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The Construction of the Past – The Case of History Textbooks

Monday 15 October 2007, by Dubravka Stojanovic

Today, I am going to speak about the misapplication of history in schools. You will see how threatening school can be – this threat is present as early as the third grade – how threatening it was in the nineties, and the threat it poses at present. You will understand why modern generations are much more traditional than the generation of the 1970s. They were raised in the school system I intend to discuss now. Let me begin with a quote that reflects the motto of my lecture. It comes from the famous lecture ‘What is a nation,’ given by Earnest Lemans in 1882. He said, “The misunderstanding of one’s own history is part of the national body.” Teaching history as a school subject, at least in this country, is some kind of pre-conscription training. History is not there to provide educational training for democracy, but to prepare us for war. That is the purpose it serves. In addition to these constant preparations for war, history is supposed to give us a certain national identity. It exists so that we know what the Ministry of Education, our Government, and the Textbook Publishing Institute impose on us as the proscribed image of us Serbs. It projects an ideal image for us, what we should look like, how we should feel, and in what light we should see ourselves and others.

At present, this misapplication of history takes place on three levels, at least.

The first level of misapplication of history is the factual level:
this is the simplest and easiest level to sort out. At this level, some facts—those that are not considered suitable—are overlooked, whereas others are accentuated. Thus, by manipulating facts, the truth that suits a particular political moment is obtained. Let me explain this. History textbooks were changed for the first time in 1993, at the peak of war. The purpose of that change was to adapt the history of the ancient times to the present day to the needs of the war that was being waged at that moment. Most of us here, when we were at school and when the Yugoslav idea was the ideology to be confirmed in the school system, learned that the ancient Slavs used to live together, the Serbs and the Croats hand in hand. Then they began a joint venture into the unknown to create Yugoslavia and socialism. Everything we had ever learned in our history seemed to be a struggle for Yugoslavia. However, in 1993, within a month, our whole past was suddenly changed. Those peoples had never encountered each other before. They had no knowledge of one another. It is unknown how they were formed. They crossed each other’s paths several times in history and clashed. Even the date of the first slaughter of Serbs and Croats was recorded - 1525! That date does not exist anywhere else but here. Besides this bloody clash, they had no history in common.

History was changed completely. We abolished laws. We erased Dositej and Vuk from history, also Prince Mihajlo and all others who strove for Yugoslavia. The entire 19th century was practically blotted out in order to establish the idea that Yugoslavia had been imposed. That is what happened in Milosevic textbooks, which went on until 2002. Another team took power then, but they maintained the idea that we did not know of other peoples, that we lived in isolation until, suddenly, the need for change arose and World War II broke out. The less informed pupil may come to think that the outcome of World War II was also changed; it was the Chetniks and their allies that won the war.

This change happened in the following way. Earlier, the fist few pages of the textbook were about Tito, and several pages later there was Draza Mihajlovic. But now, the picture of Draza is first, followed by one of Tito in due course. Then their respective biographies appear, first Draza and then Tito, parallel, so you can judge for yourself who did what. In Draza’s biography we learn that he completed his education in France and was a great admirer of French literature, whereas Tito’s biography depicts him as a notorious agent of The Com-Intern.

The textbooks mention one instance of collaboration, the March negotiations between the Partisans and the Germans in Zagreb and nothing else - no Nedic, Ljotic, or Chetnik formations. Only the Partizans were collaborators. There were some minor crimes, but on the Partisan side only. Nothing else was mentioned, no Chetniks, no Eastern Bosnia, no Croatia. Since there was no collaboration, there could not have been any concentration camps. Because everything was written in haste, there was not enough time to think of a way to present it, so the camps were simply not mentioned.
Nedic was a nice man. There is nothing else about him, about the killings he conducted, but it says that he played an important role because he “preserved the biological substance of the Serb people.” This is that much-quoted sentence, according to which the man who had 80% of Serbian Jews killed had “preserved somebody’s substance.” The Ljotic army was reprimanded a bit, because it says that they were ideologically infatuated, just like the communists. It does not make any mention of the arrests they conducted in Serbia or that they took people away to the camps. It does not say that they were helping the Gestapo and the SS whenever they needed help arresting people. It does not say anything.

