Paradigm, No 22 (May, 1997)

Creating School History Textbooks after Communism

Ann Low-Beer

Westhill College,
Weoley Park Rd,
Selly Oak,
Birmingham B29 6LL


The Council of Europe has recently held a number of seminars for those teaching history in erstwhile communist countries. Having been involved in some of them, I thought it might be appropriate to report on the problems of textbook production for Paradigm, for the situation in these countries illuminates more generally several aspects of the nature of school textbooks.

The Council of Europe was founded in 1949 by 10 countries in order to achieve greater unity between European parliamentary democracies. It is the oldest of the European political institutions, and has grown so that now it is the widest inter-governmental grouping in Europe with 44 member states. Work on education and culture is carried out by the Council for Cultural Cooperation under the European Cultural Convention of 1954. From the start the Council regarded history teaching and the revision and analysis of textbooks as one of its important tasks. It has always worked closely with the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research at Braunschweig in Germany. They have produced many publications on history textbooks, usually the results of seminars involving both academic experts and classroom teachers, often held at Braunschweig.1 From the late 1980s there was a renewed interest in the teaching of history right across Europe, stimulated further by the dramatic changes in Central and Eastern Europe. The Council responded by inviting new states to become members and by arranging seminars in many of these countries. In January 1996 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council adopted recommendations on history and the learning of history including that:

Particular attention should be given to the problems in central and eastern Europe which has suffered from the manipulation of history up to recent times and continues in certain cases to be subject to political censorship.2

I have been to seminars in St. Petersburg and the Czech Republic, and wrote the report of a Council of Europe seminar held in Graz in December 1994.3 At this meeting almost all of these countries were represented: the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia; central European countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia; representatives attended from the Russian Federation, and from Belarus, Romania and the Ukraine. There and elsewhere I have talked with delegates working on history education in schools from Albania and from the newly unified Germany. This paper is based on reports4 from these seminars, including some vivid accounts written by representatives from all of these countries.

The situation is constantly developing, although in some countries difficulties are unlikely to resolve rapidly. In their new situation education is not a top priority, teachers are modestly paid, and the new market economy offers more rewarding opportunities for publishers. They shared some common problems, above all the urgent desire to remove communist ideology, to recover and reformulate the teaching of their national history in schools. Yet it remains a diverse group of countries, with varied economic and political situations. The experience under communist regimes was varied too. Poland is a large country where the financial situation is improving and the political transformations, which began early, are now more settled. Throughout the Soviet period the Polish people retained an intense interest in their own national history, which differed from the official ideology. There was always access to scholarly books (often deliberately restricted to small print-runs), a powerful literary and religious tradition, and contact continued with Poles abroad from whom information filtered through. By contrast, the small Baltic states suffered a prolonged and systematic attempt to wipe out their history and their culture, yet there was an awareness of what was lost. In Belarus and the Ukraine the tradition of a history of ‘their own’, existing in some form in the 19th century, is barely known at all by the population at large. For several countries, including the Russian Federation, new political boundaries mean re-thinking what counts as national history, what is Russian history? In Slovakia there is still discussion about how to formulate a Slovak national history. They were for centuries dominated by Hungarians, but resisted Magyarisation, before the brief union with the Czechs. It is interesting that all states wish to highlight ‘their own’ history to teach in school. The emphasis on national history has been just as obvious in the development of the National Curriculum in England.

In all of these countries, political change made history a matter of intense public debate, with popular pressure for revisions in schools. All moved rapidly to modify the school curriculum. They are unanimous in saying that removing overt communist ideology was simple. But recovering and remaking their history is more complex. The most difficult problems are over national history, especially during the 20th century, which is full of controversial events well within living memory. What is clear is that constructing a new syllabus was accompanied at once by the writing of new textbooks. It was the teachers who demanded this: only new textbooks would enable them to begin to teach the new history. This is partly a legacy of communist indoctrination with the underlying idea of the authoritative text. Yet in Britain too a new curriculum in the 1990s meant new textbooks, with major consequences for educational publishers. Council of Europe work in previous decades on textbooks and the teaching of history was unknown in these countries.

