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NO 113-114

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INFO   :::  Helsinki Charter - PAGE 2 > Helsinki Charter No. 113-114 > Text


Helsinki Charter No. 113-114

November - December 2007


Common Textbooks under the Magnifying Glass of Nationalists


By Dubravka Stojanovic

Two years ago, in December 2005, history textbooks - products of the work of over 60 historians from all South European countries, from Slovenia to Cyprus and Turkey - came out of print in Serbian. The idea behind the endeavor was to show secondary school students how differently the controversial and painful events of the past are interpreted in those countries and that neighboring nations' perceptions of many historical watersheds are almost contrary to one another. To attain this objective the historians have used multiperspective and comparative methods. Having posited that looking for a "consensual truth" in the matter of history would be a mission impossible, the group of historians assembled in the Salonika Center for Democracy and Reconciliation decided to develop alternative textbooks aimed at informing students about different perspectives of the common history by the nations of eleven countries in the region. Following the Serbian editions, the textbooks were translated into Greek and, this fall, published in Croatian, Bosnian, Albanian and Macedonian languages.

In almost no time after publication, the textbooks met with avalanches of criticism in Serbia and Greece. The assaults came from various strata of the two societies: in Greece, from rightist or mainstream media, "patriotic" non-governmental organizations and various websites, while, in Serbia, from expert circles, mostly historians who usually write history textbooks, and from the director of the Textbooks Publishing Bureau, itself still the exclusive publisher of all textbooks. While criticism in Greece was overtly political, in Serbia it was labeled an expert debate despite the fact that is was a politically motivated disagreement with basic ideas of the project that triggered it in the first place. Tone, discourse and rhetoric in the two countries were, therefore, different. In Greece, criticism was expressed in the brutal language of defamation and overt accusations, while the debate run in the Serbian press was marked by more or less balanced academic tone meant to indicate serious factual and historical flaws of the project. And despite the said difference, the textbooks suffered no political consequences in Greece, while the situation was quite the opposite in Serbia. The director and editor-in-chief of the publishing house that printed the textbooks was discharged (since the publishing house is under the control of the Ministry of Education), and the Ministry of Education revoked its support to the teachers seminar. Therefore, we were forced to organize the training almost undercover, at weekends and without notifying educational authorities or school principals of the events. Against such backdrop, the teachers attending the seminar were brave people indeed. This is why we refrained from publicizing their names.

Though the assaults in Serbia and Greece came from different structures and though they were differently formulated, comparative analyses testify of the same ideological premises. A comparative analysis of the stories carried in newspapers show that the assaults were provoked by the project's basic ideas and methodology, and that these assaults - regardless whether they came from political or expert circles - targeted the project's key premises, rather than factual information. No matter how differently intonated they were, the assaults in both Serbia and Greece were focusing three key issues: the possibility of cooperation between historians in the region, comparative approach and multi-perspective.

1. The first common denominator of the assaults in Serbia and Greece is the fact that a cooperative enterprise of regional historians in itself arises critics' suspicion. Responses to that fact ranged from contempt for a cooperation as such (for instance, the terms such as common or cooperation were placed between quotation marks, or followed by exclamation or question marks) to accusations of complots with various political motives. Such responses alone indicate the sum and substance of the problem - for, the textbooks proved that regional cooperation was possible even between the countries that have been at war until recently. The proof itself abates the project critics' key thesis about the Balkan region being doomed to fatal conflicts that are beyond individual influence. Such concept is upheld in all countries for it strengthens ethno-centric positions of their respective interest groups. Therefore, any evidence of cooperation and dialogue impairs the said concept and the xenophobic isolationism it lives on. Take, say, the following quote from a mainstream Greek newspaper, "How can one possibly compose a regional history textbook when it relates to the region choking in the blood of nationalistic aspirations?"

As for the associates in the project, critics promptly noted that representatives of their respective countries were fewer than the rest of authors or, as Serbian critics put it, "not a single author is a Serb." That is not true. The project itself was so developed as to include almost the same number of representatives of every single country. Critics then went after disqualifying the participants in the project. In Serbia, they said, "As for Serbia, the selection of associates was completely inadequate." In Greece, they said that out of 60 authors Greece was represented by "four women only." Such misogynic discourse revealed the tendency to question the project's quality. Even more illustrative of such a tendency was the fact repeatedly run by Greek papers that a member of the CDRSEE Management Board was "an American Jew." So, anti-Semitism as well was used to denounce the project.

All the assaults, without exception, labeled the possibility to have a common regional project successfully completed a product of a supra-national complot aimed at creating or renewing multiethnic states in the Balkans. Critics in Croatia immediately voiced their fear that all this was about a renewal of the old Yugoslavia. In Serbia, they said it was about the attempt to impose anew "brotherhood and unity," while in Greece they expressed their anxiety vis-a-vis the renewal of the Ottoman Empire and ridiculed the project by referring to it as "Pax Ottomana." All this laid bare the critics' petty political fears - for, prone to interpreting everything from a political angle, those critics perceive even a cooperation of experts as renewals of bygone supra-national states.