The battle of the Neretva is mentioned, in an exquisite description. We all know what happened. The Partisans carry their wounded, while the Chetniks pound them from the hills. Now, the author of the textbook is in trouble, because this is not very convenient. I quote, “The Partisans were carrying their wounded and the Chetniks had a moral dilemma whether to shoot down at the Partisans and their wounded. The Partisans never had any moral dilemmas.” The ones positioned in the hills were torn by moral dilemmas, while the partisans dragged their wounded with no moral dilemma! This is what it looks like now, much worse than in the 1990s. But this is only the first level of manipulation with history. It is a minor problem.

The Creation of Myths

The second level of the misapplication of history – the creation of the historical myth, and the creation of a specific historical or national awareness:

this is the level where, through history classes, grammar classes, literature classes, and geography classes, messages are sent about what you are supposed to be like. The first message is the famous idea about the historical righteousness of one’s nation. In other words, we never waged any aggressive wars. This is to say that we are a morally flawless nation. We are so nice that we never even thought of doing something bad to our neighbors. In the 1990s, that was extremely important, because it was implied that we were not involved in that war or that we had nothing to do with it. We had not provoked that war; it was the fault of everyone around us. This is also very handy at the moment, because of The Hague and other problems that are weighing down upon us. Of course, the problem of what to do with those wars that had been expansionist and how to account for them then arises.
Let me give you an example now. It is the example of north Albania in The Balkan Wars. In 1912, Serbia was involved in two wars. The first objective is the well-known realization of the ancient pledge - retaliation for Kosovo and Prince Lazar. There no historical or ethnic justification whatsoever for the second war objective because it is part of a small imperialist idea of reaching the Adriatic sea through north Albania, crossing the Prokletije Mountains and creating a Serbian seaport so Serbia could have access to the sea. That war aim could not be justified at all. However, at that time, this was not being concealed and no one was surprised. Now, we have a situation where we, allegedly, had never been invaders. The situation is a bit delicate; this must be presented in a different way. The Serbian Army advanced through Sandzak quite quickly and, having conquered it, one wing of the Serbian Army crossed over the Prokletije Mountains in November 1912. A lot of things went on there; many Albanian civilians were killed. Actually, we were not able to find any figures referring to the number of victims. Imagine that army crossing over the mountain range in November. They cross it and conquer Drac. The great powers are perplexed. At that point, the Austro-Hungarian Empire demands that the Serbian Army retreat. They mobilize 200,000 soldiers. They print a proclamation of war. They position their army on the border along the Drina and explain to Serbia that they will attack unless Serbia withdraws from the Adriatic coast. Ten days later, Serbia withdraws over the Prokletije Range. Unnerved by the situation and the unjust decision of the great powers, the Serbian government and army sit in Belgrade and sulk because the plan did not succeed. Then in February, the Montenegrins show up. They have a plan to conquer part of Sandzak and the city of Skadar. They had attempted to conquer Skadar, held it under siege for three months, but things had not turned out as they had expected. The Montenegrin appealed to the Serbs, seeking help to conquer Skadar. Serbia seizes the chance, mounts a new campaign, and crosses The Prokletije Mountains again in February. Again, they kill civilians on their way. After they arrived at the ramparts of the city, the fighting went lasted a month before the Serb and Montenegrin forces entered Skadar together. Again, the great forces demand that they retreat. This time, they refuse to withdraw. Then, the great powers mount a sea blockade of Montenegro and Albania and threaten to attack them from the sea unless they withdraw. The Serbian Army begins retreating at the end of February. These two situations are important because of the lie in the textbook. I have to say that the same thing occurred twice more. It happened in October 1913 because some Albanian units had broken into the Macedonian territory. Those were clearly aggressive intentions that cannot be denied.