All countries relied at first on ‘expert’ historians to write new books and give lectures on the ‘new’ history to teachers and to those in pedagogical institutes. Sometimes these experts were from outside, or returning émigrés, since all historians were ideologically suspect. Ministries of Education looked first to the expert historians, sometimes teams of historians, to write simplified schoolbooks as quickly as possible. The results were desperately disappointing. Textbooks produced in this way were unusable in real classrooms with pupils: they were dry and dull with far too much factual detail in a form which young pupils could not absorb. The learned experts do not understand classrooms, nor the dynamics of managing a class, nor how to simplify for the young. Under the old regime historians were in a constrained situation and the art of popularising academic history was not allowed. So it may be that such experts are especially unpractised in simplifying their knowledge for wider audiences. Yet even in the freedom of Western countries it is unusual, in any subject area, to find a good academic who knows something about classrooms and can write well for children. Good textbook authors are much more frequently found amongst teachers than amongst academic experts, Gradually, after the inadequate efforts of academics, most of these countries realised that teachers must be involved in the processes of producing textbooks.

This situation highlights the complex relationship between scholarship and school classrooms. Suddenly cancelling examinations and requiring a whole subject area to be revised and re-thought, as happened in Russia, dramatised this problem. There has to be some connection between up-to-date knowledge and the writers of school textbooks, otherwise school knowledge becomes out of date and enclosed within its own school world, In England a recent review of history textbooks written for the National Curriculum criticised some for being quite out of touch with modem scholarship. Teachers have neither the time nor the skills to investigate archives and rethink the approach to a subject for themselves. But equally scholars rarely understand pedagogy or how to simplify for young pupils.

It is largely the writers of textbooks who must act as the mediators between one world and the other. But it is not clear who textbook authors are, and a fine balance of competing concerns is required to make a successful school textbook. In Romania a group of teachers worked together to create the script of a new school history with a ‘synthetic, not chronological, approach’. This enterprise failed through lack of finance, and because other teachers did not like the new approach. So even teacher-authors need to be a special group, although they are generally badly paid and only valued within the profession. Ministries initially had more faith in higher-status academic experts, Many authors seem at first to have worked under great pressure, with urgent deadlines, only to have their results severely criticised. The failures however, reveal something of the complexities of the process. The Georg Eckert Institute quickly developed scholarships and networks of advice to help in the production of more acceptable textbooks. A European Educational Publishers Group was formed in 1991, with 12 member countries, and in 1996 there are 19 member countries. The Council of Europe has supported meetings between publishers and other interested parties, to speed the development of history textbooks.

There are, however, other pressures on textbook production. In all of these countries there have been radical changes in the economic infrastructure, in the nature of the market, and in the educational structures which decide who is responsible for the production of books. These are compounded by technical revolutions in printing which are having effects everywhere. Finance, while fundamental, is by no means the only problem. Investments by publishers and the general budgets allocated to schools are linked. The gap between acceptable modem technology and the conditions currently existing in some countries may be financially as well as in terms of expertise, almost unbridgeable. In Albania there were shortages of paper, in other places printing processes remain exceedingly antiquated. One delegate from the Ukraine declared that the shortages of schoolbooks in his country was such that he had a large suitcase and would gratefully take any texts in any language which people would donate, The fact that these countries produce educated adults puts into perspective the perennial moans of teachers everywhere about a lack of resources. Many pupils in many countries learn from ‘adjusted’ old books, or ‘special materials’, which probably means hastily hand-typed and photocopied sheets.

The changed political situation has altered markets, School books used to be commissioned by ministries of education from State publishers and provided ‘free’. Now a relatively large and prosperous country, like Poland, has moved to a market situation where even the still existing state educational publisher must compete with others to survive. New publishers have appeared in several countries challenging monopolies, and western publishers see new markets. The old state publishers are still usually in a dominant position, but as they move to realistic prices, as subsidies are withdrawn, they have to judge how far parents or the state, or a combination of these, will bear them. In Poland the distribution service collapsed and has had to be re-structured by publishers. Not all countries present attractive markets. In Lithuania the Ministry wished to privatise the publishing of texts but found no offers since private publishers had no expertise in the field and were uncertain of profits. In Hungary there was a flood of history books, many published in the west, some targeting popular taste and blurring histories and mythologies.

The market, however, has pushed the prices of books up: ‘we can read anything -- if we can afford it’. Schools, of course, cannot afford this at all. Charging parents for at least a proportion of the cost of school books is increasingly under consideration. In most countries there is a deep expectation that school texts should be much cheaper than the market costs, as a result, at the two ends of a spectrum, books in Slovenia were in one year 370 times more expensive than in Russia. Some schools persist with state-produced texts where they are still available, because although dull they are still cheap, and subsidised for another year at least. Changes are often not complete and parts of the old system co-exist with the new. Publishers cannot easily assess pricing and consequently are cautious about innovations. The market appears to push prices up and not down, at least initially, because of the loss of state subsidy. Yet one of the key factors in successful school texts everywhere is the ‘right’ price.

