Journalist Tim Judah reflects on history, books and the Balkans


Journalist Tim Judah reflects on history, books and the Balkans


By Tim Judah, Balkans Correspondent, The Economist

There used to be a kind of joke about French education. At any single time of the day the minister of education could look at his watch and know exactly what was being taught in what subject in any French school. In fact, there was a lot of truth to this, but especially in the past, it led to some very strange teaching. For example, imagine serried ranks of children in Timbuktu, in pre-independence French Mali, learning about “nos ancêtres les Gaulois” – our ancestors, the Gauls.

Indeed, I remember extremely clearly the day my history teacher, informed us that: “All our ancestors were Anglo-Saxons.” I must have been about nine or ten. I think she might have written this on the board too, to ram the point home. I did not say anything, but I knew that in my case it was not true. My history was different.

Today, in such a multicultural a society as Britain, we are a long way from all our ancestors being Anglo-Saxons, but that is not to say that all is fine in the world of history teaching. In 2006 for example some 51% of those taking history for GCSE, the exam taken at the age of about 16, studied the Third Reich and 80% of those doing history for A levels, the final school exam, studied it too. There is no reason to assume anything has changed since then.

So, to sum up, as the newspapers have done, there is simply too much “Hitler and the Henrys”, a reference to the Tudor monarchs of the Middle Ages including Henry Vlll and his six wives.

Niall Ferguson, a prominent British historian also questions the fact that history teaching has, as he puts it, no “narrative arc”. He recounts that his children aged 16, 14 and 11 “had heard of the Rev Martin Luther King Jr, but none could tell me anything about Martin Luther.”

My wife says that this may be because, being a TV celebrity,  with an A-list second wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch feminist and  politician, he does not live with his children and thus is not there to nudge  his kids in the right direction. I only say this en passant because, when I gave my 14-year old twins the Ferguson test, they actually did know who both Luthers were.

I thus resorted to examining their history textbook. It is full of pictures, maps and sources and looks, to my untrained eye at least, rather good. It starts with the outbreak of war in 1914 and ends in 1991. Then it has sections devoted to three optional topics: War and the transformation of British society c.1903-28, War and the transformation of British society c.1931-51 and: A divided union? The USA, 1945-70.

So, so far so good. On page 9 we have a map of Sarajevo. A red line with arrows marks the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s route to the town hall and a black one his return, showing where his car turned right at the corner at what was then Schiller’s café, where Gavrilo Princip was standing. The book then informs students that:

At his trial Princip said: “I am not a criminal, for I destroyed a bad man. I thought I was right.” Two years later he said that if he had known what was to follow he would never have fired the two fatal shots – but his regret was too late. Within six weeks of the Archduke’s assassination, almost all of Europe had been dragged into the bloodiest war in history.

There is a page-long account of the assassination and students are then asked two questions. The second is:

Do you think that if the Archduke had not been shot, the war would not have started? Give your reasons. (These are only your first thoughts. You can revise your opinion later.)

I think the line in brackets must be key. There is no perfect method for teaching and, as Ferguson says, there are plenty of problems with teaching history in the Britain. But, at least I have the impression that encouraging critical thinking is not one of them.

That clearly is not the case elsewhere. My older son, who spent his early years in Belgrade, and thus knew the ins and outs of Kalenic market rather well, (live pigs peering out of car boots etc,) went on to study history at Oxford. But, after Belgrade, at the French Lycée in London, in a class about the Middle Ages, the children were asked what they knew about peasants, of whom there are precious few in west London. He said: “They grow things, come into town, sell them and then get drunk.” For this he was sent out of class. The teacher wanted a sugar-coated Middle Ages I suppose, in which happy peasants played walk on roles supporting the main characters who were knights in shining armour.

But, I digress. Compare and contrast: In 2006, Dubravka Stojanovic, the editor CDRSEE’s Joint History Project’s Serbian books, was interviewed alongside Rados Ljusic, another Serbian historian, in the pages of the newspaper Danas. At the time he was in charge of overseeing school textbooks. He said that, when it came to history, “there is one truth, just as there is one God.”

