15 August 2009

Deutsche Geschichte über alles?

The Herald carried an interesting “exclusive” and editorial which caught my eye this morning. The German consul general to Scotland, Wolfgang Moessinger, has claimed that Scottish “children grow up with a negative view of his homeland because the teaching of modern history in schools is dominated by the Nazi era.” Curious point, largely because the Consul General’s point sharply echoes the perplexity I’ve often felt about the history which we were taught in secondary school, which was, as Moessinger suggests, primarily Germanic.

However, our curriculum was in some measure even stranger than the Hitler-centric approach which the Consul criticises. Not for us the simple Nazis. We were lead down the whole porcine path – starting off with scheming Otto von Bismarck’s efforts to unify the various petty duchies of the disparate German states, progressing to the First World War, tarrying over the abortive Weimar Republic, delving into the Nazi’s rise to power, before plummeting into the gunmetal and smoke of the Second War. My teachers were too enlightened to be pushing we hollow-headed pupils towards any theory of the organic evil of the German people or to couch the broad Germanic narrative we pursued as the genesis of Holocaust and War. Yet I’ve never felt comfortable with the choice to teach us so much about the origins and tumults which have torn through and out of Germany in modern history. Why such a sustained focus, why the absence of diversity in our themes? Certainly, other matters were treated across the five years that I studied history in school. Early on, spicy stories of the age of exploration. Later, we spent a term the American Revolution, on the Reform Acts and the extension of the franchise. Yet, as we grew older, and presumably more serious, we were consumed by an unfailing and unmitigated German history. Conspicuous, to some, will be the absence of Scottish stories in this short roll of events.

This is no error. In fact, I was last tutored in any Scottish history in primary school, aged about 8, on the Jacobites of 1745. Thus I could relate to you in (vague) detail about how Germany was unified, but know next to nothing about the Unifications of Crown or Parliament. Bierhall putsches I am familiar with, but was only educated about the Scottish Wars of Independence up to a primary school level. Although we were learning in Scotland, Scotland was historically largely invisible to us. This may be the conscious by-product of the bourgeois conservative, presumably staunchly Unionist, establishment which ran the little educational factory I was subjected to.

However, other elements are likewise neglected. Take the English Civil War. It is rare, I find, that one encounters an educated English person whose schooling has furnished them with much information on this English radical history – in which Scots played a role, despite the occlusions affected by the nomenclature. Which returns us, smartly, to the question – why did they choose these subjects and German subjects so exhaustively? Why were Scottish subjects excluded, almost without exception, from my secondary education? A particular staff member with a Teutonic itch, do you suppose? A consequence of their absence of a national curriculum in Scotland, certainly. Influenced, undoubtedly, by the frame of assessment and questions posed in the Higher History examination papers, drawing teachers by the nose, this way and that.

Neither of these, it seems to me, being a good enough reason to produce a generation of schoolchild-historians experts in German Studies. The premise of the article is that attitudes towards Germans one might encounter in the world and a larger, social image of Germany, is constricted by this lens of historical education, trapped in a vocabulary of swastikas and holocaust. Here I disagree. Matters are obviously more complex. In particular, some Scots and scholars of Scotterie will probably be familiar with the discursive problem posed by dual commitments, to the dislike of “the English” as an imagined community, but positive and connected experiences to individuals. The – potentially confusing – strapline is almost a trope – “I dislike the English but have another against the individual Englishman or woman”. One could analyse this sort of statement in terms of what one jurisprudential scholar styled the “particularity void”. His point, simply put, is that even if you have a legal rule, clear, crisp, without doubt about its application – there is a gap, a void, an imperative hole – between having achieved some sort of universal or generalised formulation of a rule – and applying it to the person standing before you, applying it to the particular. The echoes of this in the English/English individual pairing should be fairly obvious, as should the fact that many Scots would seem to decline to hop the void and apply their general dislike to individuals. Individuality and particularity, much of the time, seems to win out. Equally, others find the jump easier to perform and will be apt to discriminate against particulars, bent by this more generally formulated hostility.

My point, in brief, is that the relationship between ideas and our knowledge about cultures and social units – and the styles and characterisations which we place on that knowledge – entails no necessary expression in the lived experience and interaction with individuals who one identifies as participating in that generalised category. Learning about Nazis certainly furnishes the hostile with a vocabulary and a term of reference which can be negative. Similarly, race-thinking among those who are not systematic racists in their day to day lives can prompt apparently racist rhetoric and responses in moments of tension or conflict. Like much knowledge, however, pitted through with the tension-filled relationship between those ideas and reality as we experience it – its field of influence is ambivalent, capable of reading one way or another, able to determine, but exerting no necessary determining force.

That’s why I doubt that teaching folk about Hitler is the reason why students are dropping off from the study of the German language. Think of all the other, plausible, intelligible reasons why an in situ pupil may find their attention draws elsewhere academically and linguistically. He is right in one respect, however, at least in terms of my own experience. My German historical education was bizarre, the invisibility of Scottish and British sources profoundly silly, whatever differential political significance individuals read into it.


  1. "Why were Scottish subjects excluded, almost without exception, from my secondary education?"

    I think we all know the answer to that little riddle.

  2. I consider myself lucky having had a German teacher who balanced the German history I was force fed.

    As a result my interest in Germany and its history is nearly as strong as my interest in Scottish history. Of course I was taught little or nothing about Scottish history but I was schooled in the 50s and 60s. 'All Germans are evil' was the curriculum.

    When I was a child it was French which was taught as the main language from the age of 7. Why I have no idea as, along with my old school friends, none of us has ever used it.

    Why the drop in pupils taking up German? Are they turning to Spanish? That would be a sensible move as Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the world. Germans still have the reputation as the best engineers though and I note that private language companies are never short of students who wish to learn 'engineering speak'.

  3. As history taught in Scottish schools has been for far too long dictated from England it's not surprising there was A) Little or no Scottish history of note and B) an anti German slant.

    England has never been famed for its pro European stance and clearly smarts from Germany superiority in everything from football to the economy.

    Scots identity has survived assimilation by England ('North Britain' is dead and buried). It's now time for Scots to re-establish its natural links to Germany and strengthen further our European links.

    Let's begin with updating and balancing the history of Europe.

  4. Let's hope you don't get what you wish for as the lesson I learned studying Scottish history is Scotland and England are better together than apart. Damn my staunchly Unionist little educational factory.