years, radical narrativism tended to obscure the simple fact that the plurality of narratives does not logically imply the plurality of pasts. There has never been such a thing as an exclusively French, Polish, Russian, German etc. past. Humans lived in only one indivisible past, even if historical evidence will never allow us to understand its complex causal structure completely, and even if our look upon it might be biased by particular traditions, interests and habits. The assumption of one indivisible past does not imply moral relativism, it does by no means lead to the confusion of aggressors and defenders, perpetrators and victims. It only requires that humans as rational beings be able to reach agreement on essential components of a shared history.

History teaching can assume its responsibility for peacebuilding only if it shows students that it is possible to free one’s mind at least partially from the grip of national “frames” by using historical sources as instruments of critical research. Hopefully, the new awareness concerning global challenges like climate change or nuclear threats will help people to understand that humanity as a whole has a history (and a common chance to have a future) that cannot be reasonably split up into cultural, national, religious etc. fragments. In this respect, the concept of “transnational memory” suggested by Aleida Assmann might be helpful. In a next step, we should also ask whether the paradigm of “memory” as well as the paradigm of “narrative”, both prone to highly subjective and thus potentially conflicting approaches to the past, should be questioned as well. To what extent could theses paradigms give way to a type of history teaching inspired by high standards of critical science, without falling into the trap of 19th century style naïve objectivism?


by Peter Geiss (University of Bonn)

The author is indebted to Florian Helfer for helpful comments and emendations to this abstract. The paper will presented at the Bonn International Conference “Understanding and overcoming conflict“.

+++ The conference has been cancelled due to the unforeseeable spread of Coronavirus +++

Zitierweise / How to cite:
Peter Geiss: History teaching as a matter of war and peace? Introductory remarks to “Understanding and overcoming conflict”, 10.02.2020, in: Histrhen. Rheinische Geschichte wissenschaftlich bloggen, http://histrhen.landesgeschichte.eu/2020/02/peaceteachingbonn-introductory-remarks/


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