History Education and the Weaponisation of the Past: A Regional Analysis

Propaganda poster at the Yerevan Soviet Club I Photo: Insea Kiderlen
Propaganda poster at the Yerevan Soviet Club I Photo: Insea Kiderlen

Decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, school history education is still suffering from the long-term consequences of communist propaganda across some countries once dominated by the Soviet Empire, i.e. Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

To improve history education in these countries and the broader region, EUSTORY, a network of history educators across Europe has joined forces with DVV International, a worldwide organisation promoting adult education and lifelong learning. Since 2017, the partners have implemented several projects that encourage motivated teachers and young people from senior grades to participate in international history competitions. As a result, school youth and educators learn to discover the complexity of the past by working with historical sources and exploring topics absent in national history curricula. To this end, four consecutive projects have been funded by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany and implemented by DVV International and EUSTORY.

In 2023, their most recent initiative - "A Critical Toolkit for History Teaching”- was launched by the two partners. This time the focus is on history-based propaganda, i.e. weaponisation of historical events, figures, and narratives to advance a political agenda. Through cherry-picking facts, misrepresenting historical events, and silencing certain things from the past, such propaganda fosters stereotypes, prejudices, intolerance, and ultimately, wars, such as the one that Russia wages against Ukraine.

A Critical Toolkit for History Teaching" seeks to create a resource tailored specifically for educators in the four countries to help them deal with history-based propaganda in school curricula.

The foundation for this toolkit is the research conducted by experts in four participating countries  and coordinated by Mire Mladenovski, an educator from North Macedonia and former president of the European Association of History Educators EUROCLIO.

Some common challenges in history education identified through the collaborative effort of educators and researchers across the four countries provide an understanding for the flourishing of history-based propaganda:

  • Textbooks are dominated by ethnocentric narratives and biased language resulting in lack of a multi-perspective approach to delivering information;
  • History teachers lack the knowledge and tools to effectively identify and address propaganda in textbooks, and
  • Traditional teacher-centered approaches limit student engagement and critical thinking necessary to cope with propaganda.

As argued by the research authors, the legacy of the Soviet Union casts a long shadow over history education in Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. School textbooks encumbered with ideological biases and a teaching methodology focused on rote memorisation hinder development of critical thinking and independent analysis among students. Excessive centralisation in textbooks and curricula development stands in the way of establishing an educational market. Coupled with the scarce numbers of high-quality pre-and in-service teacher training, this creates fertile ground for manipulating historical narratives.

Despite these challenges, the research also identified prospects for change that are rooted in the willingness of teachers, educators and civil society actors to collaborate across borders. Their commitment to improving history education and paving the way for a more critical and inclusive approach to history education is unwavering as the below summary of their vision for improvement indicates.

  • Promote diverse perspectives, factual accuracy, and unbiased language in textbooks and curriculum materials;
  • Equip teachers with the knowledge and skills to identify and counter propaganda through systematic in-service and pre-service training programs;
  • Encourage student-centered approaches that foster critical thinking, questioning, and debate, and
  • Facilitate knowledge exchange and joint initiatives among educators across the region.

Developing a Toolkit for History Teaching will become a crucial element to bring about this transformation. Project countries have already put together teams of developers that include local educators and NGO activists. In the next several months they will be working on local variations of the Toolkit together with prominent historians from academia. Local civil society partners in the countries include Hazarashen NGO in Armenia, GAHE and SovLab in Georgia, ANTIM in Moldova, and Nova Doba in Ukraine.

In the course of 2024, critical feedback from the practitioners received through project activities in each of the countries will be used to test, evaluate and revise these variations of the Toolkit. Although each country plans to have its own Toolkit, the overarching principles for the development are the same for all, as identified by the research team.

These principles include the need to show examples of history-based propaganda in textbooks and other materials, show the ways how to engage students in critical discussions and debates about historical events, challenge one-sided narratives promoted by curricula, and improve media literacy among students and teachers.

The weaponisation of history is a serious threat, not just to international peace but to the very fabric of democracy and strong civil society. The project team seeks to transform history education from a weapon of division into a bridge of understanding and cooperation by promoting critical thinking, fostering open dialogue, and empowering teachers with the necessary tools.

Read the full research report here.

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