A source of non-knowledge: the history of Ukraine in European school textbooks

Manipulations with historical arguments in international relations are far from being a new phenomenon. However, with the spread of information technologies, it has become even more extensive and temptingly accessible, thus posing a danger. Another proof of this is Russian propaganda, which largely relies on pseudo-historical speculations and circulates far beyond the pages of military conflict. But why are Europeans often so susceptible to Russian narratives, especially when it comes to manipulations with historical arguments?

Ignorance of history creates a favorable ground for the use of historical manipulations in influencing public opinion; sometimes this is reflected in political technologies and the abuse of power by elites towards the population of their countries. Among the explanations for such a situation is sometimes the limited awareness of the general public about objective historical facts, especially when it comes to a broader knowledge of history beyond their own national borders. And sometimes the problem lies in the school education.

School textbooks on history and social sciences create the foundation of a person’s knowledge about a particular country, its history, culture, and significance in the world. Only later do additional knowledge and personal experiences build upon this foundation in adulthood. Therefore, it is extremely important for the information about foreign countries obtained by students through textbooks to be relevant, truthful, and objectively portray historical phenomena, events, and cause-and-effect relationships.

And how are the history of Ukraine and key historical events that influence Ukraine’s role in global processes presented in the textbooks of European countries? The Ukrainian Institute provides an answer to this question. From 2021 to 2022, a team of experienced historians analyzed several dozen textbooks and teaching materials on the history and social sciences in four European countries — Poland, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France. We present the key findings of this research.

Polish textbooks: good neighborliness vs. confrontation

In modern Polish textbooks, Ukraine in the 20th century is presented as a subject of history to a minimal extent and is included within the context of Polish events. Apart from isolated narratives related to the period of the 1917-1921 revolution and the period of independent Ukraine after 1991, Ukraine is not portrayed as an independent subject.

In general, there is a prevailing discourse of conflict in the analyzed narratives of 20th century Ukrainian history present in Polish textbooks. Specifically, in textbook sections related to the interwar period, the term “Ukrainian nationalism” is used to refer to the attitudes of political organizations with an anti-Polish orientation.

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Despite the existence of controversial positions in the interpretation of specific historical events by both Ukrainian and Polish sides (such as the events in Volyn in 1943), confrontation has nevertheless been successfully avoided within the pages of textbooks. This is largely due to the efforts of the Polish-Ukrainian textbook commission, especially in the context of 20th century history. According to the authors of the textbooks, the understanding that the history of conflicts remains in the past serves as the foundation for good neighborly relations between Poland and Ukraine today.

The old-new “Eastern policy” of Germany

The authors of the study believe that history textbooks in Germany serve as a kind of standard for the creation of educational literature with a modern pan-European approach. This is due to a minimum of state regulation, academic freedom, and a high level of contemporary historical methodology, which, in synergy, have ensured the organic unity of scientific rigor and didactic excellence in German textbooks.

Germans primarily view world history from the perspective of national priorities. They study the history of only those countries that currently influence the world order and are important for bilateral relations. Ukraine is not included in the list of German priorities. Politicians continue to orient themselves towards Russia, giving it a priority in determining their policy towards Eastern Europe, which is clearly reflected in school textbooks and educational materials.

The authors suggest paying attention to the activities of the bilateral German-Ukrainian commission of historians and involving it in the discussion of the issue of representing Ukrainian history in Germany and in the history curriculum in this country.

Geographical regionalism in a British way

Ukrainian narratives are presented solely as a component of Russian or Soviet history in the analyzed textbooks and educational materials of the United Kingdom. There are numerous examples where clear administrative borders of Ukraine, particularly its contemporary ones, are not marked on maps in textbooks to support the notion of Ukraine’s “non-subjectivity” (even in very detailed accounts of the First Russian Revolution, the Civil War, Stalinist modernization, World War II, or the collapse of the Soviet Union). The almost complete absence of the context of the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1921, as well as the lack of narratives related to the role of the Ukrainian issue in the collapse of the USSR, is regrettable.

In the majority of narratives, Ukraine is mentioned as a geographic rather than a historical entity. This approach allows for only an extremely limited understanding, or rather an imagination, of the Ukrainian context (including the contemporary one) by graduates of British secondary schools.

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The limited coverage of Ukrainian topics in British history textbooks is not something exceptional, as it reflects the approaches to examining the history of Eastern Europe in the 20th century as a whole. Ukrainian themes are not “forgotten” or “absent,” as history is taught to British students with a focus on broader problematic and thematic aspects rather than being country-centered.

The Ukrainian shadow in French textbooks

The topic of Ukraine, although in a blurred and fragmented form, is present in practically every French history textbook. While studying the comprehensive subject of History/Geography, French students acquire a certain body of knowledge about Ukraine, although it may not be as in-depth compared to other countries being studied.

Mistakes and inaccuracies regarding Ukrainian history are common in French school textbooks, which indicates both a lack of significant interest among most French authors and a limited pool of experts who are well-versed in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, Ukraine is often associated only with tragic events well-known in the West, such as the Holodomor, the Holocaust, Chornobyl nuclear disaster, and more recently, the “war in Donbas.”

Therefore, the portrayal of 20th century Ukrainian history in school textbooks and educational materials on history and social sciences varies greatly depending on the country: Poland, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

There are several reasons for this: a significant fundamental difference in educational systems and approaches to teaching history in each country; a tendency to portray the history of foreign countries mainly from the perspective of contemporary national interests; a preference for problem-centered history as opposed to country-centered history (as in the Ukrainian educational system); the presence or absence of shared pages of history with Ukraine and, consequently, controversial positions regarding their interpretation on both sides of the border.

Often, the history of Ukraine in European school textbooks is fragmented and superficial, lost in the shadow of the history of the Soviet Union and associated more with negative historical phenomena and processes.

At the same time, there are positive cases, such as the activities of the Polish-Ukrainian textbook commission, regarding the representation of shared history for mutual understanding and reconciliation of historical memory.

The Polish-Ukrainian experience in the context of writing history textbooks in this matter can serve as an example for similar cooperation with other countries. After all, the approach to teaching history that combines factual accuracy without distortions in any direction remains relevant. It should also emphasize national identity and universal human values while promoting tolerance and preventing the cultivation of interethnic, racial, religious, or any other stereotypes.

Originally posted by Maria Protsiuk on LB. ua. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

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