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Uncritical History and National Identity: The Beginnings of a British Historikerstreit?

9 Jun

I attended the Republic Annual Conference last Saturday and particularly enjoyed a panel on ‘Our Republican Heritage.’ Geoffrey Robertson QC and Edward Vallance first talked about Britain’s republican and radical history. But then the Q&A session turned to a more contemporary and immediate issue, namely the teaching of history.

Vallance brought up the Education Secretary Michael Gove’s plans to emphasise the British Empire in history teaching. Gove recently invited the right-wing historian Niall Ferguson to oversee the introduction of a history syllabus which ensures pupils are aware that modern history is the history of “the rise of western domination of the world.”

Ferguson and Gove’s ideas were opposed by Vallance on the grounds that emphasising Britain’s imperialist past would relegate the history of its radicals who fought for the liberties which we so value today. In the Historikerstreit of the 1980s Jürgen Habermas criticised right-wing German historians and politicians who wanted to revise Germany’s Nazi history to create a ‘useable’ German identity. Vallance followed Habermas’s line of attack in his condemnation of Gove’s attempts to rewrite the history school curriculum for the benefit of conservative political goals.

Update — 10.6.2010

The similarities with the original German Historikerstreit are growing already. Seumas Milne has written an article for the Guardian criticising the planned reforms: ‘Part of the motivation appears to be a doomed and perverted attempt to create a sense of national identity out of a historical inheritance that should be utterly rejected.’

The introduction of the history of British radicalism into the curriculum would certainly be worthwhile. Of course, it is healthy for pupils to be exposed to radical ideas but not necessarily as a part of an attempt to increase the number of radicals in British society. The best reasons for teaching not only about the history of British radicalism but also about the less than glorious parts of Britain’s  past are that it would engender pupils with critical mindsets.

History education should not concentrate on trying to achieve a common understanding of history which can be used to achieved a narrowly patriotic national identity. Indeed, the growing embarrassment at Britain’s imperialist past originally led to the marginalisation of the Empire within history teaching and subsequently within British national consciousness and identity. Similarly, teaching of World War Two history tended in my experience to focus on the successes of the Allies and never on more questionable aspects such as the bombing of Dresden or Soviet war crimes.

History should never be an exercise in merely remembering (or should that be memorising?) Britain’s proudest moments. Nor should it be about creating a supremacist national identity built around British victories and European domination of the world. German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Kniefall at the Memorial for the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto showed remorse for Germany’s Nazi past but it also offered a more self-critical way of understanding and problematising German national identity. It is deplorable that for the most part Britain does not critically engage with its past and its national identity.

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