Dec 14th 2005
From The Economist print edition
The perils of teaching more than one view of history
WERE the Ottoman rulers of the Balkans tyrants, or relatively benign protectors? The first, of course, in the history that most Serbian, Greek or Bulgarian children have long been taught. For them, the centuries of Ottoman rule constituted a dark night of oppression of Christians who retained their faith and culture only by tenacity and cunning—until the time came to throw off the oppressors and live happily ever after.
In Turkey, and among the Muslims of Bosnia, Balkan history is viewed from the opposite side of the looking-glass. Compared with most regimes in western Europe, the Ottomans were generous and tolerant towards minority religions and languages—until their ungrateful Balkan subjects rose up and slaughtered every Muslim in sight.
More recently, there is the sensitive issue of how the people of Yugoslavia responded to Nazism. Was Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, spiritual leader of Croatia's Catholics, an unabashed supporter of a murderous fascist regime, as communist Yugoslavia said? Or was he a saintly fighter for religious freedom, as the Vatican now insists?
Many grown-up historians would say that, on questions like these, there is room for reasonable people to disagree—and that the truth might lie somewhere in the middle. Now, for the first time, the children of south-eastern Europe may be getting a chance to see history from more than one point of view.
After seven years' work by scholars from around the region, a set of “objective” history manuals—on the Ottoman era, the Balkan wars of 1912-13 and the second world war—have been produced (and are now being translated into ten languages) by the Centre for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe, a Salonika-based think-tank. Education authorities in Kosovo and Croatia are keenly interested, but the first country to incorporate the books into its school system is Serbia. Its education minister, Slobodan Vuksanovic, says that they are the first teaching materials he is not ashamed to show to his teenaged daughter.
The authors say they have had a warm response from teachers all over the region. But presenting history from more than one viewpoint is still a hard sell. For communist teachers, the villains are always fascists and feudal overlords. According to nationalist history, a whole nation—rich and poor, landlord and peasant—rises against a bad regime (and its local lackeys) and heroically prevails. Even if neither story turns out to be true, or even half-true, children still want to know: who were the bad guys?