Colonialism and Decolonization in National Historical Cultures and Memory Politics in Europe

Modules for History Lessons

by Uta Fenske (Volume editor) Daniel Groth (Volume editor) Klaus-Michael Guse (Volume editor) Bärbel P. Kuhn (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 250 Pages


Colonialism and decolonization are historical phenomena that are part of the historical experience of many European countries. This volume offers students and teachers a new understanding of how colonialism and decolonization fit into our shared European past and contains teaching materials for history classes in European schools. The contributions have been produced by the EU project CoDec, involving partners from Belgium, Germany, Estonia, Great Britain, Austria, Poland and Switzerland. Analyzing colonial pasts, processes of decolonization and memory politics in different European countries from comparative and transnational perspectives, the study presents useful sources and practical suggestions for cutting-edge history lessons in European schools.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Editors
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • I. Overseas Colonialism
  • Understanding Overseas Colonialism as a Process: An Introduction
  • Potatoes, Coffee and Sugar – The Foreign from “Overseas” Changes Europe.
  • Potatoes – The Foreign from the Colonies Becomes One’s Own
  • Coffee – The Foreign Becomes Part of the “Western” Lifestyle in Europe
  • Sugar – The Foreign is Copied
  • Colonialism and the Caribbean: Wealth, Power and the British Imperial State
  • Economic Aspects of Colonialism: A Caribbean Case Study
  • Swiss Emigrants in 19th Century Brazil: Ambivalent Entanglements with Structures of Slavery
  • II. Inner-European Hegemonic Relations and Entanglements as Colonialism?
  • Inner-European Colonialism: An Introduction
  • The Case of Lutheranism in Estonian History – From External Determination to People’s Church
  • Images of Poland in Germany in the Late 18th and the 19th Centuries: Precondition of Colonial Power Relations?
  • Making Sense of Postcolonial Theories and Applying them to the Relationship between Eastern and Western Europe
  • German Colonial Policy in Greater Poland (19th and 20th Centuries)
  • Inner-Polish Politics in Kresy during the Interwar Period: An Example of Inner-European Colonialism?
  • III. Decolonization and Independence Movements
  • Decolonization, the Cold War and Development Aid: An Introduction
  • Between a Brotherly Union and Colonialism – Poland in the USSR Sphere of Influence
  • The Representation of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and his Speech on 30 June 1960 (Congolese Independence Day) – Food for Controversy
  • Immigration to Estonia after World War II
  • The Case of the Secret Uranium Factory in Sillamäe
  • Reasons for Appeasement: The British Empire
  • Switzerland and Rwanda: A Troublesome Partnership
  • IV. Memory Politics
  • Postcolonial Collective Memory Cultures in Europe. A Fragmented, Divided and National-Bound Landscape: An Introduction
  • Why “colonialism” as a concept causes confusion, and exploration of alternatives within historiography
  • Congo in Flemish/Belgian and Postcolonial Belgian/Congolese Collective Memory
  • Who Owns the Polish Past? Polish History Seen From Western European and Polish Points of View
  • Colonial Patterns of Interpretation in Swiss Comics
  • Acknowledgments
  • Authors

Uta Fenske and Bärbel P. Kuhn


Contexts and Concerns of the Book

The present volume documents the project “Colonialism and Decolonization in National Historical Cultures and Memory Politics in European Perspective” funded within the framework of the Lifelong Learning Programme of the EU from 2013 to 2015. The goal of the project was to develop new approaches to mediating this theme complex in schools in a comparative perspective together with European partners from Belgium, Germany, Estonia, Austria, Poland, Scotland and Switzerland. For this purpose, historians, history didacticians and teachers closely cooperated. The project focused on European colonialism since the late 18th century, even though the European colonial past of the modern age reaches back to the 15th century. Although the colonial experiences in the countries involved showed and still show different forms of progression and diverse effects, these experiences tend to be a connecting element at the same time. Colonialism as the thematic framework of the project stands in the field of tension between the perception of colonialism and decolonization as shared European past on the one hand, and the varied ways of dealing with these phenomena in the single European states on the other. Therefore, the core idea of the common project was to discuss to what extent the national historical cultures in the context of colonialism and decolonization can be located in a collective European framework. Or to put it differently, whether Europe – despite the various dividing historical developments and memories – is or could be a memory community with regard to its colonial past. This colonial history is interconnective through the endeavor of multiple European powers to make “peripheral societies subservient” to the European “metropolises”.1 The various paths to colonization, the types of colonial rule exercised and the diverging forms of decolonization must be seen in the light of specific national histories – these differences should neither be ignored nor harmonized. However, from a global perspective an approach seeing Europe as a space of (inter)action and experiences seems meaningful and possible to us. Furthermore, the enduring significance of colonial pasts shows itself, for instance, in complex migration situations as well as the still existing problematic constructions of “the other” within European societies.

