Lade Inhalt...

History Education and (Post-)Colonialism

International Case Studies

von Susanne Popp (Band-Herausgeber:in) Katja Gorbahn (Band-Herausgeber:in) Susanne Grindel (Band-Herausgeber:in)
©2019 Sammelband 360 Seiten
Open Access


This book deals with the challenges for history education arising from the centrality of colonialism in shaping the modern world. It breaks new ground by bringing together an international range of national studies on the legacies of colonialism that permeate the way how colonial history is thought and taught at schools. The case studies examine the representation, understanding and use of colonial heritage from different angles: They focus on European and non-European states as well as on states with and without colonial past as colonizers or colonized. Thus, and with its wide range of approaches – postcolonial theory, memory studies, educational media studies, teaching practice – this volume makes an essential research contribution to the ongoing international debate on the position of colonial history in present and future history education.


  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • References
  • Part 1: Essays
  • Colonialism: Before and After
  • Definitions
  • Why is colonialism a crime?
  • Foreign rule and war
  • Positive and negative consequences of colonialism
  • Rationales for European superiority
  • The heyday of colonialism
  • Decolonization since 1945
  • From power relations to human rights
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • An African Discourse on Colonialism and Memory Work in Germany
  • Introduction
  • Colonialism in the remembrance debates of the Germans
  • Closing remarks
  • References
  • Part 2: Narratives
  • The Pitfalls of Teaching a Common Colonial Past
  • The search for common origins: Colonialist historiography and the Roman model
  • The International Colonial Institute and the concept of colonial autonomy
  • The empire of the other – confrontation and cooperation in the interwar period
  • A new past for colonization: internationalisms after 1945
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Reviewing South Africa’s colonial historiography and its visibility in Higher Education and Training
  • Introductory remarks
  • Africa’s colonial historiography from Westernized and continental perspectives
  • South Africa and colonial times: conquering years and status by 1994
  • A colonial historiography of South Africa
  • Teaching colonial and postcolonial legacies in South Africa
  • The Higher Education and Training (HET) environment
  • Globalism and teaching colonial histories of Africa and South Africa: Some thoughts
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Is Synchronicity Possible?
  • The Boxer Movement and relevant academic discourse
  • The Boxer Movement in traditional historical narratives
  • The anti-colonialism narrative
  • Other narratives
  • An attempt to reinterpret the Boxer Movement in a global context
  • Level 1: 13–15 points
  • Level 2: 8–12 points
  • Level 3: 3–7 points
  • Level 4: 1–2 points
  • Further suggestions on teaching colonialism in a globalizing world
  • References
  • Part 3: Debates
  • Cosmopolitanism, National Identity and History Education: Jordan, Israel, and Palestine
  • Introduction
  • Cosmopolitanism vs. global citizenship
  • Mass education: modernity and the invention of a nation
  • History school textbooks in Jordan, Palestine, and Israel
  • 1 Jordan: nation and origins
  • 2 Palestine: identity under siege
  • 3 Israel: from diaspora to homeland
  • The formation of national identity vs. postcolonial theory
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Teaching Nation-State Building Movements from a Postcolonial Perspective
  • The postcolonial perspective
  • The importance of teaching about modern nation-building movements
  • Recognizing Multiple Paths to Nation-State Building
  • Cultural mixing, selective adoption, and appropriation as conceptual frames of analysis
  • Exploring changes in mutual perceptions across cultures
  • Evaluating events from complex angles: the transnational approach, the perspective of the colonized, and the long view
  • A postcolonial consciousness in the teaching of history
  • References
  • Colonial Complicity?
  • The concept of post-colonialism
  • Post-colonial structures in Switzerland
  • Switzerland and ‘colonial complicity’
  • Perceptions and representations of colonial history
  • Conclusion
  • Textbooks
  • References
  • The Discourse of the ‘Colonization’ of Hungary in Hungarian History Textbooks
  • Introduction
  • Political oratory from the second half of the eighteenth century to 1849
  • Hungarian historiography
  • History textbooks 1948–1989
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • How is ‘Empire’ taught in English schools? An Exploratory Study
  • The importance of Empire as a historical concept
  • How to find out how ‘Empire’ is taught in English schools?
  • History teacher testimony about the teaching of empire
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Part 4: Approaches
  • A Postcolonial People’s History? Teaching (Post-)Colonial History
  • Introduction: Principal considerations concerning (post-)colonial history and theory in a German high school classroom
  • Postcolonial theory for postcolonial history teaching
  • Howard Zinn (1922–2010): Biography and ‘A People’s History of the United States’
  • A postcolonial People’s History – classroom experiences from three teaching units
  • Conclusion: incorporating a postcolonial People’s History perspective in the classroom
  • References
  • Showing Africa: The Visual Presentation of Africa and Africans
  • Introduction
  • Looking back: The visual representation of Africa and Africans during the age of imperialism
  • The age of imperialism in German school textbooks
  • General remarks on visual sources
  • Focus on photographs
  • Photographs and captions
  • Photographs and student tasks
  • Textbook survey
  • Challenges and approaches for history teaching
  • References
  • Decolonization, National Cold War Narratives, and Contested History
  • How do we teach this narrative in the classroom?
  • References
  • Contributors