In many places the market alone will not supply schools with textbooks and governments are forced to be involved. In small countries with minority languages only state financing will produce history textbooks, But finances are tight and there are many other demands. While some countries are receiving active help from wealthier nations in the region, Sweden and Finland and Estonia, Norway and Lithuania, Austria and Slovenia, other small countries are on their own with few resources. Aid is often regional, though American funding has helped to develop a project between Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine to produce a joint text of the region, with editors from each country -- ‘in this way we hope to produce a civilised and tolerant textbook’. The Baltic History Textbook Project is an interesting project developed by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, to produce a joint secondary school book. At the moment none of them have material on their neighbouring countries, The new book will be prepared in Russian, all three Baltic languages, and in English -- so that people outside the countries may learn something of their history, Now that there is more contact, people from central and eastern Europe find westerners ignorant about the rest of Europe. The Soros Foundation is another agency helping with the development of textbooks, in a number of these countries, It has held open competitions between local authors for grants towards new textbooks. Yet experience of outside help has not always been positive. There has to be a measure of mutual understanding, confidence and reciprocity. Outsiders may fail to understand the local context: the amazingly high level of intellectual achievement in materially unpropitious situations, or the passionate insistence on making known again every detail of the national past.

School textbooks also appear to be tailored to a local market. There have been several experiments using imported texts to teach European history. None have been successful. Russian educators came to the conclusion that German textbooks could not be used in their schools: ‘it was as if they had been written from another planet’. Lithuanian teachers do not much like Swiss imported and translated textbooks. Even in Germany Western texts brought in to the new Länder have seemed foreign and inappropriate. Perhaps especially in history there seems little prospect of a European or even a regional market for school textbooks, and this is at least partly because each school system has idiosyncratic ways, as well as because of the dialogue between past and present in history.

The question of who is responsible for the production of school texts also raises some interesting issues, Across Europe the Ministry of Education usually exercises some supervision of school textbooks, The situation in Britain, where this is regarded as state control of knowledge, is unusual. The issue has recently been raised over Welsh history books, since Wales, like other small countries with minority languages, is not an attractive market proposition for publishers. But there are many countries, for example Sweden, where school texts in most subjects have to be approved by committees, The committee members include teachers and their work is not normally regarded negatively as state control, rather as a valuable process setting minimum standards not only of content and up-to-date scholarship, but also of layout, print, illustration and presentation. Schools have choice of all approved texts. The state controls knowledge in schools through other devices too: national curricula, examinations and inspections. In democracies it does this in a context influenced by public opinion and relatively open discussion. Nevertheless in most countries school texts are in some sense publications approved by the state, and encapsulating ‘official knowledge’ in a given area.

The prolonged and passionate debate over the national history curricula for England and Wales, and over prescribed texts in English literature, arose precisely because of this point. In the countries rewriting their history, the view of the school text as officially approved knowledge has other nuances arising not only from the previous controlling role of the state but paradoxically because now the state may be seen as the one reliable source of knowledge in a new and confused world. There was, and is, a passionate desire in these countries to recover and disseminate their lost history, to resurrect heroes, to bring in whole areas such as religious history which were previously suppressed. A sense of personal and national identity is seen as an essential ingredient for the survival and development of society: new governments were under pressure to act. People wanted to know ‘the truth’, New sources of information were suddenly available, through all the media, aided by discussion, gossip and rumour. Books flooded in from many places, some purveying extreme nationalistic versions of the past. In most of these countries the past within living memory has been fought over, lives have been lost or wasted in prison.

Despite all of the difficulties new school texts were produced. Then the ‘textbook wars’ began: texts were savagely and publicly criticised. In Latvia a new textbook had to be withdrawn and re-written -- a serious financial loss for a small country. The one country in which the textbook market appears to be entirely free is Hungary. The government has failed to arrive at any agreed national curriculum. Freedom has its price. Various textbooks produced have met fierce criticism, especially over issues in 20th-century history:

I could enumerate dozens of areas where just a single adjective that has not been used carefully enough makes thousands of people protest and call the author rightist or leftist, anti-semite or cosmopolitan, traitor to the nation or chauvinist. The poor author is, of course, far from being any of them: it is only the super-sensitivity of the people concerned, or, in some cases, ill-willed political considerations.5

In Hungary the situation is controlled only by market prices. In Russia however, the Ministry, which had abandoned control, was asked to take up again a process of vetting and publishing lists of approved texts -- to give schools some guidance. The Ministry itself is at pains to emphasise that schools have the freedom to use whatever texts they like. In Poland with a prosperous market situation, publishers discovered that there were numerous ‘hot’ issues which were best avoided in textbooks if they wanted them to sell. However, more recently they have begun to experiment with small and less official books for older pupils, in which ‘hot’ issues can be covered without exciting the same public attention as in the more official texts, Clearly knowledge of recent national history, the experience of adults, is in effect filtered through what is acceptable to public opinion before it can be allowed in official school history textbooks.

