Woman walking by gravestones in public part on Marshal Tito Street, Mostar, October 2017. Photo: Kristof Bender/ESI

How to teach war in the Balkans?

For a comprehensive analysis of 20th century history textbooks

"Examining the past honestly, whether that is painful for some people or not, is the only way for societies to become mature and to build bridges to others," Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan once wrote. In some Balkan countries school children still use textbooks telling stories of a nation surrounded by enemies, with national heroes and foreign villains, cementing a world view that is at odds with the multi-ethnic nature of most of these states. A comprehensive analysis of 20th century history textbooks across the region would be a first step in the right direction.

ESI report: Teaching War. How Croatian schoolbooks changed and why it matters (16 September 2015)

Nationalists around the world see the role of history in terms of awaking emotions of loyalty. They are particularly concerned that the young are taught to love their nation and to know its enemies. Nationalists do not accept the view that in a democracy a historian's role is to challenge cherished myths; and that in an open society history education should prepare students for citizenship in a world where all institutions are imperfect – a world where, unnervingly, even those we admire may be responsible for crimes. 

In Croatia, until 2000, there was only one nationalist textbook in use for 14 year olds, presenting a one-sided image of Croatia's war history, both in the Second World War and in the conflicts that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia. In subsequent years, however, this approach to history education clashed with a different one pushed by a younger generation of historians. By 2013, when Croatia acceded to the EU, teachers could choose between four textbooks which offered a much more nuanced picture. This reflected wider changes in how Croats viewed themselves, how they defined citizenship and how they saw their relationship with their neighbours and their Orthodox Serb minority. It compares favourably to the record of both Britain and the US, which took many decades to face up to the complex moral legacy of the Second World War. 

Today, textbook authors across the Balkans face the challenge of explaining wars and war crimes, fascism, communism, ethnic cleansing and systematic violations of human rights in their recent past. Some Balkan countries still use textbooks telling stories of a nation surrounded by enemies, with national heroes and foreign villains, periods of suffering and victimhood alternating with military triumphs. Such textbooks transmit distorted ideas of citizenship; and signal to adults a limited commitment to human rights and fundamental values, in peace time and in war. 

The way that wars are taught in school is not just about how the past is remembered, but about what values are upheld in the present. School books reflect changes in values, norms and international humanitarian law. 

The debate on how to teach recent history never ends. If Croatian textbooks have changed fast, they will change more; the question is not whether but how. Over the last years, they were under challenge from nationalists, including – at times – from government ministers. Efforts to remove the new textbooks and turn back the clock have failed so far, however. 

Croatia's progress in coming to terms with its recent history and providing a more balanced account in its textbooks, as described in ESI's report Teaching War, should serve as an inspiration for the whole region. A systematic analysis of all history textbooks used in the Balkans to teach the 20th century, with a focus on the Second World War, Communism and the wars of the 1990s, would be an important step in this direction. 

As in textbook debates around the world, also in the Balkans it is not the past, but the future that is really at stake.