Susanne Popp, Katja Gorbahn, Susanne Grindel


The significance of the influence exerted by the historical phenomenon of colonialism, of which violence and rule by external powers were fundamental components, on the history of the twentieth century and on our present times is beyond question. We are living in a postcolonial world. Most of the 193 UN member states1 have imperial or colonial pasts which, however history has come to judge them, stand as focal points in the landscapes of their self-image. Further, the process of decolonization, which reached near-completion in the twentieth century’s second half as numerous sovereign nation states came into being, both ushered in a restructuring of the world order which had been in place hitherto and progressed beyond this to posit a paradigmatic shift in the norms framing that world order: Decolonization meant, alongside the end of colonial empires and of peoples’ subjection to rule from without, the ‘discrediting of foreign rule’ per se. It was in this spirit that the United Nations proclaimed, in the ‘Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples’ issued in 1960:

1. The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation. 2. All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. […].2

UN Resolution 1514 thus gave rise to a fundamentally new set of values upon which the political world order was to rest going forward.3

←7 | 8→

The global relevance of the era of colonial power and subsequently of decolonization, and the implications for the present arising from both, provide ample justification for consideration of whether, and how, present-day history teaching in schools, and specifically in curricula and educational media, represents and communicates the set of issues surrounding these periods. The primary impetus for the creation of this volume has been the upsurge in public interest and relevance to our contemporary world experienced by academic and public engagement with colonial pasts and the postcolonial order over approximately the last twenty years.4 This upsurge is reflected in the increasing frequency of public debates around the issue in Europe, to name one example. It finds further expression in the degree of passion with which those involved wrestle with appropriate ways of remembering the colonial violence originating from this continent, including slavery, and the responsibility issuing therefrom in both historical/political and moral/ethical terms, from which in turn emerge, inter alia, questions around potential compensation.

One exemplary case in this regard might be the debates that took place in the British public arena in 2007, on the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished the transatlantic slave trade in the British Empire.5 Controversy in the public sphere was also a feature of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary in 2013 of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands, which in 1863 had been the last European colonial power to free its slaves by emancipating those in Surinam and the Antilles. On this occasion, the government of the Netherlands, while expressing its ‘deep regret’ about the country’s involvement in the slave trade, refrained, primarily for fear of demands for reparations, from making an official admission of historic culpability.6 In 2004, Germany marked the beginning of the colonial war against the ←8 | 9→Herero and Nama which had taken place between 1904 and 1908 in what was then German South West Africa, and remembered in particular the massacres of 1904. The commemorations occasioned renewed debate around the genocidal character of this war and calls for a formal recognition of historic guilt. Twelve years later, in July of 2016, the German Bundestag issued an official document which for the first time referred to the massacres committed against the Herero and Nama during the course of this war as genocide.7

It is impossible to overlook the fact that engagement with the history of colonialism and with its significance to the present frequently arises out of discourses around historical memory which are located in their turn in wider contexts. The following discussion will attempt to shed light on three selected aspects of the issue which simultaneously hold considerable relevance for the depiction of the history of colonialism8 in the history classroom.

