Controversial Chapters Can a Jointly Written History Erase Centuries of German-Polish Strife?

The history of German-Polish relations is full of suffering and mutual recriminations. Experts from both countries have been developing a history textbook meant to teach high-school students on both sides of the border a common narrative. But critics view the effort as destined to fail.

A polish border stone (left) and a German border sign at a shared border crossing.
REUTERS

A polish border stone (left) and a German border sign at a shared border crossing.

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The presentation recently held in Warsaw followed all the correct diplomatic protocols. Indeed, German and Polish experts had started preparing for the important event two years earlier.

Teams of experts from both countries developed individual chapters, which were then either approved or rejected by panels with equal German-Polish representation. Katarzyna Hall, Poland's education minister, and Cornelia Pieper, a senior official at Germany's Foreign Ministry responsible for German-Polish relations, provided a warm opening address that was carefully divided between the two government ministries involved. In fact, to order to avoid any and all mistakes, careful balancing went into everything.

The issue at hand that December day was one of the touchiest subjects in German-Polish relations: a textbook -- or, more precisely, recommendations for a future textbook. And since the meeting proved to be a success, it is now all the more likely that Polish and German high schools will soon experience something revolutionary: History classes in both countries will teach from books that, although translated into the two languages, are otherwise identical in their treatment of historical material stretching from ancient Mesopotamia to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and beyond.

This arrangement is particularly noteworthy because the period stretching from the dawn of civilization to the emergence of al-Qaida includes a number of historical episodes that are sensitive subjects for Germans, Poles or both. Prime among these are Germany's 1939 invasion of Poland and, later, the expulsion of Germans from former ethnic-German territories ceded to Poland in 1945. Likewise, they also include events further back in time, such as the presence of Teutonic Knights on the Polish side of the Oder River, the present-day border between the countries.

Touchy Subjects

On closer inspection, it's hardly surprising that a textbook can be such an explosive issue. As German historians Jörg-Dieter Gauger and Günter Buchstab put it: "As we know, schools are the only places in every society that no individual can get around and that involve the systematic transfer of knowledge." In this respect, the historians continue, "schools, classes, syllabuses and textbooks" can be viewed as "a seismograph for the significance placed on historical topics."

These touchy subjects have generated a lot of friction in the past. But, compared to those times, the commotion that the textbook initiative triggered in 2007, when it was jointly launched by the countries' respective foreign ministers, was only minor. "Of course, historians will always disagree," says Michael G. Müller, an expert on Eastern European history who hails from the eastern German city of Halle and oversees the project on the German side. "But they no longer disagree along the same frontlines as conflicts between nations. What divides them instead are, for example, differing methodological schools, and these are frontlines that run right through our national delegation."

The 135-page outline of the project expresses a desire to move away from "national creation stories" in favor of exposing students to the importance of "sub- or supranational communities." The debates of recent years, it continues, should give way to an "open representation of history."

One point on which conflict has repeatedly flared up involves the insistence of the Polish representatives that the word "expulsion" not be used to describe the forced flight of millions of Germans as World War II ended and after national borders had been redrawn. Instead, they prefer to call it "resettlement." There has also been growing mistrust among Poles since the revival of interest in this topic in Germany following the 2002 publication of the Günter Grass novel "Crabwalk" and the more recent discussions surrounding a proposed documentation center on German expellees.

Balancing Historical Narratives

Textbook experts in the eastern German state of Saxony and in the neighboring Polish voivodeship, or administrative district, of Lower Silesia, worked together between 2005 and 2007 to develop guidelines for teachers in the region. In the process, they got to experience for themselves just how tricky it can be to create historical narratives. Their handbook, "Understanding History -- Shaping the Future: German-Polish Relations from 1933 to 1949," tackled the most difficult chapter in the countries' shared history, promptly earning itself harsh criticism from Polish historians who felt that the text placed too much emphasis on the German resistance movement against Hitler while minimizing the Polish resistance and failing to even mention the Warsaw Uprising. "It leaves the impression that Poland is expected to adapt to the German terminology," said Boguslaw Kopka, from the Warsaw-based Institute of National Remembrance, at the time.

So far, the historians behind the current textbook project have managed to avoid striking such dissonant chords. "An attempt to come up with some sort of middle position between the differing perspectives would have been doomed to failure," says Robert Traba, chair of the Polish expert panel for the textbook. Far more important, he adds, is increasing understanding of the fact that "European history arises out of different national memories."

Still, despite their efforts, the textbook project has not always been marked by peace and understanding. Organizations representing German expellees and the historians championing their cause resent how textbooks currently in use as well in the planning stages depict historical events. For example, they claim that the textbooks marginalize and even somewhat suppress the issue of Germany's former eastern territories.

Too Multicultural?

"Students graduating from German schools are illiterate when it comes to Eastern Europe," says Jörg-Dieter Gauger, a history professor at the University of Bonn whose works are mainly published by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a think tank associated with Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Gauger complains that Germany's historical eastern territories -- which were home to major cultural and historical achievements, but now belong to Poland -- are hardly mentioned as having once belonged to Germany. He also thinks that school materials lack any "indication of regret over the loss of the eastern provinces," and he credits German textbook authors with having a "self-destructive approach" that has them constantly presenting Polish-German relations as a "story of victims and suffering." In fact, Gauger also believes that schools tend to put too much focus on Islam when they present the Middle Ages and too little on the East. He also believes that this "clearly has its roots in certain current 'multicultural' domestic policies."

Many people would criticize Gauger's position, given former approaches to the issue. Until well into the 1960s, the country's textbooks were dominated by stories of the suffering of German expellees. At that point, there was no sign of any repressing of the history of Germany's former eastern territories -- nor any sign of balanced representation, for that matter. The loss of those ancestral homelands was far too recent, and the expellees' organizations had too much of a presence in the political landscape of what was then West Germany.

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