2015 will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Commemorative events will take place in all European countries, reflecting the very specific way each country endured this worldwide trauma.
The Think Tank of the Youth Association for a Greater Europe has gathered the views of young citizens from seven European countries – Austria, England, France, Germany, Poland, Russia and Ukraine - to gain an overview of the differences in how the history of World War II is being taught in schools across our continent. Recognising these differences helps enhance cross cultural understanding and respect. This second and final part will discuss Germany, Poland, Russia and Ukraine.
One quick look at the German syllabus immediately highlights the focus of the education system’s take on World War II education: The word itself is not mentioned very often. Instead, the emphasis of teaching the WWII that stretches from 8th to 12th grade, depending on the school the students attend, is mostly called “National Socialism”, sometimes “Democracy and Dictatorship” or a variety of these terms. Each of the German federal states can decide on its schools' syllabuses itself – theoretically, that is. In practice however, the aim of German teaching of WWII history is clear: to educate students about the genocide and inhuman cruelties that happened during the Hitler dictatorship and in this way prevent it from happening again.
Racism, Anti-Semitism, the totalitarian state and its propaganda, the Holocaust and civil disobedience – these are probably the most central terms German students have to deal with in history, but are also apparent in their German, biology, political and religious education classes. More or less obligatory is a trip to one of the former concentration camp sites to make the topic more understandable and relatable to the students. The role of the individual in the National Socialism system is granted a prominent place in WWII education. By discussing cases like that of Oskar Schindler, who managed to save over 1000 Jews from being deported to concentration camps, civil disobedience is showcased.
The modern German syllabus on WWII tries to educate young Germans about the era of National Socialism in an authentic way that is not afraid of facing the facts. Though making the topic a central part of school education, it is facing a rather large problem: It has to deal with a generation that does not have any personal connection to that part of history anymore – such as a grandparent that could tell stories from this time period. The future will show how and if school education manages to overcome this problem and keep this part of history as a central tenet of the young generation's collective memory.
It is easy to think that the Polish system of World War II lessons depends solely on the content of the history curriculum in schools provided by the ministry of education, but in order to understand this issue, it is also necessary to examine it from a broader perspective. One of the major problems stems from the fact that the Polish history curriculum is too extensive and very often teachers simply cannot spend enough time on lessons devoted to World War II. Therefore, it is very common for Polish students to know better history of their first kings than events from the middle of the last century, despite the latter shaping the modern world in which we live. Another factor of great importance is that for over 40 years after the war, the history program at schools has been created by communist governments presenting its very own version of WWII, distorting partly the truth about it — or being very selective over the topics on which students had to focus.
Complexity and time requirements have obviously had a negative impact on the teaching methods, since history teachers usually adopt the easiest and most obvious perspective for the historical narration – that of the major victims of WW II. The Polish approach to World War II is extremely idealistic and can be represented through the quotation from the response to the Germans’ demands expressed by Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jozef Beck in 1939 and which almost every Polish student knows by heart: "Peace is a precious and a desirable thing…there is only one thing in the lives of men, nations and countries that is without price. That thing is honor."
Therefore, one of the first topics studied is that of Poland being betrayed by its allies, at the very beginning of the war. Poles still have the impression that France and the UK did not support the country during the September 1939 Campaign invasion, leading to massive losses among Polish troops, surrounded by two powerful armies. However, the end of WWII is also perceived as another “Western betrayal”, implying the restructuring of the country’s borders and it subsequently becoming under the Soviet occupation after the Yalta Conference. Students mainly study the history of WWII through the perspective of Polish soldiers who were determined to never surrender or accept German occupation and thus compare it to the situation in France for instance. Poles are taught to be proud of those who sought the occasion to fight against Germans by supporting English or Soviet armies or by creating and effectively running the Polish Underground State as guerrilla warfare.
On the other hand, Polish pupils are also aware that this Underground State and its actions (like the two Warsaw uprisings) were as heroic and idealistic as they were hopeless. The perspective of the “hopeless victim” has resulted in strong cultural connotations until now. Every Polish student remembers indeed the Battle of Westerplatte, the first battle of WWII where 180 Polish soldiers were fighting against 3500 Germans for 7 days. Embedded in their minds is also Katyń, the massacre of polish officers and both Warsaw Uprisings. More emphasis is put on the second Warsaw Uprising as it led to the utter and methodical destruction of Warsaw.
Another subject, which is crucial for Polish history lessons is of course the Holocaust, perceived as a combined tragedy of Polish and Jewish nations with clear separation between both groups, where notion of the “Polish Jew” does not exist. The Polish approach towards Jewish society is shown solely as the actions aimed at helping and saving Jews. This historical aspect is also taught in form of the lecture focused on the areas where the massacres took place, as well as the numbers of victims and important dates without any causal link. Alongside the theoretical knowledge, most students at the age of 14 – 15 visit concentration camps with their teachers.
