Uwe Gartenschlaeger

Why should adult education concern itself with history? What contribution can it make to addressing and resolving conflict situations? Using examples drawn from Germany, South Eastern Europe and Uzbekistan, the author shows how adult education can help, and describes the transnational project "Remember for the Future" conducted by the IIZ/DWin the Stability Pact region, which has the aim of encouraging reflection among young people in particular and of suggesting methods to deal with recent history and build bridges between people who may still belong to opposing sides of a conflict. Between 2002 and mid-2006, the author was head of the IIZ/DW Regional Office in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Since then he has been back at headquarters in Bonn, responsible for Central and South Eastern Europe.

Remembering for the Future

Experiences and Ideas for Adult Education

Why history? Is it not better to forget the past, especially if it was painful, or even bloody and full of conflicts? Why torture oneself with such memories? Let us look forward, full of fresh optimism, and start anew! This point of view is often heard, particularly in areas of the world which have experienced upheaval, or perhaps war, civil war or "ethnic cleansing", to use the term current at the end of the 20th century. Another common way of dealing with the past is to see what happened in terms of ready-made stereotypes. Frequently, but not always, these are created and propagated for political reasons, and it is astonishing how long-lived they are. They always contain a grain of truth, but only a grain. What matters more is that they remain unquestioned and are accepted almost as sacred truths. "We know what the others are like, they've always been like that, history proves it, and they'll never change." So there is no point in looking at things in a new way or with greater subtlety.

Hundreds of examples could be given of both these types of behaviour. The suppression of history is familiar to us in Germany from the 1950s and '60s, when no one wanted to know about the horrors of National Socialism. The feeling at the time was, Yes, it was a terrible time of turmoil, but let us get stuck into creating the "economic miracle". In Russia, too, this view is widespread. There is little discussion of Stalinism, and no condemnation of any of the thugs involved in that regime of terror. There are certainly good political and psychological reasons for this attitude, but it is also extremely naive and short-sighted. One cannot behave as though nothing had happened, and it does not help to give the younger generation no answers to the question of what happened in the past. The only people whom it benefits are the Nazis and Stalinists, who base their myths and distortions on the ill-considered half-knowledge of the majority of the population.

This kind of behaviour also demonstrates a lack of respect for the victims. What else but public and private remembrance can help to restore to them their lost dignity and to heal the wounds? Time alone cannot do so.

It is also common for myths to be created out of the fertile ground of history itself, which is a quarry to be mined selectively by the producers of these myths, who pick out what fits their world view. If it did not have such tragic consequences, it would be fascinating to observe how tenacious certain perceptions are, that a Serb "is born with a knife in his mouth", for instance, that "anyone of Caucasian nationality is invariably sly and violent", that a Jew is always "rapacious", a German a "Nazi" and so on. All these convictions rest on a particular interpretation of history, frequently by people who have had no contact with any representative of the nationality in question at any time of their lives. In Germany and Poland, the term "antisemitism without Jews" is sometimes used. And these beliefs are dangerous.

In looking at how to deal with historical topics, the focus of this article will consistently be on the general population. Academic and political discussion is important, but definitely needs to be complemented by a wider discussion of historical themes. This will become particularly clear if we look not only at the social impact of history but also at the individual, at how a wide range of people deal with history: politicians, academics, artists, teachers and ordinary people.

Three examples will be given below of the contribution of adult education. In each case, the initial situation will be described, followed by examples of the methods employed. Examples two and three refer essentially to the work of this Institute in particular regions.

Example 1: Germany

The difficulties associated with German history in the 20th century can be summed up in a few words: National Socialism, Auschwitz, war, expulsions and partition of the country are inalienable parts of that history. It is therefore not surprising that many people did not want to look back after 1945, and to a lesser extent after 1989. Instead, they wanted to forget quickly, to start again, and to bury the rubble of the past quietly in a rubbish tip. By the mid or late 1960s at the latest, it became apparent that this was not possible or healthy, when members of the younger generation began asking questions, in public as well as in private. In public, questions were asked about the part played by Nazis in building up the Federal Republic, why more of them had not been brought before the courts, and the role of the so-called elites, such as businesspeople, in establishing National Socialism. This debate among politicians, historians and journalists was accompanied by many painful experiences within families, when children started asking questions such as, "Daddy, what were you doing then?", "Why didn't you stand up against it?", "What are you guilty of?", or "What happened to the Jews who used to live next door to you?"