One of these factors, of which a key determining element is the accelerating advance of ‘globalization’, is the heightened perception of a rapidly widening global development gap. Of the 31 states classed by the World Bank in December 2016 as ‘Low-Income Countries’ (LIC), 27 are in Africa.9 Although some of these 31 LICs have no history of colonization, the global asymmetry in economic development manifest in this figure points to, among other factors, the direct and indirect aftereffects of the colonial era. Without historical knowledge of this period and its enduring impacts, including neocolonial structures, we have little chance of properly comprehending our present.10

←9 | 10→

A further factor of substantial significance is the complex and far-reaching movements of migration which we are currently experiencing worldwide. In Europe in particular, one of their effects is to increasingly erase the spatial distance that had hitherto separated the arenas of experience and memory of former metropolitan centers and their erstwhile colonial territories and had long enabled a dominant view of colonialism and its consequences as events located outside the Western world without profound impact on the attitudes of European societies with Occidental habitus.

Migration movements to Europe have direct consequences for history teaching due to their effects on the composition of student bodies in European classrooms, which therefore frequently feature social, cultural and experiential backgrounds far beyond the frames of reference determining the typical national narratives proponed in history teaching. This factor exerts a fundamental influence on the entanglements of European history with the history of the world beyond Europe and specifically on the history of colonialism with all it brought in its wake. In addition to this, not insignificant numbers of students with non-European or non-Western backgrounds find themselves confronted with diverse racial stereotypes11, many of which are reminiscent of colonialist patterns of thinking. In the face of this situation, history teaching finds itself urgently called upon to critically reflect on the Western, or European, narratives that dominate its exercise in the classroom. It is beyond question that the teaching of history represents a significant societal locus of discussion and negotiation around social identities and modes of inclusion or exclusion. Central elements of the discourse that emerges here include the traditional image, or, more correctly, self-image of Occidental-European history as the epitome of ‘modernity’, ‘progress’ and ‘humanity’ and the role assigned to colonialism within this notional framework. A further issue here is the critical consideration of whether, and in which form, colonial mentalities remain ←10 | 11→implicitly present in the national ‘master narratives’ of history as it is currently being taught in Europe’s classrooms.12

In this context, those engaging in scrutiny of the depiction of colonialism and its aftereffects, and of its status, in history teaching have on occasion received innovative inspiration from civil society stakeholders. In some European states, people from former colonies are today speaking out more confidently and emphatically than has previously been seen, and pointing via projects with high public impact to the presence of ‘forgotten’ manifestations of the colonial past, both material in nature and evident in ideas, in the everyday European world13. The carriers of such traces ←11 | 12→include street names, monuments and indeed textbooks. Those identifying and raising awareness of them thus shine light on the fact that the cultural heritage of colonialism is in evidence in the former metropolitan centers and that, as such, colonialism is a part of European history in Europe itself. These activities amount to a call by civil society actors for a Western/European culture of memory which no longer cordons off, represses or minimizes the significance of colonialism and slavery to the continent’s history. Indeed, they go beyond this ambition and seek to induce a shift in awareness around colonialism’s frequently unrecognized cultural legacy. This would imply a critique of numerous Western/European terms, categories and notions which currently ‘go without saying’, in an attempt to identify whether, and if so, the extent to which, they carry implicit connections and connotations with colonial and neo-racist stereotypes and other thought patterns.14