Following the considerations of Aleida Assmann on a “European memory community”2, the question was raised as to whether the thematic complex “colonialism and decolonization” could be an important point of reference for Europe and a “European space of memory”3 relevant to European self and external representations. ← 9 | 10 Indeed, memories are of individual nature but are also significantly influenced by social and cultural contexts and take effect collectively. In this respect, school education and the ways of dealing with history within the living environment shape not only historical consciousness but also the concrete and public forms memories take.4 Collective images of the past solidify into “spaces of memory” of specific memory communities. These communities are not static, however, since they can be framed variously depending on the point of reference. They are relational communities constituted nationally, regionally and religiously or through shared experiences in the past. Remembering often becomes transnational, yet remaining through shared history national and at the same time compatible within a European frame. In this connection, Luisa Passerini has distinguished between “shared narratives” related to the past and “sharable narratives” relating to the future.5

Especially in history education the European character of this past, as can be shown in the entanglements of colonial politics as well as similar, yet distinct practices and experiences of the colonial powers, has received little attention so far.6 This was highly visible in the project’s initial question of how the subject is mediated in history education in the partner countries. When Europe appears in school textbooks as an imperialistic and colonizing continent, national politics are often only additively introduced and differences are pointed out. The question of the importance of the colonial past for national historical cultures and memory politics of the present is dealt with in different ways, more or less critically. Therefore, the present volume, including 21 lesson modules, wants to provide suggestions for ways that students, teachers, all people active in history education and all people interested in the subject can identify and understand the shared lines of development in European history, thus become able to take a broader European perspective on the phenomena dealt with.

The central question and the concern of the project required different theoretical and methodological approaches as well as the connection between approaches from the fields of historical science and History Didactics.7 Thereby, the concepts of historical consciousness and historical culture from the field of History Didactics are as im ← 10 | 11 portant as new approaches in historical science such as memory culture, Postcolonial Studies, New Imperial History, cultural transfer, transnational and entangled history.

The concept of colonialism is complex and the term is not easy to define. On the one hand, “colonialism” must be differentiated from other forms of exercising power like “imperialism”, “occupation”, “interventionism”, “relations or dependencies”, “knowledge-power-relations” or “hegemonies and entanglements” in terms of various historical situations – within Europe and beyond. On the other hand, colonial reality showed different characteristics in different colonial spaces and at different points in history considering, for instance, various forms of exercising power as well as various types of colonies such as colonies of occupation or settlement colonies. Thus, the challenge is both to precisely describe the power systems and to determine the diversified manifestations. It can be stated, however, that most of the research on colonialism is in agreement in portraying it as a system of foreign rule through political power and economic exploitation as well as cultural dominance.8 In traditional research, the central criterion is exercising power over territories distant from the European metropolises, thus power relations based on European overseas expansion. However, a rigid application of this criterion would basically exclude “borderline cases” of inner-continental power relations.9 Against the background of such considerations researchers of Eastern European History, for example, discuss whether the considerations of Postcolonial Studies can be applied not only to overseas constellations but also to inner-European hegemonic power relations and entanglements.10 Then, colonialism is not only seen in terms of relations based on power and exploitation. Rather, it is also given shape through the knowledge systems forming and representing these relationships. The following can be seen as such systems: theories of racism, notions of civilizing and missionizing, concepts of superiority and backwardness or corresponding language forms representing knowledge and science. Some of the following lesson modules take up these considerations and present examples for forms of inner-European colonial practices and politics.11 ← 11 | 12

Colonial politics cannot be understood one-dimensionally as was the case for a long time and often still is in history education. Colonial politics are a history of relationships and entanglements. The history of the (Western) European colonial powers cannot be seen detached from the history of the former colonial countries. Therefore, not only the effects of colonialism on the former colonial states but also its after-effects with their concrete intertwining between different nations of Europe and the formerly colonized states are taken into account. By applying a transnational research perspective, different forms and characteristics of connections, entanglements, interferences, interactions, transfers and circulations reaching beyond the national state are also asked for. Concepts such as nation, region or culture remain central points of reference, yet they receive a relational character. Their significance, or rather the degree of their significance, depends on their correlation in concrete constellations.

The book opens new and unusual viewpoints by considering the perspectives of countries that underwent very different experiences with colonial politics and decolonization. Both former colonial powers (Belgium, Germany, Great Britain) and formerly occupied (or might one say “colonized”?) countries (Poland, Estonia), in addition to a country not obviously involved in colonial activities territorially (Switzerland) but in terms of economic and cultural interlacing, have their say. We become acquainted with much about their histories themselves and their characteristics. Furthermore, the countries’ ways of dealing with their own histories and those of the others give insights into different perceptions and constructions of a common past.