Although most recent teaching of history in Russian schools is still relatively flexible, trends suggest otherwise. Under the initiative of President Putin, a detailed and uniform school program is currently being developed. The teaching of history is the cornerstone of this reform because history is believed to be the main instrument of teaching patriotism. The development of global historical science, accumulation of new historical knowledge and the increase of the public interest in the events of the past is what dictates Russia’s need to create a new history textbook. The new educational system will cover issues of spiritual and cultural life in Russia and will use a cultural and anthropological approach. Special attention in the new program will be paid to influential historical figures.
In Russian schools, lessons about the World War II are mostly focused on the Great Patriotic War ‒ the final five years of the war, in which the USSR was directly involved. The majority of Russians don’t remember the date when World War II started, although everybody knows that the Great Patriotic War broke out on June 22 at 4 am, when the Luftwaffe suddenly attacked the western border of the Soviet Union. The memory of World War II is very deeply ingrained in Russian society and Russians learn about it before they go to school: every family in Russia has been affected by it. Every year, on the 9th of May, there is a relative to remember or congratulate. Colloquially, World War II is often referred to as simply “the War”. Thus, lessons about World War II at schools are very much connected to histories of every child’s family: pupils are encouraged to interview their relatives that remember the war and present their stories in class. Memories of the war can be traced to modern Russia’s everyday life: in St. Petersburg, it is disrespectful to throw away food, because many people still remember the famine that happened during the siege of Leningrad (8.09.1941 – 27.01.1944). Schools have their graduation parties every year on the 21st or 23rd of June but never on the 22nd. This is due to the fact that in 1941 many schools had their graduation parties on June 22nd and many boys had to leave for the frontline the next day.
The 9th of May, also known as the Victory day is one of the biggest national holidays in Russia. Most school children will go to some commemorative event the week before or take part in a concert for veterans, playing music or singing war-era songs.
The words “Great Patriotic War” that every child in Russia and the former Soviet Union is told, sums it up very accurately: it is presented as a massive nation-wide effort, which didn’t really have a distinctive leader. School children would, of course, learn the names of Zhukov and other important Soviet generals, but the role of Stalin is consciously downplayed, due to the controversy around him. He is blamed for the poor state of the Soviet army in the summer of 1941, which allowed Hitler to make such a quick progress, but he was also able to realize the mistakes he made and give free reign to the talented people who could win the war.
Based on an 11 year-long program, the educational system of Ukraine is common for all pupils in every region of Ukraine. The topic of WWII is briefly taught in the 5th grade and more deeply presented in the 11th grade during the lessons of World History and History of Ukraine. WWII is observed as a consequence of a world economic crisis and the German policy of breaking the Versailles treaty including the preparation for war together with Italy and Japan. The policy of keeping peace with Germany failed and caused the beginning of WWII. A special place in the lesson is devoted to the Soviet-German friendship at the beginning of the war and the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as well as the destiny of Eastern Europe according to that document.
The war is presented varyingly on different stages and in different regions such as Western Europe, the Balkans, the Pacific Ocean, South-East Asia and South Africa. Special place is given to Ukrainian regions that were out of the USSR and on which territory the WWII began earlier than in the rest of Ukraine. Nevertheless due to the influence of the Soviet historiography, school books give a special place to the period known as the Great Patriotic War. It is remarkable that a whole paragraph is devoted to the role of women in WWII that makes traditional male oriented history more gender sensitive.
Ukraine in the period of WWII is observed as a victim of the big players’ plans. It took the main attack of the Great Patriotic War and suffered the biggest losses. Occupation of Poland by the Soviet army in 1939 is shown as a chance and the national wish for Ukrainians to unite in a common state. However, the forced collectivisation of Western Ukraine and deportation to Siberia caused a strong antagonism towards the Soviet policy among citizens of Western Ukraine.
The Nazi regime in Ukraine is shown as a period of vast crimes against humanity: famine, holocaust, extermination and forced labour. It is also depicted as being opposed by partisans that “opened a second fighting line” on the occupied Nazi territory. History of Ukrainian nationalists’ organization (OUN) and Ukrainian insurgent army (UPA) is briefly presented as well. The task of the pupil is to compare and make his/her own opinion toward movement of oppression to Soviet and Nazi regimes in Ukraine during WWII. The result of WWII is shown through multiple layers. Emphasis is made on the post war Soviet deportation of indigenous groups from Crimea.
The article shows that there obviously is a link between each country’s experience and current political stance and the way Second World War history is taught in schools. German programs spotlight the inner functioning of National Socialism and all the countries which collaborated with Nazism see education as a precious tool to forge the minds of the youth in order to ensure that this won’t happen again. While the Holocaust appears as the main focus of French, German and Austrian school programmes, the memory of the Second World War for the British and the Russians is a historically vital period, deeply bound to their identity. Russians can typically get offended when they see that the role of the Soviet Army is minimized in the way western countries portray World War II history. On the other hand, Polish students perceive their country as the biggest victim of World War II being attacked simultaneously by both German and Soviet army whose effects are noticeable even these days. A similar approach is represented by Ukrainian education system, however it draws more attention to Great Patriotic War and a chance for a united and independent Ukrainian state during this period.