We would finally make reference in this context to two relatively recently emerged academic disciplines which have provided those with a critical interest in the depiction of colonial pasts in the present-day history classroom with key ideas and impetus: global history and postcolonial studies. The first of these15, one of whose raisons d’être is to engage closely and intensely with the role of imperialism and colonialism in the history of globalization16, regards European colonialism17 as an integral, ←12 | 13→that is, non-incidental, component of ‘European modernity’ and European ‘nation-building’18. From this perspective, the typical depiction and contextualization of colonial pasts into national historical narratives appear in a more than dubious light. Put simply, these typical European national narratives – including their reproduction in the history classroom – tend to present the colonial past principally as a completely finished epoch in the age of imperialism, which, while it forms a part of national or European history, does not represent a constitutive component of national of European identity in the sense of a ‘negative heritage’. Additionally, these narratives barely perceive or take account of the changes in the society to which they pertain which were wrought by the colonial mentality, nor of the retroaction of colonial practice on European societies.19 The issue of colonialism thus fails to occasion critical reflection on whether the dominant European self-image, with its claim to the humanity and therefore superiority and the universal validity of European values and Western modernity, may be in need of a fundamental reassessment in the light of colonial practices and the ideologies which framed them.

Postcolonial theories20 likewise proceed from the assumption that colonialism and colonial mentalities possess constitutive, and not merely supplementary, significance to our understanding of European history ←13 | 14→and to European identity in general.21 While the study of history didactics has not yet completely mapped or harnessed the potential of these approaches for the field22, we can perceive some of the challenges they present to history teaching. Put very generally, theoretical approaches rooted in postcolonialism23 call for a retrospective ‘decolonization’ of a historical mode of thought whose orientation has remained unchangingly Eurocentric to this day. The principal focus of this critique is the currently predominant European/Occidental self-image which, in the postcolonial view of the matter, emerged in close interrelation to and has received the profound stamp of the long-enduring practices of colonialism. Colonialist notions24, mentalities and imaginings outlived formal colonial power and continue, largely unrecognized and unreflected upon, to perpetuate their influence in the shape of today’s Western/European sense of superiority and mission over and toward non-European states and societies. Postcolonial theories perceive this claim to a historical role as the leaders of civilization to be based on the conviction that the Occidental ideas of ‘humanity’, ‘human rights’, ‘reason’, ‘progress’, and ‘modernization’ can assert universal validity and form the ‘essence’ of European-Occidental ←14 | 15→history and identity, and are not tarnished to any degree by the colonial practices of the past.

The attitude thus described manifests itself in still-widespread tendencies to unabatedly adhere to the notion that colonial rule exerted ‘positive effects’ on colonized societies in their ‘backwardness’ and to racist colonial ideas.25 By contrast, postcolonial positions emphasize the fact that even where a depiction of colonial rule is critical, it will frequently feature typical imbalances. One example might be the tendency for European/Western depictions of colonialism to frame the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized in the one-sided terms of an opposition between the active, dominant ‘us’ and the passive, dominated ‘them’, with the result that colonized people find themselves reduced to the unacceptable status of objects of Western/European action, as they had been in the era of active colonial practice. It goes without saying that this critique does not call into question European responsibility for the abuses committed in the course of the colonial project or the imbalance of power on which the practice of colonialism was predicated. Its aim is the uncovering of a Eurocentric attitude and self-image which, largely unconsciously, is far from comprehending colonial practices as an integral contextual framework encompassing both colonizers and colonized and placing both parties, despite all differences in their positions and experiences, effectively on a level. This limitation in the view of colonialism acts as a block to insight into the quite literal repercussions of colonial rule, which has historically exerted a substantially defining influence not only on the colonial territories themselves, but also on the histories of the former colonial powers. Further, it crowds out any awareness that the self-image held dear by ‘Europe’ or the ‘West’ depended, and continues to depend, at a fundamental level on the ‘colonized’ peoples, due to the inescapable fact that the construction of a self as ‘superior in civilization’, ‘progressive’, ‘humane’, and ‘universally valid’ requires, indeed is predicated upon, the existence of an ‘Other’ constructed as ‘backward’, ‘inferior’, ‘barbaric’, and ‘particular’. This attitude in its turn stands in fundamental contradiction to those historically ‘singular’ values and principles, such as the natural liberty, ←15 | 16→equality and solidarity of all people, which the European sense of mission likes to summon as witnesses to its self-image.