Approaches to Colonialism and Decolonization for Cutting-Edge History Education

Transnational perspectives and intercultural approaches in history education as well as dealing with (sometimes controversial) topics relevant to historical culture are central in terms of a reflected historical consciousness, a differentiated historical judgment as well as a politically responsible democratic competence. The addition of other viewpoints and changes of perspective enable learners to broaden and relativize images of history on a transnational, trans-territorial, transcultural and transcontinental level. Assumed truths or notions of superiority and inferiority can be challenged and new insights can be gained. At the same time, phases and projects of de-centering12 in the course of history lessons open up opportunities for the students to be sensitized to their own “having-become”, to acknowledge differences and to appreciate cultural diversity. The encounter with other times, historically different worlds and the various ← 12 | 13 ways these are dealt with in history education in Europe provides the opportunity to see one’s own in a new light and to respect the other as a legitimate version.13

The students learn to relativize their concepts of national history. This helps them to become aware of the framing conditions of their own national identity constructions. Such an extension of the horizon of historical understanding with the help of lesson modules from different countries, providing multiple recently retrieved and novel sources, allows for various changes of perspective and can be motivating for teachers and students alike

The teaching modules are grouped in four chapters representing the different approaches within the overall conception of the project. The first chapter addresses a rather traditional perspective on colonialism. Topics such as the increasing influence of colonial goods on European lifestyles are part of this broadly based chapter just as, for example, the transatlantic slave trade and the underlying structures of power necessary for the functioning of this system.

The modules of the second chapter raise the question of in how far inner-European power relations can be seen as colonial relationships. They offer, for instance, sources and lesson proposals dealing with the relationships between Germany and Poland in the 19th century or the Soviet Union and Estonia in the 20th century in order to reflect fundamentally upon the nature and mechanisms of colonial structures and politics (or structures and politics similar to those characteristic for colonial relations?).

The third chapter deals with prerequisites, forms, perceptions and interpretations of decolonization processes from the perspectives of both the former metropolises and the peripheries,14 as clearly shown in the module on Patrice Lumumba’s 1960 speech on the occasion of Congolese independence from Belgian dominance.

This question leads to the last chapter, which takes into account (post)colonial memory cultures and politics. Unusual sources of cultural history such as those on the Swiss comic figure “Globi” or hip hop lyrics by contemporary Belgian-Congolese performers can motivate teachers and students alike to deal with new questions on colonial pasts.15 For more elaborate considerations on the four chapters, please see the respective introductions in this volume.

Teachers and students are not only furnished with new material on colonialism and decolonization. Didactic comments also provide help on how to put it into practice. In the course of the project, the partners have developed together a template for the structure of the modules in order to ensure a certain unity and comparability. Despite this common frame, the modules collected in the volume offer enough space for the various teaching cultures. Furthermore, although the modules can be taught as suggested in this volume, they leave room for individual organization. The ← 13 | 14 way the sources are incorporated in the modules, for instance, permits flexibility: In many cases sources are unabridged so that teachers can edit them, if desired, for their respective teaching needs. On the one hand, working with the unabridged texts allows the teachers and students not only to extract factual information but also to make sources themselves in their genre character the subject of investigation. Such extended sources are especially suitable for demonstrating that any evidence of the past itself is a construct that was produced by somebody with a certain intention in a concrete context. By dealing with these aspects in history education, students can become aware that interpretations of the past elaborated on the basis of sources are again only constructions. On the other hand, depending on the respective concerns and the time available, abridged sources are a pragmatically useful solution for teaching practice – for instance when diverging perspectives on a certain issue are being investigated.

In their diversity the modules also make visible a variety of concerns in history education. In the present compilation they acquaint the students with the histories of different countries in Europe as well as provide the opportunity to practice working with sources on various levels. With their diverse understandings of historical learning and thinking the modules mirror differing historical cultures as well as nationally specific moulding through the past. Often these pasts are still present. That means we are dealing with questions of modern and contemporary history often being controversially discussed. Seeing Europe as a “learning community” and – as the project did from the beginning – taking this seriously also means to discuss and to learn from each other how research is being conducted, how the findings are taught and learned in the classroom.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (October)
European Imperialism CoDec Historical Cultures Inner-European Hegemonic Relations
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 250 pp., 34 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Uta Fenske (Volume editor) Daniel Groth (Volume editor) Klaus-Michael Guse (Volume editor) Bärbel P. Kuhn (Volume editor)

Uta Fenske and Daniel Groth work as research associates at the University of Siegen. Klaus-Michael Guse teaches History and works as a teacher trainer. They conducted the EU-funded project CoDec. Bärbel P. Kuhn is Professor of History Didactics at the University of Siegen, Germany.


Title: Colonialism and Decolonization in National Historical Cultures and Memory Politics in Europe
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252 pages