by Slobodanka AST
Ever since during the last few decades we experienced the sickening "acceleration of history" in this region, increasingly frequently a question has popped up: how much do we know, do we study in schools about the history of the Balkans? A comparative analysis of history textbooks from all the countries in southeastern Europe carried out six years ago by a group of historians recruited from all the countries in the region showed that all nations, from Slovenia to Cyprus are presented in their own textbooks as unique victims of history, and especially as victims of neighboring nations.
The Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeastern Europe, based in Thessaloniki, has initiated a big project about teaching of modern history and recruited historians from all eleven countries in the region. They opted for a new approach to teaching of history - multiple points of view.
These words hide a simple and very modern method. These textbooks, actually collections of original sources, do not offer a single "truth" about events from the past. Instead, pupils are offered different information about how neighboring nations as well as members of their own nation interpreted their shared past. A team of 60 historians opted for an unusual, completely new formula. Four probably most painful and disputed common Balkan topics were selected as topics of four textbooks - the Ottoman Empire, the creation of nation states, Balkan wars, and World War II (publishers are the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeastern Europe from Thessaloniki and "Prosvetni pregled" from Belgrade). According to historian Dr. Dubravka Stojanovic, editor of the Serbian edition of the series, history is best learned on most difficult topics.
"The goal of this project was to destroy the generally accepted myth: this region has become synonymous with brutality, cruelty, violence and bloodletting. This is our response to western historians and journalists, as well as many politicians. I think that with these textbooks we offered answers to important questions - how to confront these untruths, distortions and manipulations and how to teach history in schools," Dr. Christina Koulouri, editor of the edition, professor of the University in Corinth, says for Vreme.
She emphasizes: "This project is also an act of public service by us historians, who in our societies, traumatized or confused by nationalism, are trying to confront various untruths, distortion and manipulation. For all of us that was a big professional challenge. We propose a new history. That history is not a new construction that is supposed to supplant national histories. No, it is merely supposed to be a new, different, fuller interpretation of the past based on documents, on shared Balkan culture and heritage. Therefore, Balkan history was envisaged as a part of the European and world history. We are Europeans and we demonstrate that through these books".
WHO TOOK EDIRNE: Balkan wars brought horrible suffering, fear, and hatred among Balkan nations. None of the countries was totally satisfied with new borders: Greece had claims on Aegean Sea islands, Serbia wanted an outlet to the sea and Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro wanted to annex Scutari, Romania had designs on Transylvania and Moldova...
The greatest dissatisfaction was to be found in the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria and Albania. The psychological trauma lasted for a long time, and was passed from one generation to another for decades by refugee families. The first tome in the series, history workbook Balkan Wars discards the traditional approach to portrayal of these events in schools and universities. In this textbook main characters are not only kings, ministers and generals. In the new concept the war is not only frontlines, victories and defeats. Authors of this history textbook demonstrated very diverse facets of the war all over the Balkans: life of ordinary folks during the war, hunger, fear of losing their loved ones. For example the workbook includes a letter sent by officer Ippokratis Papavassiliou to his wife Alexandra in which he writes about the suffering of Bulgarians and Turks, burnt villages, but also about his love for her and their children. Reading excerpts from different diaries, pupils will be able to see examples of national narcissism and exaggeration as well as testimonies about low morale of troops, fear, suffering and cries of wounded Serb soldiers left behind by the medics after the Kajmakchalan battle... This history workbook discusses beastly crimes as well as examples of humane behavior and solidarity.
A typical example of multifaceted approach to events can be found in the presented documents about the fall of Edirne. Authors state that Edirne, the chief Ottoman stronghold in Thrace fell on March 13, 1913, after a five-month-long siege by Bulgarian and Serbian armies, and heroic defense by the Ottoman garrison. Both the Bulgarian and Serbian commanders claimed that their soldiers had broken through the main defense line and that they were the sole winners. Milan Gavrilovic, a Serbian Army major, described how he had taken the Ottoman fortifications with his twentieth regiment and captured Shukri pasha. French military attaché [representative] in Sofia Matharel sent a message in which he claimed that Edirne had been taken by the Bulgarian Army, while Romanian newspapers praised the heroic resistance of the Turks and stated that the fall of Adrianople was hardly a Bulgarian victory.