Postcolonial approaches thus emphasize the fact that colonialism is not identical to its pragmatic political dimension. The end of colonialism as a historical epoch by no means heralds the disappearance of the colonialist mentalities and imaginings so deeply rooted in the ‘modern’ ‘West’; they live on, some in altered form, and in spite of the far-reaching denial, ignorance or ‘invisibling’ to which they are subject. All this challenges the teaching of history in our schools to engage more closely and intensely with the history of colonialism and its aftereffects than it has done hitherto. If changes acknowledged as necessary are to be effected, however, it is equally important in this context for history educators and educationalists to critically examine their own presumptions, notions and terminologies for implied elements of ‘Eurocentrism’ and of the ‘coloniality of power’26 that have thus far remained overlooked.

For the reasons outlined above, the history and aftereffects of colonialism and postcolonial approaches to history have been attracting increased attention in the academic discipline of history didactics. Various instances of research, such as history textbook analyses which progress beyond exploration of the significance and depiction of the issues of colonialism and decolonization by critically interrogating these publications to uncover the traces of implicit colonial ways of thinking, bear witness to this upsurge in interest in the topic.27 The findings of such studies, a number of which proceed in a comparative manner, demonstrate unambiguously that history educationalists need to take the issue of the ‘decolonization of historical thinking’ seriously as an important task facing their profession.

This said, we find ourselves obliged at this point to train a spotlight on comprehensive and worrying omissions in the research. One of these relates to the absence from the extant body of work of studies which give an international overview of the status afforded to the issues of colonialism ←16 | 17→and decolonization, and their depiction, in current curricula revolving around national histories28 and history textbooks.29 Further, we have no overall knowledge of whether history educationalists or representatives of related disciplines internationally are engaging with these issues, which questions are guiding their research, where it is taking place, and how they are responding to the impetus delivered by the sub-field of postcolonial studies.30

This inadequacy in general awareness of research activities in the field forces us to rely for the time being on hypotheses and assumptions which will need to be tested in further research. One of these assumptions is that colonialism as a topic area, conceived of in a broad sense to encompass decolonization and the aftermath of the colonial era, has an at least marginal place in most national history curricula worldwide. Driving this supposition is our awareness that the issue is one with global impact, having influenced the history of a very large number of states and macro-regions, and with close links to a range of other canonical themes of history, such as imperialism, the two world wars, and the Cold War. However, this assumption alone leaves us barely any further on than we were; we remain uncertain, in the absence of detailed analyses, of the position and function of this issue in national narratives, of the manner of its presentation, and of whether postcolonial approaches make a consistent and influential appearance – which last is admittedly improbable at this moment in time.

We additionally proceed from the further assumption that curricula for the teaching of national histories primarily present the issue of colonialism, again in its broader sense, from a specifically national point of view rather than conceiving of it from the transnational global history ←17 | 18→perspective as a substantial component part of European or Western ‘modernity’. Taking a transnational view of these issues enables us to identify extremely close links between the history of (later) colonialism and the fundamental convictions upon which the ‘modern age’, itself a central pillar of the Western/European self-image, rests. The unlimited faith in ‘progress’ ubiquitous across all sectors and strata of Occidental society was indivisibly connected to the firm belief in the fundamental superiority and destined global leading role of Western or European culture and, to an extent, the European ‘race’.31 These connections manifest themselves in such phenomena as the widespread hailing of the expansion of colonial rule in the Western/European sphere as a ‘progressive’ project on, for instance, economic, civilizatory, racial or scientific grounds. This was an attitude by no means limited to Western/European states with colonies; it was shared by many which did not pursue active colonial policies, yet – which possibly explains their assent to these ideas – often participated indirectly in colonial imperialism through activities including unofficial relationships of trade, missionary work and academic research. The difference between specifically national approaches to the history of colonialism32 and those supported by a transnational concept does not consist in a denial or erasure of the key ideological precepts and colonial, partially racist, constructs at the center of the colonial project; indeed, both types of approaches generally include discussions of these matters. Instead, the most significant difference appears in the complete isolation and separation, in histories with national emphasis, of the ideological attitudes and tropes intimately connected with colonialism from the typical narrative ←18 | 19→so frequently headed in textbooks and curricula on national history with a formula such as ‘The Path to the Modern Age’, referring, of course, to the nation state in question and the European Occident. Such approaches distinguish themselves principally by their failure to depict and discuss the interrelationships among these elements of the discourse.

