Can a Jointly Written History Erase Centuries of German-Polish Strife?

Historians in the News

The presentation recently held in Warsaw followed all the correct diplomatic protocols. Indeed, German and Polish experts had started preparing for the important event two years earlier.



Teams of experts from both countries developed individual chapters, which were then either approved or rejected by panels with equal German-Polish representation. Katarzyna Hall, Poland's education minister, and Cornelia Pieper, a senior official at Germany's Foreign Ministry responsible for German-Polish relations, provided a warm opening address that was carefully divided between the two government ministries involved. In fact, to order to avoid any and all mistakes, careful balancing went into everything.

The issue at hand that December day was one of the touchiest subjects in German-Polish relations: a textbook -- or, more precisely, recommendations for a future textbook. And since the meeting proved to be a success, it is now all the more likely that Polish and German high schools will soon experience something revolutionary: History classes in both countries will teach from books that, although translated into the two languages, are otherwise identical in their treatment of historical material stretching from ancient Mesopotamia to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and beyond.

This arrangement is particularly noteworthy because the period stretching from the dawn of civilization to the emergence of al-Qaida includes a number of historical episodes that are sensitive subjects for Germans, Poles or both. Prime among these are Germany's 1939 invasion of Poland and, later, the expulsion of Germans from former ethnic-German territories ceded to Poland in 1945. Likewise, they also include events further back in time, such as the presence of Teutonic Knights on the Polish side of the Oder River, the present-day border between the countries.

Touchy Subjects

On closer inspection, it's hardly surprising that a textbook can be such an explosive issue. As German historians Jörg-Dieter Gauger and Günter Buchstab put it: "As we know, schools are the only places in every society that no individual can get around and that involve the systematic transfer of knowledge." In this respect, the historians continue, "schools, classes, syllabuses and textbooks" can be viewed as "a seismograph for the significance placed on historical topics."

These touchy subjects have generated a lot of friction in the past. But, compared to those times, the commotion that the textbook initiative triggered in 2007, when it was jointly launched by the countries' respective foreign ministers, was only minor. "Of course, historians will always disagree," says Michael G. Müller, an expert on Eastern European history who hails from the eastern German city of Halle and oversees the project on the German side. "But they no longer disagree along the same frontlines as conflicts between nations. What divides them instead are, for example, differing methodological schools, and these are frontlines that run right through our national delegation."

The 135-page outline of the project expresses a desire to move away from "national creation stories" in favor of exposing students to the importance of "sub- or supranational communities." The debates of recent years, it continues, should give way to an "open representation of history."

One point on which conflict has repeatedly flared up involves the insistence of the Polish representatives that the word "expulsion" not be used to describe the forced flight of millions of Germans as World War II ended and after national borders had been redrawn. Instead, they prefer to call it "resettlement." There has also been growing mistrust among Poles since the revival of interest in this topic in Germany following the 2002 publication of the Günter Grass novel "Crabwalk" and the more recent discussions surrounding a proposed documentation center on German expellees....

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