2. The critics then turned their attention to the comparative approach applied in the textbooks. The assaults in this category testify that Hungarian philosopher George Konrad was right when stating that "nationalists perceive comparatists as ruthless guys." The very idea that "our nation" could be compared with some other, the "hostile one" in particular, undermines the fundamental principle of "a specific case," "a way of one's own, of sonderweg as the German would put it, or the concept of "a chosen people" that is in the core of every nationalism. The very idea about "uniqueness of one's own nation" invests one's own nation with special rights, the rights that derive from its superiority and thus only logically lead to ethnic Darwinism. A comparative approach is seen as a part of the globalization process or, according to the Greek press, as "weakening of the nation's significance," "a threat to our national identity" or the road leading to "cultural homogenization" - all of which makes the textbooks "a genocide against memory" or "a peace crime."

The critics' argumentation nothing but disclosed that any methodological deprivation of one's own nation of a key position and its comparison with other nations is seen as defeat and loss. Ethno-centric mindset of the polemics was so strong that in some issues it almost blinded the polemicists themselves. All the critics were above all preoccupied with counting the sources from their own countries and measuring the lengths of quotes in the attempt to prove that their country is the one that is represented the least - and all that despite the fact that the participants in the project have almost mathematically measured the chapters on individual nations and taken utmost care that historical sources from all the eleven countries are well-balanced. By counting the articles on their nations and comparing their lengths with those dealing with the others, the critics came to contradictory conclusions. According to Serb critics, "the Serbs were represented in the worst light," the textbooks were Hellenistic probably due to their Greek editor Christina Kuluri and more space was accorded to Greece than to other countries. For their part, Greek critics claim that the textbooks use "just few Greek sources."

To further reveal their ethno-centrism, the critics were measuring the lengths of the paragraphs dealing with "our" and "foreign" events. Greek and Serb critics alike were emphasizing that some events in their respective national histories were by far more important than those listed in the histories of other nations but were, nevertheless, inappropriately treated and covered. In Serbia, some argued that the First Serb Uprising was insufficiently elaborated despite the fact that it was, as an ethno-centrically blinded critic put it, "the most important event in the Balkans in the 19th century." This is yet another testimony that the history of one's own nation is perceived as more important than those of other nations, i.e. the testimony of the feeling of superiority that underlies nationalism.

All the critics, without exception, agree that the selection of sources was tendentious. They even agree on the diagnosis of the said tendency. Its purpose was to humiliate a nation and, by comparing it with other nations, present as the nation with a negative historical role. The only problem here is that all the critics - be they Serbs, Croats or Greeks - recognize their own nation in the project's alleged interpretation of bad guys. What interlinks all critics is the conclusion that the textbooks are malicious and, moreover, malicious when it comes to "us." This indicates the critics' inability to accept a comparative approach and impartially recognize that the textbooks critically assess history - in other words, to perceive that all the nations underwent the same methodological scrutiny. All they see is injustice done to "us," all they stress is minimalization of "our suffering" and exaggeration of the suffering of "the others," all they note is that just negative examples were taken to "present our past," while positive ones were overemphasized in the case of the others. Therefore, the critics concluded that the textbooks forged history, were "unjust" and spread propaganda, and selectively pictured historical developments.

3. The third problem is the multi-perspective approach. The critics' attitude towards this methodology reveals their authoritarianism based on the concept of "one truth" that denies any debate or plurality of opinion, and is basically unscientific. The critics in Serbia notably assaulted the multi-perspective approach as it fundamentally questioned their ethno-centric perception of the world. "The truth is one and only one, and unbending," "Many historical sources are contrary to the historical truth, the real and the only truth," they said without explaining how an authentic historical source could contradict the truth. The Director of the Textbooks Publishing Bureau went so far as to say, "There is only one truth, the same as there is only one God!"

The quotes such as the one above indicate the ideological matrix determining this type of historical and national consciousness - thoroughly anti-pluralistic, authoritarian, ethno-centric, frightened from everything alien and different, and suspicious about "the other," particularly if it is a neighbor. This pictures an autistic and self-isolated world that withdraws into seclusion of a mythical past so as to avoid a creative approach to the future and a responsible attitude towards the present. This pictures a parochial attitude towards integration processes, a fear of being compared with the others and a fear of competition as a driving force of the modern world. This explains why the reactions to the project were so strong and even hysterical. They were defending an entire value system that is premodern and predemocratic and sees the CDRSEE project's basic concepts as a hard blow to its very foundations. This is why I suggest that our next project should focus the reactions to the textbooks in all the countries in the region. This would give us a deeper insight into the matrix of the mainstream discourse and the opportunity to analyze it theoretically.


NO 113-114

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