A further assumption underlying our exploration of the issue is that the curricula and textbooks of Western-influenced European states tend to allocate only a marginal role to the history of European colonialism in their narrative construction of the historically-founded national identity they seek to present and transmit. It appears to be a general principle governing the narratives of national histories that events and processes which took place within the boundaries of the core nation’s territory and directly affected its population are of greater significance for the construction of national history than are other historical events which unfolded outside the nation or at the imperial periphery, or are perceived in the collective memory to have done so. This means that ‘memories’ of national or European colonialism cannot compete in the national history narratives conveyed in schools with other, more ‘direct’, national memories of events and upheavals such as political change, wars and civil wars, the imposition of foreign rule, national resistance, victory, liberation, or the attainment or reattainment of national sovereignty. We thus assume that the colonial past has a peripheral status in the history taught in the classrooms of Western/European states.

Finally, on the rather slight basis of extant textbook analyses on this subject, and despite the gaps that are more than apparent in this body of work, we can identify indicators of some typical characteristics of the configurations of ‘colonialism’ as a topic in curricula and textbooks from Western/European states whose principal purpose is the teaching of national histories. These include the factor of whether the country had its own colonies, the role of academic history in the country or countries in question, competition among divergent ‘memories’ in national spaces of memory, and the way in which the nation handles its ‘negative’ historical legacies. These tendencies, as we will go on to explicate, may be present in a variety of permutations.

Commencing with European states, we open this overview with two case studies on the significance of the issue of ‘colonialism’ in contemporary ←19 | 20→Estonia and Poland33 whose findings, we hypothesize, can stand for further comparable instances. These two exemplary cases share a lack of historical colonial possessions and the experience of the deprivation of national sovereignty from the eighteenth century at the latest34 to the end of the Second World War. Like many other states in Central and Eastern Europe, they were occupied during the war and subject during the Cold War to Russian domination. The history textbooks of both states, while they do include discussion of the early and later phases of European colonialism, are clear in their categorization of this history as a history of ‘others’, that is, of other European states which were colonial powers and maintained colonial possessions. The message thus transmitted is that the history of European colonialism is of no import to the construction of these states’ own national identity due to the lack of a connection between colonialism and the course of Estonian or Polish history. The narratives in these countries’ textbooks are accordingly far from raising the question of whether, a lack of actual colonial possessions notwithstanding, Estonian or Polish society may have been indirectly involved in colonialism, through such activities as Christian mission, trade and colonial societies.35 They are likewise silent ←20 | 21→on whether, and if so, to what extent colonial ways of thinking or racist colonial stereotypes were endemic in parts of Estonian or Polish society, as the expression, for instance, of belief in the general ‘civilizatory’ superiority of Europe or in the spirit of agreement with the notion of a white man’s ‘mission’ to bring European ‘progress’ to the ‘backward’ outer reaches of the world. In this attitude, Polish and Estonian textbooks are completely in line with public historical discourse and the emphases of national historiography in these nations. While both states identify today with ‘Western Europe’ or ‘Western modernity’, a self-positioning pointedly intended to set them apart from Russia, they evidently do not consider this identification to incorporate the challenge of integrating the ‘negative heritage’ of European colonialism into their national ideas of themselves. This said, ‘postcolonial’ theories are anything but irrelevant to this setting; historical and cultural studies in Poland and the Baltic region use them as springboards for the interpretation of (Soviet) Russian dominance in the region as ‘intra-European colonial rule’.36 It is an approach reflected at least partially in the narratives found in textbooks, although its manifestation leaves intact the distanced position taken by national histories in these cases toward ‘traditional’ European colonialism as an integral component of European ‘modernity’. It would seem, going by this evidence, that there is no connection between the ‘victims’ of Russian ‘colonialism’ in Europe ←21 | 22→and those of European colonialism in Africa and Asia, save via a theoretical concept.