A precious novelty in these history workbooks is the presence of women, in the Ottoman Empire, Balkan wars, as well as in all the other periods: there are photographs of nurses of all nations and religions, Serb women practice shooting in 1912, women from Epirus in Greece carry ammunition boxes through Pindos Mountains on the border between Greece and Albania during Greek-Italian war in 1940...
The text Serb Woman from the edition Balkan War in Pictures and Words (August 25, 1913) is also included: "the Serb woman has outdone all the most famous women from all nations in the world.
She has sent her father, husband, and son with happiness to the battlefield. She kept telling everyone that fatherland is more important than life. She subjected her motherly love to the great love for the fatherland..."
TITO AND DRAZA: The authors have also managed to offer to the pupils a multifaceted picture of World War II. Relatively few of the offered sources, documents and illustrations deal with military operations. The authors emphasize that they did not want to minimize the military significance of the resistance movement in the region, but to at least partially shed light on those aspects of life during war that are seldom represented in textbooks. In all history textbooks in southeastern Europe political history enjoys privileged treatment, and the same applies to WWII. Authors of this history workbook give pupils an opportunity to read and analyze the same event or problem from different points of view. Pupils will encounter certain similarities in the experiences of all the nations in the region: suffering, hunger, fear, as well as chapters that offer drastically different, even totally opposite points of view. The suggestions of the authors, and special seminars for instructors will be organized for that purpose, is that pupils should become aware of these differences and discuss them.
Pupils were offered numerous documents: the well known poster at which Germans offer "100,000 Reichmarks in gold to anyone handing over, dead or alive, Communist leader Tito", while the same reward in gold is also offered to anyone "handing over, dead or alive bandit leader Draza Mihajlovic". Included are copies of the program of Oslobodilna Fronta and diary of Dragojlo Dudic, partisan commander, transcripts taken during the meeting between Draza Mihajlovic and representatives of the German command in Serbia in the village of Divci...
STEPINAC AND USTASHE: Perhaps the best illustration of the multifaceted approach is offered by some of the most difficult lessons, for example pages dealing with Alojzije Stepinac. Authors, including Dr. Dubravka Stojanovic, quote Stepinac's letter to Pavelic, dated May 14, 1941, in which he officially protests against the execution of 260 Serbs in Glina, without any investigation or trial. Stepinac wrote on several occasions to Ustashe authorities and lodged official protests against Ustashe crimes, while later he openly condemned then in his sermons. In the history workbook World War II the authors say the following:
"However, although he condemned some aspects of the Ustashe regime, Stepinac, as a radical anti-communist never condemned the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), because he viewed Partisans (or more accurately Communists) as the biggest enemy. After the war Communist authorities found him guilty of collaboration and sentenced him to 16 years in prison and forced labor. Stepinac died in exile in 1960. In 1998, Pope John Paul II beatified Stepinac.
"In Communist Yugoslavia historians always portrayed Stepinac, based on prejudices stemming from the collaboration trial, negatively and public debate regarding his actions was not permitted. After the fall of Communism the dominant portrayal of Stepinac in Croatia has changed to the extent that he is now almost always portrayed positively, as a saint and martyr and victim of history and circumstances (this portrayal is prevalent in history textbooks). Between these two extremes we can find a whole range of historians who take into account his positive actions (saving Jews, protests sent to the authorities), as well as his mistakes (the fact that he never denounced the NDH). In his book Hrvatska Povijest [Croatian history] (Zagreb, 2003, page 309) distinguished Croatian historian Ivo Goldstein asserted among other that Stepinac's mistakes ‘...in these difficult wartime events can only be ethical and political, and he should not have been found guilty of crimes'.
Serbian historians have not changed their attitude with respect to Stepinac, finding him responsible for collaboration with the Ustashe regime".
IMPORTANT LESSON: After attempts to "rework" history in our textbooks, we now have four history workbooks that will significantly contribute to a correction of the paranoid portrayal of the past in textbooks. Our Ministry of Education has learned some important lessons through this project and rejected the xenophobic attitude of a provincial environment that has no need to compare itself to and collaborate with others.
