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The ‘Hitlerisation’ of history teaching

The problem with the teaching of the past today is that it makes universalism history.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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The UK Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has criticised the way history is taught to post-14 year olds.

Secondary school teachers are urged to concentrate less on Nazi Germany. One suggested remedy to this ‘Hitlerisation’ of the subject is the study of ‘many histories’ into the syllabus. According to the QCA report, the education system ‘undervalues the overall contribution of black and other minority ethnic peoples to Britain’s past, and ignore their cultural, scientific and many other achievements’ (1). For commentators concerned with fragmentation in Britain, though, such a move will weaken rather than strengthen social cohesion. Surely the solution is to develop ‘a sense of British cultural identity’ instead?

Meanwhile, the conservative think-tank Civitas has announced that historian David Starkey is set to ‘do a Jamie Oliver’ on history teaching. Where Oliver got schools to change what they dish up for lunch, Starkey is looking to ‘reconnect children with the blood and battles of history that have, for a generation, been put aside in favour of social history and learning skills’ (2).

As is so often the case with history, debates surrounding the discipline say more about the political and social climate than they do about the subject itself. Take, for instance, the focus on the Third Reich. From the 1970s to the early 1990s, the teaching of the Nazi period and its defeat by the Allies flattered the old British elites’ sense of moral superiority. It became the last major event to make Britain appear, well, Great. In recent years, though, the ‘Hitlerisation’ of history has been motivated by a broader, and in many ways more worrying, angst about the human condition; today it’s often about highlighting how innately barbaric human beings are. The QCA is right to criticise the preoccupation with the Nazi regime, but it’s only the most obvious example of dwelling on the historical dark side.

For instance at GCSE and AS level, studying American modern history concentrates exclusively on racial oppression, gender inequality and political persecution. Any historical signposts of America’s progressive qualities – its advanced productive capabilities, its liberal constitution, its superior culture – are either footnotes or ignored. The conservative historian and journalist Max Hastings doesn’t question why there is a preoccupation with death and destruction in history. Instead he believes the discipline should ‘broaden the agenda’, that ‘comparative studies of Hitler’ be slotted alongside Pol Pot or Joseph Stalin (2). Leaving aside that postwar historical inquiry has often twinned Stalin alongside Hitler, school history books do put Stalin in the dock too, albeit for very contemporary reasons.

At GCSE level, history school students can study The Rise and Fall of Communism 1928-1991. While clumsy and ahistorical comparisons between ‘totalitarian’ Nazi Germany and ‘totalitarian’ Soviet society are still made, the Bolsheviks’ great error was apparently their ‘dogged belief’ in modernisation. Up until recently, the 20 million people who died under Stalin served to discredit communism; now Stalin’s industrialisation policies are recast as the dangers of trying to emulate Western modernisation – while the Industrial Revolution itself is presented in schools as catastrophic for ‘local communities’ and the environment. Far from exclusively singling out the Nazi regime, the modern age is presented as singularly tyrannical and repressive.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the one event of modern European history that is not covered is the Age of Enlightenment, the period that believed reason, rationality and science could assist human advancement. For as much as it would be beneficial for students to study the Enlightenment, to counterpose this as an alternative would be as misguided as Hastings’ ‘Britain first!’ proposals. The problem isn’t just the units on offer, but the lack of universal historical thinking that now dominates the discipline.

Until recently, the subject was studied as historical periods rather than particular units. When I studied European Social History at A level 20 years ago, the line of inquiry webbed together every major development between 1760 and 1945. No doubt certain interpretations were open to historical revision, but at least students could grasp the movement of history, how one event (for example, the signing of the Versailles Treaty at the end of the First World War) could shape and influence other events (the outbreak of the Second World War). Thus, the study of the Nazi regime wasn’t presented as a grim morality tale, but as an outcome of wider social forces at play in Europe. Studying specific historical events in a broader international context was not an ideological imposition, but a concrete reflection of how modern societies are interconnected.

Today, of course, approaching history as a linear, universal narrative would fall foul of contemporary sensibilities. In place of an overarching framework – the web that connects humanity together – historians are encouraged to focus their inquiry on the local and particular. The QCA’s proposals for the inclusion of ‘many histories’ will only accentuate this fragmentary and non-historical approach further. Likewise, Max Hastings’ call for a list of British greats – of ‘Waterloo, Pepys and Newton’ – isn’t much of an alternative. It simply counterposes one particular story for another.

It seems Hastings is as keen to use history as a form of social engineering – to recreate a lost ‘sense of Britishness’ – as is the QCA. This is perhaps why it’s also keen to stop the subject being marginalised from the school’s syllabus. For all its encouraging criticisms of history being assessed on its work-based ‘relevance’, it’s arguable that the QCA has an instrumentalist agenda too. It tends to see the teaching of history as only ‘relevant’ to the institutionalisation of multicultural thinking.

The QCA is right to question the narrow focus on Nazi Germany in school history teaching. But this is only symptomatic of a syllabus that puts all modern societies in the dock. While it is tempting to call for a pro-modernity balance, this would only be falling into the one-sided, particularistic trap. Instead, the process of man making history, as opposed to being chained by history, is best served through studying historical periods in a linear and universal fashion. By doing so we can accurately account for the two-fold character of modern society, its achievements and atrocities, its advancements and backwardness.

This might deny both spokespeople for the privileged and oppressed their rightful claim to ‘History’, but it can provide us with guidelines to humanity’s future. Somehow the QCA’s proposals won’t be addressing that.

(1) This is the country of Drake and Pepys, not Shaka Zulu, Max Hastings, Guardian, 27 December 2005

(2) David Starkey launches ‘Jamie Oliver campaign’ for school history, Civitas, 11 December 2005

(3) This is the country of Drake and Pepys, not Shaka Zulu, Max Hastings, Guardian, 27 December 2005

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Topics Politics

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