Only 12 years ago, we published our first four books: the Joint History Workbooks for all the SEE countries. They were received warmly by many, but were strongly rejected by others. We were even accused by some of attempting to recreate history, and were judged in a manner usually reserved for enemies of state.
It was to be expected though - we knew that an unbiased, multi-perspective History workbook would be perceived as a serious obstacle and so we remained calm and steadfast in our determination to continue. Even though it was unpleasant, we were open to criticism and to what was considered to be inaccurate. In the end, however, we didn’t hear any arguments of this sort, but rather just remarks such as: “our country does not have enough primary sources, this or that cartoon presents our country in a bad light” and so on. We quickly understood that the people behind these critiques had not actually read our books, so with great patience, enthusiasm and dedication we managed to lower, and in some cases, silence the voices of those who rejected them. How did we do this? We encouraged them to read the books, we exchanged opinions, we initiated a debate with people responsible for the educational system, and here we are today: with the support of almost all the ministries of education in the Western Balkans, we are presenting two new volumes which deal with a much more controversial and sensitive period than those of the first volumes. I am proud to say that we have succeeded: our history education committee and hundreds of historians across Southeast Europe, have compiled the books which consist of 700 historical sources on the events from 1944 to 2008. Here, I would like to point out that these books do not replace the adopted textbook of national curricula in the region — but serve as additional teaching material for teaching history.
The first supporters of this project almost 20 years ago came from far away, from the USA: USAID, National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the United States Institute for Peace; from Great Britain: Foreign Commonwealth Office; and from Ireland: Irishaid. Currently, the project, and the two new books which I present to you today, are generously supported by the European Commission, and I would like to express my gratitude and deep respect for those who understood how important these books could be. We are an NGO, one of thousands in Europe struggling for the opportunity to implement tremendous ideas. Our historians are among those thanks to whom history can be called a science. They are not the only ones of course. Our Board consists of people who have been dedicated to democracy and progress their whole lives, and they are not only ones either. Our staff members are tireless and passionate about their work. What all of us as a team have in common is dedication, enthusiasm and the unwavering belief that things can and will improve. We have worked together for the past 18 years and the success of this project is based on the winning combination of three elements: experts, financial and political support and unreserved dedication.
I would also like to express my gratitude to all the ministries of education in the region who are with us today and who showed understanding and believed that such a project can help their governments and states to progress. Education can set you free, and history education in particular can set entire nations and regions free from a heavy past through the simple power of knowledge and critical thought. I am delighted and proud that, at present, six ministries of education support our books. I would like to add that we are geographically situated in Europe, but European values are still lacking. As a side note of a more personal nature, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that I am from the Balkans, I was born and grew up in the Balkans. I won’t turn my speech into my personal story, but I do want to convey the message that there is not a single person who went through the traumatic war of the nineties who did not partly (let me express myself metaphorically) ‘die’ in some way. We are all aware of the fact that history should not repeat itself, but this most not become a sound-bite. These books are a reflection of this. Its methodology will help young people develop critical thought which in turn will help them grow into European citizens…
…So far, with the generous help of the European Commission, these two new workbooks have just been published - but only in English. This is what we have been able to accomplish so far. As the JHP is already very welcome in most of the Southeast European countries (the respective ministries of education will talk later of the reforms, aims and plans of their educational system, into which these books fit perfectly) – we have to do more, we haven’t finished our job yet! These books need to be read. They need to be translated into local languages, we need to train teachers to use these books, we need to bring them together in regional workshops and conferences. Based on the existing material, we would like to improve and produce documentaries, cartoons… We would like connect history teachers together both virtually through a webplatform and physically like when we brought together teachers from Serbia and other countries in Vukovar, in Mostar and Presevo… The gathering of teachers most not remain as isolated cases of cooperation but needs to become a tradition. We want to make a real impact, and we have only just started. We need to continue, our countries need to progress and we know they are capable of doing so, but we all have to be patient and persistent. Persistent, as it is not easy to connect and reconcile people who were at war against each other not so long ago, and patient-as it takes time for things to change… This is a process which requires time. I am certain we can show students how to broaden their views, how to examine contexts, to explore and develop compassion and empathy. We need to get them out of the comfort zone in order to help provide them with a more comfortable life.
Thank you very much for your attention, thank you for expressing support by being present here today. And thank you for your future support. We from the Balkans have succeeded in showing that we can also, for a change, export certain values and examples of good practice. This is our task and we are proud of it and not ashamed to ask for help to continue what we consider to be a noble, just and indispensable quest for reconciliation in the region. May the process we have begun be relentless, unfaltering and unstoppable.