Given the heated debate prompted three years ago by the publication of new history textbooks, which offered a sort of "reworked history", in which forces that collaborated with Nazis were portrayed as victims, and their victims as executioners, and from which pupils were supposed to conclude that anti-fascism was actually a harmful and irrational rebellion, while collaboration was a sensible national policy, the new history workbooks could assist a great deal both the instructors and pupils. By approving the use of these history workbooks in our schools, the Ministry of Education has demonstrated that we accept European values, which, among other, are based on anti-fascism.
Erhard Busek, special representative of the Southeastern Europe Stability Pact, attended the presentation of this important series of history workbooks in Belgrade. According to Busek, this is an important event both for the region and Europe as a whole. "As an Austrian national, I must say that we are also connected with the history of this region. We have played an important role in this region and are responsible for many past events. I always tell my fellow Austrians: you are responsible for the problems in Krajina. Emperor Leopold established the military frontier for the Austrian monarchy and that naturally created numerous problems we face even today. And that is European responsibility for events in this region".
The idea for the project came from Costas Carras. He correctly observes that "study of history can also be a healing process".
Costas Carras, tall, blue eyed and slender, with recognizable Oxford accent and impeccable gentlemanly manners, in no way recalls the traditional image of a Greek ship owner, businessman, a rich man with a house right below Acropolis, with a big garden and chapel dating from the twelfth century... Mr Carras does not like it when media refer to him as a businessman. For the last ten or so years he has given up business and "as every true intellectual he is dealing with issues that have nothing to do with him," as Sartre would say.
Costas Carras is one of the founders and chief financial supporters of the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Thessaloniki, president of the Hellenic Association for the Protection of Environment and Cultural Heritage, coordinator of the Greco-Turkish Forum that works on improving relations between these two countries, and is also very much involved in the process of finding a solution for the Cyprus issue. His work on environmental protection also has an European dimension: he is the deputy president of the pan-European organization Europa Nostra that deals with protection of cultural heritage.
What prompted this very active intellectual to tackle the problem such as teaching of history in southeastern Europe? Is that due to the fact that at Oxford and Cambridge he studied history and classical languages and that, continuing family tradition, he had nothing to do with history during his lifetime? In a conversation with Vreme Mr. Carras says that he was pushed into this endeavor by the events from the end of the last century:
"Western press portrayed our region in a very negative light, as a dark and barbaric region. True, some barbaric events took place here, but, for example, nothing that happened here compares to the Holocaust of Jews during WWII. Most of countries in southeastern Europe were not responsible for that horrific crime, although several countries collaborated with Germany. Most countries in our region even opposed fascism and paid dearly for that. Our history workbooks, our multidisciplinary approach to the dark part of our history will contribute to better, more holistic understanding of history in our region. Both in the world and European history the western discourse marginalizes the role of countries of southeastern Europe in the WWII struggle against fascism.
"The three or four of us, founders of the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation believed that that picture of our region is unjust; we were angry that the world portrayed us in that way. We believed that we, people from this region, should do something to ensure that others cannot lecture us about what we are and how we behave; instead we should tell the world our own story."
To the remark that the project, and he himself, are now being praised from all sides due to "their inspiration, the idea for the project, dedication, inexhaustible energy and coordination of the work on the project," Costas Carras briefly responds:
"True, compliments have been flooding from all sides. What makes me really proud is the joint work of 60 historians from 11 countries of our region who have produced these splendid workbooks. I hope that after your country [Serbia], which was the first one to translate these books from English and give official approval for their use in public schools, these books will find their way to pupils in other countries in the region. Soon, they should be published in Cyprus, and I am convinced that money for the translation to Albanian will also be found. I think that it is very important that these books be translated into Albanian. In the near future these workbooks should be translated into Romanian and Bulgarian, and even Japanese. Such textbooks are more than necessary in southeastern Asia... I think that we chose a good approach. Pupils in schools must address the most difficult episodes from history. It is wrong to hide events, and suppress information about them. Then, the interpretation of such events is left to the family, church, even soccer fans. We witnessed in the former Yugoslavia how these topics floated to the surface in a very ugly and terrifying manner. The only solution is to study history in the only correct manner: present relevant documents, undisputed facts... A lot of attention in the workbooks was dedicated to chronological tables, all workbooks have introductions... Books include numerous photographs, maps, drawings, posters... The goal was to shed light on events from all possible points of view, as well as by using all visual means... Only in that way pupils will learn to assess materials offered to them, to analyze evidence, to learn to look at historical events from all points of view.