This representation of European colonial history as exclusively a history of ‘others’ in the textbooks of European states which had no colonies of their own is a widespread pattern. Yet it is not without its exceptions. Switzerland offers a counter-example of engagement with the colonial past by states without histories of being colonizers. Its interaction with the issue points to a potential way of approaching a nation’s relationship with European colonialism which impacted its history despite the lack of an active colonial policy. Further, this example bears witness to the great significance of national academic histories and historiographies to the development of textbooks and curricula, in light of the fact that the history taught in a nation’s classrooms rarely touches upon themes not discussed in national historiography. For some years now, a number of Swiss historians have been undertaking research on ‘Swiss colonialism without colonies’ which has generated considerable attention37. Alongside the exploration of the colonial mentalities and racist colonial stereotypes which circulated to profound effect in Swiss everyday life, this research seeks to illuminate the various ways in which Switzerland participated indirectly in European colonialism and in so doing has uncovered the link between a national history ‘without colonies’ and transnational European colonialism. Its findings have inspired, inter alia, the creation of teaching and learning materials38 whose purpose is to familiarize Swiss history teachers with this ←22 | 23→postcolonial view of the traces of Europe’s colonial history in their nation and offer them options for their day-to-day practice. The issue of indirect Swiss involvement in colonialism has begun to appear in newly created textbooks.39 These developments open up a potential opportunity for the issue to exert an impact in teacher training and new curricular guidelines and textbooks for the subject of history.

Turning now to the representation of colonial history in history textbooks from European states which did hold colonies, we observe that the matter of colonial possessions may play a significant role in nations ‘historiographical minimization of their part in European colonialism. In Italy, Belgium, and Germany, for instance, we can perceive tendencies to emphasize the – compared to the British or French colonial empires – small size of the area over which these nations’ colonial activities extended and the relatively brief duration of their colonial activities. In this way, such states pull off the feat of simultaneously raising the issue of their colonial history and asserting that European colonialism was actually in essence perpetrated by ‘others’.

We further note that the interaction of the factors we discuss above, particularly states’ desires to avoid potential political conflicts and controversies, can lead to the relative marginalization of national histories of colonialism in the historical narratives presented in the classroom. A recent textbook study from Belgium supplies a highly illustrative and indicative example of this phenomenon. It found that Belgian colonialism remains a little-discussed issue the teaching of the country’s history in its schools to this day and as yet is far from incorporation into the construction of national identity as a ‘negative heritage’. In line with the public culture of memory which predominates in contemporary Belgian society, history textbooks currently in use continue to depict King Leopold II (1865–1909), the second monarch of the Kingdom of Belgium established in 1831, as a figure for national identification connotated with exclusively positive qualities. The dominant narrative credits him with having brought riches and renown to the young Belgian state, transformed Brussels into a metropolis and combated the African slave trade. By contrast, historical ←23 | 24→studies, such as that by Adam Hochschild (1998)40, which have uncovered a shocking level of uninhibited violence and exploitation in the early stages of Belgium’s colonial activities, effectively fall upon deaf ears, indeed presumably finding more frequent entry into the textbooks of other European states which seek in their turn to provide lurid examples of the cruelty that accompanied the colonial rule exercised by ‘others’.

