History is not a ‘great story’

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In 2013/2014, Michael Gove  proposed changes to how History is taught in Britain’s schools to fit a ‘great story’ narrative of British “national achievements” in empire and in war against such enemies as the “unique evil” of Nazism. Surely a bit of British pride in a time of economic woe and general pessimism would not be a bad thing?

Why is Gove’s approach dangerous?

First of all, in trying to impose a narrative onto British history inevitably a choice is made as to which is used and consequently what is left out. These narratives, as debates within popular journalism illustrate, are inextricably linked to ideology, tending to polarise those who blame the nasty ‘left-wing historians’ or vice-versa against the Right, an example being debate on whether World War One represented a “bloody mess” or a “just war” (no points for guessing which side took which stance). In both cases an imposition of ideology on history mars our understanding and prevents history from being the science that it should be, avoiding ‘cherry-picking’ to suit a narrative. In this case, both the ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ articles on World War One that I have read reek of “my history is better than yours” argument.

What alternative to narrative History do we have?

Surely humans by their very nature are doomed to distort history and impose ideology as they process and understand the past? As most people who do not study history above high school-level understand history primarily by school curricula, commemoration and popular media, the goal should be to provide as balanced an account as possible, not impose an ideologically based ‘story’ onto a string of events. Realistically, this is difficult with a political system that doesn’t see anything wrong with appointing someone with no teaching experience to be Secretary for Education. In the same way that personal religious beliefs should not be taught in a science classroom, teaching of history should be kept as ‘scientific’ as possible and free from political ideology.

This does not seem to be the case in the United Kingdom, twentieth-century history both in the classroom and in popular media continues to be dominated by Hitler, Nazism and World War Two. Let me clear I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t study this period, it is vital to our understanding of that turbulent century which has crafted much of the world we live in today; without such appreciation how can we understand the present? However, the predominance of this part of history not just in curricula but in popular history (the “Hitler channel” anyone?), must undoubtedly affect how many people in the UK perceive German history as a whole. Much evidence illustrates it has: most people, including me when asked about German history immediately think Hitler, Nazi, World War Two.

A British hero?

In the same way History can be abused to fit a simple narrative, its teaching can result in unbalanced popular perceptions of events. This dynamic is seen within the German education system in which much of the focus in teaching is also on the history of the ‘Hitler period’ (and not on the many positive advances in technology, arts and other fields), creating a sense of negativity and shame towards Germany’s history for many German teenagers in a way that the average American would simply not feel towards say their President’s decision to drop an atom bomb on Japanese civilians; any attempt to paint a picture of history as a battle between ‘baddies’ and ‘goodies’ inevitably falls prey to ideology and biased history.

Hitler had to be stopped but to present World War Two as the holy crusade against all that is bad, the impression Western popular history gives it and Gove supports, is simply bad history, atrocities were committed on both sides and this should be adequately reflected in popular history and curricula. Similarly, much of the history of Germany should be celebrated.

To give a further example of the dangers of ‘cherry picking’, in popular views as has been mentioned Nazi atrocities take centre stage whilst the horrors of looting, rape and mass killings committed against Germans, not to mention other ethnicities living in Eastern Europe in the years after World War Two are largely brushed over – indeed in 2009, Mark Weber, director of the Institute for Historical Review highlighted popular ignorance of this “Unknown Holocaust.”

To return to Gove and the ‘great story’ of Britain, I’m not naïve enough to ignore the many revolutionary innovations that have facilitated modern life that were dependent on British imperialism and the many positives in medical care, communications among other fields which have resulted. Nor do I ignore the fact that without Allied military aggression during World War Two, Hitler may have continued to expand. But to present the history of this period and any period for that matter, as a ‘great story’ of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies,’ ignoring the grey areas between, should make us and especially Gove as a fellow historian, deeply uncomfortable.

 

Special thanks to Lara Demercy for sharing her experiences of the German education system which gave this article some needed life!

Further Reading

For a more radical view of the effect of history on modern society : See – Martin L. Davies Imprisoned by History: Aspects of Historicized Life, Routledge, 2010.

Another view: http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2014/02/the-nazis-no-longer-deserve-a-place-on-the-curriculum/ (self explanatory)

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Tom was the previous Comment and Politics editor for 2014/15 A History student at York, his main writing interests are contemporary controversies/debates, History and Health and Fitness.

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