Since our education system is not intended to enlighten and educate, we discover the following sentence, “The Serbian army was advancing in the direction of the Sandzak, reached the Adriatic Coast, and joined the Montenegrin Army at Skadar.” Those two events were described as one and made to seem as if Serbs were sending help to the Montenegrins.
The next important idea is that we Serbs have always been victimized. We have always had everyone against us. This is a notorious idea that keeps recurring. We seem to have settled in the wrong place! They explain what kind of victims we “celestial people” are to third graders in this way, “The fascist killed Serbs mercilessly, converted them, and banished them from their century-old homes. Entire families and villages perished.” On the same page, there is a box with the following text, “Read a text about genocide. There are films on this subject that ought to be seen and discussed.” I have read the whole book thoroughly and did not find a single other use of the term ‘genocide.’ You are not supposed to know what genocide is; you are just supposed to feel like a victim of genocide! Read, watch films, and don’t ask!
I also read the captions under the pictures. The pictures are the same in all the textbooks. Apparently, there are no others. The photos are of skulls from Cele Kula (The Skull Tower), the mass execution in Kragujevac, imprisoned citizens of Kragujevac, refugees, and naked bodies of the victims of Jasenovac. Those are all the photos depicting our past. Not even Saint Sava is there. Having learned all that and matured abruptly in the eighth grade at the age of 14, they present you with this sentence, “The prisoners of the Jasenovac Camp were slain with knives, killed with axes, hammers, iron bars, and bats. They were shot in summary executions and cremated, tortured by hunger, thirst and cold because in the concentration camps there was no food and water.” The whole text is like that.

The Creation of Fear and Aggression

We work together with social psychologists, particularly Dragan Popadic. He conducted a social and psychological analysis of what happens when children from the age of 8 to 14 are given such texts to read. The children are completely unprepared, in terms of maturity, previous education, and knowledge. The social psychologists explain that the mechanism is very simple - fear is generated immediately. This is important for the political systems that are reproduced here. In time, this education is continued. It grows into anxiety and then into aggression. Children are extremely susceptible to every kind of manipulation. When they cry “Genocide!” on the national television station, you automatically jump and run. These books simply generate that psychological reaction. We are the mega-victims, but, according to our education system, one has to learn how to be a victim.
In the third grade, they explain to you that you have to bear that burden. The paramount purpose of your life is to sacrifice for your homeland. There is no other aim. However, if you are to sacrifice your life for your country, this ought to be done with style. The third graders are advised to do it the way the highwaymen did. What did they do? When they were captured and taken away to be impaled on a pole, they continued singing out of spite, showing that their lives did not matter. They explain to you that if you do not sing while you are being killed, you are a villain like Bosko Jugovic, a coward who did not do his duty at Kosovo, that duty being “to shed my blood for the holy cross, to die for my creed.” There are examples of other figures who understood their death properly, like Commander-in-Chief Sindjelic or Gavrilo Princip.

One more detail - historians have more killed Serbs than any other enemies. It says now in the textbooks that Serbia lost 1,200,000 people in The First World War. When the war started, the population of Serbia was under four million, around 3,600,000. According to some calculations, 700,000 were lost, which is disastrous for such a small population. The figure of 1,200,000 could not have been found in any serious Serbian history book. France had about 1,300,000 dead, out of a population of 20,000,000 at that time.
The next thing that is important in this system forming historical awareness is that famous figure of speech referring to the Balkans as a “powder keg.” You all remember when, during the bombing, the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was hit. There was great hope then that it would trigger World War III! That ‘event’ was accompanied with remarks that all the world wars had started here. It is true that 1914 has something to do with us, but 1941 surely did not, because World War II started in 1939.

The textbooks immediately create the idea that we are the center of the world, that everything starts and ends here, and nothing can happen without us.

This is a much broader problem, because it is not only the school, but also grandfathers and grandmothers, television, school classmates, and many other factors that, in the end, form a certain historical awareness.
I have been struggling for 15 years to make the state adhere to some standards. It is possible to change the educational system here and make it more transparent and open, to change the things we were talking about. First, abolish the financial monopoly of the Textbook Publishing Institute, which swims in money. Introduce alternative textbooks. Make it possible for small publishers to produce new textbooks, to quote competitive prices, to create fair open competition. Have expert teams for the approval of textbooks. That would mean abolishing the monopoly, but I cannot imagine a government that would be ready to do that.

(An edited version a lecture given at the “Warning Signs of Fundamentalism and Feminist Responses” seminar on April 8, 2006 in Belgrade, organized by Women in Black)