In interpreting its findings, the study primarily cites the profound tensions within Belgian society that issued from the conflict between the Flemish and Walloon populations. The Belgian government has long avoided giving prominence and emphasis in history teaching, and thereby in public cultures of memory, to matters which run the risk of additionally increasing the potential for conflict in this already deeply divided society. Belgian colonial rule in Central Africa is undoubtedly such an issue due to its association with matters of historical responsibility and reparation in the present. Further complications arise from the fact that both the Flemish and the Walloon population are showing an increasing tendency to regard Belgium’s colonial past not as a matter that concerns them, but rather as an affair of the ‘Belgian state’, with which, as a rule, neither group primarily identifies. In this way, the collective memory of the Belgian colonial past is successively losing the population which might jointly maintain it. The study indicates that no particularly emphatic calls or initiatives for change to the current status quo have emerged from civil society, a silence in which one of the determining factors is likely to be the small numerical size of postcolonial migrant-background communities in Belgium.41

The example of Germany differs from that of Belgium in the fact that the ‘negative heritage’ of Germany’s colonial past is not compelled to confront a version of national history built around patriotic pride. The role of Germany in the First World War, the National Socialist dictatorship, the Second World War and the Holocaust stand irrevocably in the way of the ←24 | 25→reiteration of familiar patriotic self-lionizations in history teaching, and certainly did so in West Germany after 1945. We can observe here what we might call a marked competition between various forms of ‘negative heritage’, which has tended to push Germany’s colonial history into a background role in classroom historical narratives.

The unprecedented outrages against humanity perpetrated by the National Socialists have brought four key factors, which remain in effect today, to bear on perceptions of Germany’s colonial past in history teaching. First, the colonial rule exercised by Germany tends to be considered as relatively brief and insignificant. Second, German classroom narratives assert that the levels of violence and numbers of victims of the colonial era place it far behind the crimes of the Nazi period. Third, its chronological distance from the present mitigates against its significance, enabling its definition or dismissal as the antecedent past to the Nazi era, as colonialism was formally at an end by the close of the First World War. The fourth, and decisive, aspect in this regard is the fact that to this day, familiar perceptions of the ‘Third Reich’ categorize it as a political system with no structural connection whatsoever to German colonial rule, despite the shared foundations of both upon racist ideologies. History textbooks in West Germany began in the 1970s to include critical discussion of Germany’s colonial period, making explicit mention of acts of colonial violence such as the massacres of the Herero and Nama. This notwithstanding, Germany’s colonial history remained isolated from the Holocaust-centered German master narrative. Putting it very simplistically, we might observe that a historical self-image persists in Germany which gives such weight to the ‘negative heritage’ of the Holocaust that German colonialism, and the crimes committed in its name, barely registers on the scales.42

←25 | 26→

The example of Germany further bears witness to the key role of academic history for the teaching of the subject in schools. Some German historians began relatively recently to call for the location of National Socialism within a context of European ‘coloniality’ whose roots lie well back in the nineteenth century, thus suggesting a framework which would uncover a connection between the ‘Third Reich’ and Germany’s colonial record and increase the significance of colonialism’s ‘negative heritage’ for Germany today. These debates are currently ongoing; while they proceed, new history teaching and learning materials, inspired by postcolonial approaches, are appearing on the market, illuminating the entanglements of colonialism and National Socialism via a spotlight on various forms of racism and linking these issues to matters of great currency via their contextual regard for present-day Germany as a society influenced by immigration.43


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
2019 (Februar)
History Education Teaching Colonialism International History Didactics Postcolonial theory History textbooks Global education
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien. 2019. 360 pp., 4 b/w tab.

Biographische Angaben

Susanne Popp (Band-Herausgeber:in) Katja Gorbahn (Band-Herausgeber:in) Susanne Grindel (Band-Herausgeber:in)

Susanne Popp is professor of Didactics of History at the University of Augsburg (Germany). Katja Gorbahn is associate professor of German language, literature, and culture at the Aarhus University (Denmark). Susanne Grindel is head of the staff unit ‘key issues’ at the Philipps-University of Mannheim (Germany).


Titel: History Education and (Post-)Colonialism
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
362 Seiten