History is not the only area of knowledge where this sort of controversy has happened: evolution has caused similar problems in parts of America. The knowledge contained in school textbooks, ‘what every child should know’, is a consensus involving not only scholars, Ministries, authors, publishers and teachers but public opinion too.

An issue increasingly raised in these countries is how far a textbook is a book to be read, or something more like a workbook for pupils, containing structured exercises and little narrative. The tradition in many of these countries is that a history book was a reading book, containing a great deal of narrative, a few illustrations and maps and occasional questions for pupils. This is partly an inheritance from the previous indoctrinating system where history was memorised but not thought about. The new syllabuses tend to have a detailed chronological structure, which is similar to the approach in countries such as Austria, The emphasis is on pupils mastering the content of history rather than acquiring skills of analysis. Looking at Western history books publishers can see that these are full of many structured tasks, often based on selected source material. They are work books rather than reading books. In the second wave of trying to produce new texts there are experiments with methods gleaned from the West. The first of these is to bring in some original source material, often in a separate section,

There is however another reason for experimenting with new approaches. Experience has shown that changing the curriculum is easy. Acquiring satisfactory new textbooks is expensive and quite difficult. But most difficult of all is changing the minds and mental approaches of the teachers. The effects of political indoctrination are great, and teachers may have internalised such approaches more than most. In Germany, with no shortage of finance, materials, or trained personnel to aid the transformation, teachers found the new books and the completely different didactics daunting, indeed rapid change was destructive:

Few teachers in the new Länder reacted to the challenge with confidence. This hitherto unknown freedom and the much higher degree of responsibility resulted in fear and a feeling of insecurity: the Ministry of Education was asked to tell teachers precisely what to do and how to do it. . . A number of teachers have been reluctant to take responsibility in selecting topics from the curriculum, Instead, Western textbooks are worked through in the old-fashioned way from the first to the last page.

Texts which are work-books, may help teachers to grasp new didactic methods too.

Clearly, in normal circumstances, textbooks reflect pedagogy and the methods and approaches in which teachers were trained. This congruence is often taken for granted. The sudden change in history with the end of communism reveals how closely a successful textbook interacts with pedagogical approaches. The demand from teachers for new textbooks for the new history may simply be the old concern to have one certain and authoritative source. In richer countries, and in the West, a multiplicity of resources in a variety of media reduce the authority of the one text. Yet the textbook is still a ubiquitous teaching tool everywhere, constantly in use as the basis for weekly homework and revision for examinations: both a workbook for pupils and a tool for teachers too.

In both capacities the textbook must connect with the mental processes required in teaching and learning. This is starkly clear in the textbooks of the old communist regime. There is an excellent review, done in 1981, of the 14th edition of one such textbook used in all the schools of the old G.D.R.6 The review exposes clearly the mental processes which the text set out to inculcate. At the moment no one who experienced the old system has any desire to look back to it. But a study of just these texts might be instructive. If Paradigm has contacts a sample should be preserved, unless they have all disappeared in a great bonfire already.



1. Bourdillon History and Social Studies.

2. Recommendation 1283 on History and the Learning of History in Europe (Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 1996).

3. Low-Beer Reform of History Teaching in Schools.

4. Reports by delegates to the Council of Europe seminar at Graz, December 1994.

5. Qu. report to Graz Seminar (December, 1994) as do the other unreferenced quotations here.

6. Jeisniann, Construction of Capitalism.



Jeismann, Karl-Ernst ‘The construction of Capitalism: Modern British History as Presented in East Germany’s History Textbook’. In Berghahn, V. and Schissler, H. (eds), Perceptions of History (Berg Publishers, 1987).

Bourdillon, Hilary (ed.)History and Social Studies - Methodologies of Textbook Analysis (Amsterdam: Swets and Zeitlinger B.V., 1992).

Low-Beer, Ann The Reform of History Teaching in Schools in European Countries in Democratic Transition (Report to Council for Cultural Co-operation, Strasbourg, 1995).

Paradigm Catalogue Textbook Colloquium