Reimagining Communities: Opening up History to the Memory of Others

By Jean-Louis Durand and Sebastian Kaempf; filmed & edited by Julia Schmitz

Modern nation-states cherish their history. It is a constitutive element of the national collective self-concept that has been used to educate successive generations about the frontiers of the national community, its worth, its values, its place vis-à-vis others, and the trauma and glories that the country had to traverse and that together make it a unique and proud place. Few, if any, instruments shape a nation’s psyche and consciousness more powerfully than the material used in schools. As a consequence, the practice and teaching of history is a foundation stone of national identity and one of the poles of nationalism. As teaching materials, history textbooks are deeply anchored in national traditions that are ultimately used to legitimise the rationale of the nation-state. Their pedagogical vocation makes them constitutive of the national and cultural identity of new generations, and as such they constitute ‘sources of collective memory’ and can thus be read as ‘autobiographies of nation-states’.

What this means is that the writing of history is a highly political process and in order to understand the writing of a particular history properly, it is necessary to engage in political reflection. At least since the early 19th century, history textbooks have been found at the centre of political conflicts about ‘memory’, both internally in national debates and internationally when two countries dispute mutually opposed versions of history. Often, school textbooks present a version of history in total contradiction of a neighbour’s version, for example Japan and South Korea or China, India and Pakistan, West Germany and the German Democratic Republic, the United States (US) and the Soviet Union, or Israel and Palestine. As such, selecting what to include in history textbooks remains an important political stake. It is here where images of the Other are formed, communicated, and oftentimes cemented. This certainly has been the case in France and Germany, the two historical ‘hereditary enemies’ who between 1871 and 1945 fought tree major and catastrophic wars.

And yet, there comes a time when transmitting the history of a national past fails the context of the political present. France and Germany have shared tortuous historical experiences, yet the two are at the forefront of an unprecedented pedagogical development: for the first time ever, two nation-states have created a common history textbook (called Histoire/Geschichte) that is used in their senior secondary schools. As such, each country, to borrow Ernst Gellner’s formula, has abandoned – qua this textbook – its monopoly of legitimate education. Histoire/Geschichte detaches history from its exclusive national past and introduces the learners to a post-national present. It speaks in a tone that is demanded by a different time and by the new conditions of peoples who are living in a common political space. And most importantly, it is designed to transform the image of the Other.

This article, written by Dr Jean-Louis Durand and Dr Sebastian Kaempf from The University of Queensland, reflects on the meaning and reach of this precedent by first analysing the explicit political and pedagogical explanations inherent to the book. It then identifies and investigates some of the less evident effects of the textbook relating to rethinking war and history, rethinking the monopoly of education, rethinking national identity, and to offering another path to rapprochement. The two authors, based as colleagues and friends at the University of Queensland in Australia, grew up about one hundred kilometers from one another across the French-German border (one in Alsace-Lorraine, the other in Baden-Wuerttemberg). They themselves have thereby experienced, at different times, the historic legacy as well as the change in Franco-German relations. From the first steps of rapprochement in the 1950s and 60s to the end of border controls across the River Rhine, both have participated in youth exchanges and the learning of each others’ language and perspective. In the process, they themselves were forced to re-evaluate their emotional and cultural predispositions. A choice had to be made: either to take refuge in the ‘comfort’ and ‘certainties’ of the original position and refuse to contemplate the validity of the alternative, or to venture into the unknown and there dare to see the new reality as it is contemplated through the eyes of the Other. In that sense, the authors today are the outgrowth of the dramatic and remarkable transformation of the shared history between France and Germany – which explains their shared academic interest in exploring the meaning and pedagogy when they found out about this next history textbook. The idea arose immediately to research and write about this book as it lies close to the heart of both authors.

To read the article:

Dr Jean-Louis Durand:

Dr Sebastian Kaempf:

About Sebastian Kaempf

I am a Lecturer in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland in Brisbane Australia and one of the co-convenors of TheVisionMachine. My research interests are in the mediatization of conflict in a transforming global media landscape and ethics and laws of wars in contemporary asymmetric conflicts. For more details on this and list of publications, please visit