How World War II is Taught in Different European Countries - Part 1
German conquests in Europe 1942

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 first part will discuss Austria, England and France. 


Decided upon by the Ministry of Education, the school history curriculum in Austria provides schools and teachers with basic abstract topics, such as the contrast between war and peace. Nevertheless, it is often up to the individual teacher how they want to teach the class and in what light they want the pupils to understand the implications of the Second World War.

One of the main messages at the forefront of the minds of Austrian pupils is that Austria was also a victim of Nazism. Some teachers even teach that although the war officially began with the invasion of Poland in 1939, the war actually began with the 'Anschluss' of Austria to the 'Third Reich'. Although it is briefly mentioned that many people were Nazis at the time and actually welcomed Hitler when he invaded, the blame from an Austrian perspective lays squarely with the propaganda and the pressure the Nazis inflicted on the Austrian people. Proof of those siding with the Nazi forces in Austria is hard to come across as most war survivors often want to and consequently tend to forget that their parents were either Nazis or just passively went along with Nazism in fighting for the Reich because they felt they were compelled to.


Furthermore, an important issue to note is how Austria dealt with and still deals with the atrocities of the Holocaust. Trips to concentration camps, films and pictures of Jews and persecuted people who had to flee or survived the concentration camps coupled with the implications of Nazism on people's lives are an important part of how history is taught in Austria. This is even further enhanced by the fact that it is not only in history class that one learns to reflect on the Nazi propaganda and the War. In German classes, one has to read books that were written during or about the war and the ways in which people have suffered, how propaganda influenced people and how one should always be critical and beware of such extremism.


Whilst the history curriculum in England is relatively flexible, the department of education stipulates that the study of the Holocaust in Key Stage 3 (age 11-14) is compulsory. However, the Second World War is just one of several topics of study of the modern era. In later years, when exams are taken, one of several examination boards creates and sets exams; in other words, there is no 'standard' curriculum which is adhered to.

However, there are general trends. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the Holocaust is the defining event in how the Second World War is conceptualized and understood. In addition to this, there's a focus on linking the First and Second World Wars and understanding more how the rise of Hitler could be linked to the situation in Europe following the Treaty of Versailles. In this light there's not much focus on what happened, but rather how it happened. As a key historical figure, Winston Churchill also features prominently, and his role both in forewarning about Nazi Germany and as a wartime leader is discussed. Additionally, the framework of WWII itself- from 1939 to 1945 is discussed not necessarily exclusively in relation to Europe, but also to the Pacific - against Japan  - as it is also the case in the American curriculum.

As a historically vital period for the UK ,and one which united the country, WWII is seen as more of a moral struggle (as opposed to WWI) where the UK persevered against an abhorrent system, the roots of which can be traced back to the ending of the First World War. Having said that, there's no single, 'right' version of history taught and in later years (in A-level) debate over the causes and responsibilities for war is encouraged, making history a study not only of events but of their interpretation too.


In French schools, official history curricula are discussed at length by historians, inspectors and teachers and are then signed by the Minister of Education. The teaching of WWII to French children focuses on three main aspects: the war as a worldwide confrontation, an annihilation war with national and ideological stakes, and the Nazi genocide of Jews and Gypsies perpetrated throughout Europe.

A reading of different history textbooks reveals a coherent evolution of the way WWII is taught in primary and secondary education in France. First of all, the question of the war has long been tackled from a purely national point of view: the main topics studied by children and teenagers used to be the French resistance and its decisive role in the Normandy landings and the effect of German occupation on French territory. Until the early 1970s, the teaching of the 1939-1945 period was characterized by what we later came to call the myth of résistancialisme, that is to say the belief that French resistance was both unanimous and natural during the war, whereas in fact a dissension actually existed between Gaullist and communist forces. The evolution of the school curricula over the last few decades has provided more space in the history textbooks for the study of Vichy France and its collaboration with the Third Reich – for instance the picture of the handshake between Petain and Hitler at Montoire is often shown as an illustration of this collaboration. 


Also, it is also very noticeable that in France, the teaching of the WWII is essentially the teaching of the Shoah (Holocaust). The duty to remember is illustrated by the viewing in the classrooms of different movies on the topic, such as Shoah by Claude Lanzmann for instance, or by the reading of memorable testimonies like the diary of Anne Frank. This duty to remember is particularly important today in France as far as 21st century children are concerned; compared to their parents and grandparents, they are less concerned with the Holocaust because of the remoteness of the event. That is the reason why the French Ministry of Education regularly thinks of new ideas to teach children about the Shoah and concurrently, the universal principles of human rights and the notion of crimes against humanity without traumatising them.

More on the Youth Association for a Greater Europe can be found below: