Teaching European History in the 21st Century


A short history of the Council of Europe’s efforts to implement multiperspectivity in history education

by Emma Johnson

The debate surrounding multiperspectivity in history will be familiar to most historians and educators – what narratives are given more space in the historiography, whose point of view are we learning from and how do we uncover the missing voices are all familiar questions. Yet more often than not, these are questions we must ask because the material we are provided with – articles, theories, and sources – fail to answer them. Historians have long pressed the benefits of multiperspectivity applied to education (see our previous blog post “What is multiperspectivity?” by Kim Ligtenberg) and its urgency in history teaching. In recent years, this debate has gained momentum in the public sphere as well, mostly surrounding secondary education.[1] Many European countries have begun work to reform their history curriculum in order to also address the more problematic parts of their history, such as the colonial era or the atrocities of war time.[2] While individual countries have begun to work on decolonizing their national curricula, such cases focus on their own national history and are usually steered by the state’s ministry of education, with little signs of transnational perspectives. The “Teaching European History in the 21st Century” (TEH21) project seeks to answer to this lack of multiperspectivity, yet how did members from seven different countries come to write a comprehensive and multi-perspective history of Europe? This blog post looks at the origins of multiperspectivity in European history teaching, what has been done thus far and what challenges the TEH21 project answers to. Furthermore, it underlines the specificity of the European context. Far from arguing that multiperspectivity in European history teaching is a challenge that has been overcome, this blog post seeks to assess how the field has evolved thus far, and what remains to be done.

Calls for a transnational approach to the teaching of European history date back to the late nineteenth century with the so-called “International Textbook Movement,” a network of knowledge-sharing among historians and teachers in Western Europe. In his report titled “History Teaching and History Textbook Revision,”[3] Otto-Ernst Schuddekopf describes how this movement was then picked up by the League of Nations in the wake of the First World War – its early objective was to facilitate a history education that no longer represented a “distorted history that contains the seed of mistrust, contempt, hatred, and war.”[4] Including contending perspectives was seen as a unifying strategy. As such, the international textbook movement was from the very beginning a means towards mutual understanding and peace.
While the Second World War arguably is a testimony to the limited successes of the League of Nations – its educational plan included – the importance of history teaching was not missed. In 1949, the Council of Europe was founded with the goal of achieving “greater unity between European parliamentary democracies.”[5] In the year of its creation, its Consultative Assembly passed a recommendation that called for “the preparation of a series of impartial books dealing with the geography and the history of European countries which brings out the links between them.”[6] In 1952, the Council organised a cycle of six conferences over the following two decades which examined in total over 900 out of the 2000 history textbooks then in circulation in Western European countries.[7] In 1954, the European Cultural Convention was created, serving as an articulating body for the Council’s goals in the areas of education, culture, sport, and youth. The four steering committees worked on Education, Higher Education and Research, Culture, and Cultural Heritage. The overarching goal of these committees was to promote an “awareness of European identity [and] the search for common responses to the great challenges facing European society.”[8]

However, in 1962, a decade after the beginning of the conferences, members found that in almost every single textbook a nationalistic narrative prevailed that, although remaining as factual and objective as possible, almost entirely neglected contending perspectives, the role of smaller countries in international relations, and the histories of different social groups. Interestingly, the idea of one single textbook which would come out of international collaboration and would seek to satisfy all points of view was strongly rejected, as “such a book could hardly be inspired by the spirit of simple truth, and simple truth should be the basis of all history.”[9] At the time, most educators feared that such a textbook would merely impose a singular version of European history, which would not differ much from imposing one national narrative on students.

In 1965, the International Schoolbook Institute in Braunschweig, Germany, entered a collaboration with the Council of Europe in order to act as a “European clearing-house for the exchange of information on history and geography textbooks.”[10] Still operating today under the name of the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, the institute houses the largest collection of textbooks in the world and facilitates research and cooperation amongst European countries on the topics of history and education. With this collaboration came dozens of conferences which aimed to improve history textbooks, the three most important symposia being the 1969 “History teaching in lower secondary education,” the 1979 “Co-operation in Europe since 1945 as presented in resources for the teaching of history, geography, and civics in secondary schools, and the 1990 workshop “History and social studies: Methodologies of textbook analysis.” These conferences brought together thousands of scholars, educators, politicians and historians from all over Europe, with the shared aim to implement a wider variety of histories and perspectives into history textbooks. At the same time, the conferences facilitated the exchange of resources for history teaching in an increasingly globalised Europe. As a result, these initiatives can be said to be the beginning of the modern multiperspectivity movement.

Nevertheless, in the period from the 1950s to the early 1980s, recommendations for multiperspectivity had the goal of advancing the European integration project. In this context, multiperspectivity often did not mean highlighting contending stances between minority groups within one state, or giving voices to formerly colonised groups. Instead, it meant teaching French children how German civilians also suffered during the war, or teaching Italian children that the European project was protecting them from the communist evil.[11] This is made clear by the suggested chapters to be implemented in history textbooks, which emphasised a common Judeo-Christian culture among European states.[12] Topics to be discussed included: “Charles the Great as the ‘father of Europe,’” “Christian traditions as a common foundation,” and “Education and human rights as new basic values.”[13] Little to nothing was said about the diversity within a state, but children were encouraged to think of themselves in an increasingly international context, where Europe had a lot to offer them.[14] As Pingel writes, “the fact that Europe subjugated a large part of the non-European world during the era of imperialism is not exactly concealed, but it does not provide the main theme for textbooks which deal with the 20th century.”[15] While this is undoubtedly a significant change compared with previous decades, which rarely considered neighbouring countries if not as threatening “Others,” multiperspectivity from the 1950s to early 1980s did not include the ethnic, religious, or political diversity within a country.

A report by the Georg Eckert Institute indicates that the revolutions in the Eastern Bloc in 1989 and especially the Fall of the Berlin Wall in November of the same year were the turning point in how history was taught in Europe. History textbooks in both Eastern and Western Europe until then had “assumed quite categorically that the prevailing post-war political and economic situation would continue well into the next century.”[16] When this proved to be untrue, educators and historians began supporting the idea that rather than teaching a static, chronological history, schools should encourage critical thinking and “encourage the pupils to put forward their own, possibly contrary ideas about what the future might hold in store.”[17] This new ideology is directly reflected in the projects of the Council of Europe that followed. In the 1990s, the focus of multiperspectivity shifted from fostering a sense of European identity to building relationships between countries formerly divided by war, notably in Eastern Europe. Projects included the production of transnational Baltic history textbooks on Baltic, Caucasian, and Black Sea history. These projects helped teachers to address sensitive and controversial issues in the countries’ shared histories, as well as how to include multiple perspectives instead of the state-mandated narrative, especially when it came to different ethnic groups.[18]

In 1995, the Council of Europe’s work focused on the situation of national minorities. Article 12 of the Framework Convention which was signed that year stated that “the parties shall, where appropriate, take measures to foster knowledge of the culture, history, languages and religion of their national minorities and of the majority.” Following this, all parties agreed to “provide adequate opportunities for teacher training and access to textbooks.”[19] This latter point is of particular interest as research has shown that along with textbooks, teachers are the most impactful element in shaping students’ knowledge. Like any individual, teachers have their own point of view. In the classroom, they are the ones picking out the relevant chapters in a textbook, selecting the source material, and facilitating discussions. Adequate training and resources thus help reduce the potential biases they might have. Interestingly, these new projects further convinced members that one single European textbook was out of the question. Yet, Maitland Stobart recalls how history professor Evangelos Chrysos, almost like a distant foreshadowing of the TEH21 project, suggested at a 1994 conference an “electronic library of European history for educational use” as an alternative.[20] This database, he argued, should not be a substitute for any national curriculum or textbook, but instead would serve as a way to implement diverse sources and perspectives in the classroom, where needed. This virtual library would allow teachers and students alike to access a multimedia database compiled by a team of international scholars which “would respect the principle of multiperspectivity and present historical events, movements and personalities through several pairs of eyes.”[21] Yet reports on the conference and Stobart’s analysis only mention Chrysos’ idea in passing, with no suggestion that it might have been taken up as a serious project at the time.

The developments in history teaching from 1950 to the late 1990s show that multiperspectivity was identified early on as a gap that needed to be filled in order to foster better relationships between nations. Current analyses show that multiperspectivity has now shifted from highlighting a common ancestral culture towards highlighting diversities and understanding of differences. Furthermore, mutual understanding and diversity is increasingly communicated outside of textbooks, with programs encouraging educational exchanges, cooperation, and study abroad programs, especially under the umbrella of the European Union. The best-known of these initiatives is undoubtedly the Erasmus+Program, which finances the TEH21 project. Its stated goals are to “modernise the education in the member countries, and support the reforms to improve equality of education.”

Despite these initiatives, multiperspective history teaching remains a fiercely debated topic, especially regarding its feasibility. Almost from the beginning, one of the main issues historians found with multiperspectivity was the dilution of content for the sake of covering as many perspectives as possible. The Council of Europe’s 2000 report “The European Home” stressed this in its recommendations, stating that “the emphasis on a European or an international dimension tends to mask the differences that exist between different regions or countries in Europe.”[22] Indeed, while students were increasingly exposed to Europe and globalisation, minorities within their state were further erased from the curriculum. Critics of multiperspectivity argue that finding a suitable balance between the local and the regional is difficult, and one risks falling into yet again a Eurocentric narrative. Furthermore, Stradling’s report underscores that the perspective of both teachers and students will always be “restricted by the range of relevant languages in which they are fluent.”[23] Resources are most easily available in English, yet they are most often written by American authors, and thus seldom reflect a local European point of view. As Jochen Hung explains, “the usual entry-level textbooks used in English-language undergraduate teaching were all written by British, Irish or American authors. As a result, they portray a very specific view on European history – essentially the view of European history as seen from Britain and the United States.” Lastly, Stradling echoes in his report what many teachers lament, which is the difficulty of implementing multiperspectivity with little guidance as to how to filter through the sheer amount of sources that should be taken into consideration. Not only that, but the sources that might contradict the state curriculum’s narrative might be difficult to access.

The TEH21 project had to juggle these complexities during the design and production of a singular European history textbook that still includes multiple national viewpoints and perspectives in the form of its international author team. While the textbook is written in English, each chapter is a collaboration between three to four of the participating academic institutions. The team of authors itself represents experts from seven different countries: Germany, Spain, Czech Republic, Hungary, the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands. Available open access online, the textbook bridges the gap between multiperspectivity and accessibility – while publishing a textbook on European history in English comes with its own set of problems, it remains the most accessible language for undergraduate students across the continent. Furthermore, all resources coming out of the project – i.e. the textbook, the selection of primary sources in their original language and English translation, best-practice guides and supporting lectures – are also Open Source and entirely available online. Lastly, the textbook includes several chapters on Empire and Colonialism, inter-ethnic relations, and on “centres and peripheries” of the European experience – topics that this analysis has shown to have been lacking in previous projects.

While it is of course impossible to fully represent all perspectives within one classroom, multiperspectivity has become inherent to historical research in today’s universities. In line with the increasing demand for better resources, the TEH21 project is only one step in this direction. HISTOLAB, a new collaboration between the Council of Europe and the EU initiated in 2022, is one of the next steps. Its aim is to further a “better understanding of the commonalities of European history, with the goal of fostering a common European identity.” Future projects should continue to question how to combine local and regional narratives, minority groups within states, and how the European experience can complement the national dimension for students, rather than contradict it.[24] [1] Devon Abbey and Bjorn GJ Wansink, “Brokers of multiperspectivity in history education in post-conflict societies,” Journal of Peace Education 19, no. 1 (2022), 67-90.

[2] Bob W. White, “Talk about school: Education and the colonial project in French and British Africa (1860-1960),” Comparative education 32, no. 1 (1996), 9-2.

[3] Otto-Ernst Schuddekopf, History Teaching and History Textbook Revision (Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publications, 1967).

[4] French educator Georges Lapierre in 1926, in: Schuddekopf, History Teaching and History Textbook Revision.

[5] Robert Stradling, Multiperspectivity in History Teaching : A Guide for Teachers (Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing, 2003), 3.

[6] Maitland Stobart, “Fifty years of European co-operation on history textbooks: The role and contribution of the Council of Europe,” Internationale Schulbuchforschung 21, no. 2 (1999), 150.

[7] Stobart, “Fifty years of European co-operation on history textbooks,” 151.

[8] Stradling, Multiperspectivity in History Teaching, 4.

[9] E. Bruley and E.H. Dance, A History of Europe? (Leyden: Sythoff, 1960), 22.

[10] Stobart, “Fifty years of European co-operation on history textbooks,” 149.

[11] Benoit Challand, “European Identity and External Others in History Textbooks (1950-2005),” Journal of Educational Media, Memory, and Society 1, no. 2 (2009), 60-96.

[12] Stradling, Multiperspectivity in History Teaching, 11.

[13] Falk Pingel, The European Home: Representations of 20th Century Europe in History Textbooks (Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing, 2000), 101.

[14] Inari Sakki, “Raising European Citizens: Constructing European Identities in French and English Textbooks,” Journal of Social and Political Psychology 4, no. 1 (2016), 444-472.

[15] Pingel, The European Home, 41.

[16] Pingel, The European Home, 18.

[17] Pingel, The European Home, 18.

[18] Pingel, The European Home, 156.

[19] Pingel, The European Home, 158.

[20] Stobart, “Fifty years of European co-operation on history textbooks,” 152.

[21] Stobart, “Fifty years of European co-operation on history textbooks,” 152.

[22] Pingel, The European Home, 11.

[23] Stradling, Multiperspectivity in History Teaching, 23.

[24] Pingel, The European Home, 35.