"We have no time, like the French and Germans, to wait 60 years for reconciliation. We cannot afford that. Now, we have these workbooks, but much, much more needs to be done on study of real history in the schools in our region: the seed has sprouted, but the plant is not ready and could easily be eaten by the goats".
Thus spoke Costas Carras, former ship-owner who emphasizes his most humble, typically Greek origin. His great grandfather Yianis Carras, an illiterate peasant from the island of Chios, not far from the Anatolian coast, in late 19th century decided to become a sailor. As early as 1906 he bought his first ship and in his native village Kardamili on Chios he built a primary school that still exists.
Just like his illiterate great grandfather, Costas Carras emphasizes the importance of education: "This project is not a mere scientific experiment, a pedagogical exercise. It actually deals with the challenge facing countries of the southeastern Europe regarding their shared future. By writing about our past we actually plan our future."
DUBRAVKA STOJANOVIC: The first project initiated by the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation from Thessaloniki, in now distant 1999, produced a comparative analysis of all history textbooks used in the Balkans. We focused on the then most controversial events from our common history and analyzed how they were presented in history textbooks of all "interested" countries. For me, as a historian, that was an incredible experience. We realized that interpretation of the same historical events differed so much from one country to another that, if we were to set up a competition, it would be unlikely that pupils could recognize that the textbooks were actually describing the same events. Therefore, not only do we know very little about each other, but the little we do know is almost always exactly the opposite of what is thought on the other side. Then, naturally, in case of conflicts, that history, spiced up by passion becomes perfect fodder for hatred and justification for everything. Analyzing all the textbooks we realized that all Balkan nations actually share the same discourse when it comes to history: we never harmed anyone, never tried to conquer someone, and all of our neighbors, due to no fault of our own, have always hated us, always betrayed us whenever it was most difficult for us. I am simplifying, but that is the gist of such portrayal of "us" and "others". Thereby formed view of our position from the earliest childhood necessarily assists the survival of some modes of the authoritarian interpretation of the world; then, whenever necessary, it is easy to abuse such perverted "knowledge.
How do these four workbooks help to overcome such obstacles?
When we realized that history taught in almost all Balkan countries is a sort of "military training" we started to think about ways to overcome such heritage. One possibility would be to impose some new "shared truth". For example, someone prescribes how we must think about some historical events and then we adopt that as a new mantra. However, such a solution is not realistic. In the interpretation of history, neither consensus nor imposed solutions are possible! But it is possible to inform pupils in schools how the same event is seen by neighboring nations. The acceptance of legitimacy of a different opinion would be a big step in educating pupils for democracy. Consequently, we selected for these four history workbooks the most difficult and shared topics from Balkan history: the Ottoman Empire, the creation of nation states, Balkan wars and World War II. The idea is to demonstrate that rational and critical approach to history, even to the most difficult topics, is possible.
No doubt, there must have been disputes between historians working on these four workbooks. How did you resolve them?
The chosen method in our work on these workbooks was multifaceted approach. Therefore, the most important thing was to portray a particular historical event from as many points of view as possible, demonstrate how a certain historical phenomenon can engender numerous points of view. And that's how we solved all our problems. Therefore, we are not judges, prosecutors or attorneys. We did not attempt to reach a "shared view" of Stepinac with colleagues from Croatia, but we acknowledged differences in opinion. Thereby we introduce a rational attitude with respect to the past and, in my opinion, the present. The main goal of this project was not to force agreement between Balkan nations but, on the contrary, to point out differences between them and to study those differences with "open eyes". Consequently, I am grateful to the Ministry of Education in Serbia for its immediate acceptance of the project, its official permission for use of these workbooks in public schools in Serbia and for its support. Serbia has always been at the end of the queue when it comes to teaching of history and now it has become a pioneer and that has been received very well in the international public opinion.