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International summer school at the Georg Eckert Institute

"The Balkans in Europe" (Braunschweig, 24-30 September, 2001)

Sabine Rutar / Heike Karge

Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research

The first international summer school held in Braunschweig by the Georg Eckert Institute on 24-30 September, 2001, was devoted to "The Balkans in Europe". Fifteen participants from seven South-East European countries - textbook authors, history teachers and historians from Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia - during that week tackled the question how history textbooks can be improved in order to reach a state-of-the-art scientific and didactic level. Emphasis was laid on how the South-East European region could be presented within a new European-integrative dimension. The summer school took place within the framework of the Stability Pact project launched in August 2000 on the “Coordination of textbook research, development and textbook comparison in South-East Europe”, and was supported financially by Euroclio and the Körber Foundation.

During the last decade, the single Balkan states have each gone through a specific process and developed new history textbooks. Bosnia and Hercegovina for example, has produced different textbooks and curricula for Bosniac, Croatian and Serbian pupils. Croats and Serbs until recently have used textbooks published in Zagreb and Belgrade, but efforts are now being made to design and write textbooks of their own. Coordinating these three diverging educational systems is a difficult task, but Bosnia and Hercegovina as well as Croatia have already taken significant steps towards a reform of their educational systems, in cooperation with the international community. Serbia, on the other hand, lags far behind: Here textbooks from the Miloševiæ era are, with slight modifications, still in use, and their nationalistic orientation mirrors the former regime.

The aim of the summer school was to develop first models for textbook chapters and teaching units based on new approaches of historical science and didactics. The working group sessions were accompanied by lectures focussing on historical and didactical issues, as well as by a visit to a textbook publishing house. Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Höpken, director of the Georg Eckert Institute, in his opening lecture gave a brief overview of textbook developments in South-East Europe since the 1990s. The ethnocentric matrix, he said, still prevails in textbooks, and minorities are hardly taken into account. He argued in favour of an integration of regional history as a historical dimension, however pointing out that this should not be achieved by enlarging textbook contents, but on the contrary by adopting a radical change of perspective.

Prof. Dr. Fikret Adanir, from Bochum University, devoted his lecture to one of the most controversial issues related to South-East Europe: the Ottoman heritage. Textbooks until now have generally reduced the Ottoman period to the stereotypical perspective of the "Ottoman yoke". Adanir presented the latest historiographical findings that allow to consider the Ottoman Empire in a more differentiated way, above all by approaching that period from the perspective of everyday life and of cultural history. Up to now, textbooks have conveyed a negatively connoted image of the Ottoman rule, indirectly holding the latter responsible for having impeded a "European" process in South-East Europe, like the Reformation, feudalism, etc. Positive aspects of the Ottoman rule or common historical structures of the South-East European region resulting from that era have been neglected. It was pointed out during the discussion that the textbook presentation of the Ottoman period is not so much shaped by a hesitant use of sources but rather by the interpretative intentions. The sense of national belonging is often sought to be enforced by transmitting an image of a past "under the yoke" that was thrown off by a liberation process leading towards national unity.

Prof. Dr. Holm Sundhaussen, from the Freie Universität Berlin, portrayed the Balkans as a European region in its own right, with its own specific structures, which should no longer be compared to West European developments as the measure of all things. The "long 19th century” for the Balkans brought the penetration with West European nation-state ideas, and the efforts to adopt those for the multiethnic Balkan societies led to catastrophe. In the Balkans, the catastrophes turned out even more drastic than elsewhere, to an extent that, Sundhaussen argued, the "short 20th century” with regard to this region can be called a "lost century".

Dr. Falk Pingel, deputy director of the Georg Eckert Institute, argued against the inclination to define in fixed terms the geography, culture and/or politics of Europe, as any attempt to delineate Europe by identifying commonalities only leads to the exclusion of certain European regions or groups. Furthermore, the concept of Europe has mostly been linked to positive values, whereas negative European features - Nazism, Fascism, dictatorship, etc. - have been left aside. The idea of a European identity is at best a vague notion, and Pingel suggested as an alternative to conceive Europe as a communicative space open to different and changing interpretations of what a European identity might be. This perspective allows the concept of "Europe" to be understood as a process rather than a determined entity. With regard to textbooks, Pingel pointed out that authors should make their concept of Europe explicit - be it defined in geographical, cultural or normative terms - rather than implying a given definition as universally valid.

Dr. Andreas Helmedach, from the Georg Eckert Institute, presented the view "from outside", i. e. how South-East Europe is dealt with in West European textbooks. He stated that the Balkans are mostly depicted as the proverbial "powder keg" and that presentations are superficial and quite often even inaccurate.

The summer school's main concern was to prepare teaching units according to new methods and approaches. The participants divided themselves into four nationally mixed groups concerned with curricular issues. One group, which dealt with the topic "The end of Yugoslavia", for example was made up of participants of different ethnic affiliations from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, two participants from Bosnia and Hercegovina as well as of one participant from Macedonia. In general, the curricula do not prescribe the 1990s as a compulsory school subject, but the strong interest of the pupils might induce teachers in South-East European post-war societies to consider that period. Central to such a teaching unit should be a multiperspectival approach, which is not an easy task. There is an urgent need both for the development of teaching materials including didactical guidance and for in-service teacher training programmes.

The second working group tackled the "classical" topic "The Treaty of Versailles and Europe's new order" and tried to find new methods through the inclusion of role plays, which aimed at explaining the viewpoint of other parties involved. The third group chose a topic from everyday life history: "national holidays", which is particularly apt for learning about the neighbours in the region, not least because in many countries public holidays have changed several times over the last decade. The lecture given by Dr. Helmedach gave the impetus to the fourth group to work on a methodological recommendation for a more adequate portrayal of South-East Europe in West European school textbooks.

Some of the teaching units that have been designed during the summer school will be presented by the end of 2001 at the Internet forum "South-East European Textbook Network" ( and will be further developed in 2002 by multinational groups of South-East European textbook authors in cooperation with the Georg Eckert Institute. Teachers and curriculum makers will have access to these "pilot units" via Internet.

The question posed by Prof. Dr. Höpken in his opening lecture, whether the regional historical perspective is necessary in textbooks, can clearly be answered in the affirmative. In the discussions and working groups, the European dimension largely gave way to a regional South East European dimension. It became apparent that Europe can only be approached on the basis of a better knowledge of one's neighbours. Until now, it seems that each of the South-East European states has rather had its own specific view on and in the direction of Europe or the European Union. An integration into "Europe as a (learning) process" (Pingel) also includes a reinforcement of knowledge transfer at a local level among South-East European neighbouring states. The image of Western Europe as a model, which is often put forward in West European and in South-East European countries as well, actually accentuates the black-and-white painting that portrays the West standing for stability, democracy and prosperity versus South-East Europe standing for the opposite. This, however, rather prevents from seeing the potentials of a historical space "South-East Europe" as part of its future identity in Europe. A new setting at the “regional" level is essential to achieve the wished-for changes of perspective from the "national" to the "European" dimension.