In other words he would presumably know the one and only right answer to, say, the following questions:

  1. In 1995, the 200,000 Serbs who left Croatia were:
    1. Ethnically cleansed
    2. Fled, in terror of Croatian reprisals
    3. Were evacuated by the Krajina Serb authorities
    4. A combination of all of the above

  3. In Kosovo between 1981 and 1989
    1. Albanians suffered political repression
    2. Serbs were persecuted or discriminated against and many left for Serbia proper
    3. Serbs took advantage of high property prices to sell to Kosovo Albanians who had big families and move to Serbia
    4. All of the above

  5. Josip Broz Tito
    1. Was a great and visionary leader
    2. Repressed the Serbs
    3. Repressed the Croats
    4. Repressed the Kosovo Albanians
    5. Repressed everyone, but could still be considered a great leader
    6. All of the above

The first four books produced by the Joint History Project seem to have been a great, if discreet, success. By 2014 the project will have seen have some 3,000 teachers trained to use the books and hence their influence could have reached some 500,000 students. But the real test will be whether the students, when it comes to history at least, will be able to think for themselves and understand that there is generally more than one truth in play.

Now CDRSEE has decided to move to the next phase. Its first books take the story of the Balkans to 1945. The next stage is the Cold War and then, from 1989 onwards. There is little time to lose. Macedonia is rewriting history in sculpture and building. In Bosnia war memorials commemorating the dead of three wars that you would not know were in fact the same war, often stand within a few hundred meters of one another.

There is no such thing as perfect, objective history. The past is like beauty. It is in the eye of the beholder. During the siege of Sarajevo Bosniaks knew they were fighting to stop the Serbs overrunning them and taking the city. But the Serbs who looked down at the city from over their gun barrels knew that they were fighting to prevent the Bosniaks from bursting out and overrunning them. Today history has taken the place of the sniper’s sights. It is war by other means.

In the late 1980s who did what in 1389 or 1941 played a tremendously importantly role in turning nation against nation and neighbour against neighbour. How many hours did Serbian television play documentaries about the Ustashas? How many times was the memory of Bleiburg and the Croats and others killed there in 1945 invoked to kill Yugoslavia? And, now the cycle repeats itself. For Bosniaks, Srebrenica is not simply a massacre and an act of genocide to commemorate, but an event which, with every passing year, is imprinted ever deeper into the political DNA of the nation.

In that sense Srebrenica has become the Bosniak Auschwitz. Today it is impossible to understand why Israelis and their leaders act as they do unless you understand the living legacy of Auschwitz. In years and decades to come they will say the same about Bosniak leaders, haunted by the memory of Srebrenica, determined that such a thing will never happen again, and determined not to trust to outsiders to help.

That is absolutely not to say that Srebrenica should be forgotten. It is not to say that, if we agree that there is more than one truth, that the crime was any the less evil, but it is to say that unless we are careful new generations will be vulnerable to political manipulation by misusing the memories of Srebrenica and or Jasenovac, the second world war concentration camp in Croatia, or Vukovar or Operation Storm from 1995 (and why not?) 1389 and the Battle of Kosovo all over again. It is not for nothing that that date is spray-painted by extreme nationalists on walls in Serbian streets is it?

So, what to do? Nenad Sebek, the director of the CDRSEE says he tells potential donors that if they want results next year then they should take their money elsewhere. He says he hopes for results in 10 or 20 years. By that he means that he hopes that the students of today, will given a vaccine of critical thinking with regard to history, and hence, unlike the generation of their parents, not goaded into war with tales of 1941, albeit this time with tales of 1992 or 1995. 

It is worth a try. It won’t stop teachers instilling their pupils with lessons about “our ancestors the ancient Macedonians / Illyrians / Dukljans / Bogomils / Thracians/ Aromanians” and so on but maybe, hopefully the vaccine will somehow neutralize the poison potential of history when its manipulated by politicians for evil ends. If all kids see their nations reduced by caricature history to heroic Asterix villages surrounded by enemy hordes then wars will surely return.

So, that is what I understand the Joint History Project to be about – a vaccine or a sort of computer programme for real people, working quietly in the background trying to catch and delete history viruses before they attack and corrupt young brains. It needs to work.

Tim Judah is the Balkans correspondent for The Economist
All photos courtesy of Tim Judah

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