This debate became much broader in the 1970s, and a number of methods were developed, making particular use of adult education:

  • The role of places of remembrance already has a long tradition. The heart of the idea is "learning at authentic sites" - the notion that it is easier to learn about certain historical developments where the historical events actually took place than in the classroom or at an adult education centre. Concentration camps were one of the first places where this idea was practised and refined with young people and adults. At the core of it is a perception of learning that appeals to all the senses equally and is based on a mixture of a wide range of different activities. In the morning, for instance, a group might work on maintaining the site, restoring buildings or looking after lawns. In the second half of the day, the programme might include a small research task in the archives, conversations with former inmates of the concentration camp, a guided tour or short lectures. Learners also had the opportunity to express their feelings and impressions using various creative methods (video, artistic activities).
  • So-called "history from the bottom up" projects were developed. Underlying this very widespread and varied approach was the idea that the history of ordinary people, of one's own urban area or village, of a particular occupational group, etc., was worth investigating. "Local history initiatives" sprang up, to research their own local residential area or working environment, often led by a teacher. Local records were checked, eye-witnesses were interviewed (see below), and the results were published and discussed at meetings. Sometimes the adult education centre offered premises and support, and experienced adult educators facilitated the group. Many remained independent "history workshops", however, set up voluntary associations and rented premises, frequently empty shops, which is why these projects were often known as "history shops".
  • One crucially important method was the use of contemporary eyewitnesses, which has already been mentioned. This is based on the idea that those who took part in historical events should describe their impressions, assessments and experiences. However, this approach needs to be handled very carefully. For one thing, the process of remembering is very complex, and the mistake must naturally not be made of regarding what is remembered as the objective truth. Secondly, eye-witnesses are often people of advanced age, who may enjoy "delving" into their memories but need careful guidance if they are not to make too many demands of themselves and others. Interviews with eye-witnesses are therefore led by a trained moderator, and the eye-witnesses themselves are often given brief training. Despite this reservation, this method is widely used today in many different contexts (schools, youth work and work with the elderly, at places of remembrance, etc.). In the 1980s, a Presidential competition entitled "Everyday life under National Socialism" played an important part in Germany. This was sponsored by a private foundation, and required school pupils and young people to investigate a variety of topics over the period 1933 to 1945, by interviewing older people, using local archives and commenting on newspapers of the time. The scheme unleashed an avalanche of contributions, which shed light on the history of almost every locality at that time and had a lasting impact on a whole generation, who came to realise that National Socialism did not consist solely of Hitler and Himmler, but that millions of ordinary Germans had sadly been involved in the crimes of the period as well. In the late 1990s, the competition also began to look increasingly at the treatment of the history of the GDR and post-war Germany.

It is clear from this description that many of the methods developed arose in a specifically German context, in which the need for collective and individual remembrance and understanding of National Socialism was and is generally recognised. However, this Institute has been trying since the 1990s to enable these experiences and methods to be used in other regions of the world. This has meant adapting the approach to particular situations and mastering the difficult task of suggesting ways of using it that might be acceptable to people of other cultures.

Example 2: South Eastern Europe

It is generally known how the "ghosts of the past" re-awoke in the 1990s in a collapsing Yugoslavia and plunged the region into a series of bloody civil wars and conflicts. It was horrifying to see how easily certain self-seeking politicians and warlords succeeded in evoking old stereotypes once more and whipping up peoples one against the other. The negative impact on the present of looking at history was plain for all to see.

This Institute therefore decided five years ago to pay greater attention to how history was being handled in the region. The unique aspect of the approach is its multinational character, since it was obvious from the outset that the problem lay chiefly in the historical perception of "others", who were blamed for everything bad on the basis of supposed historical experience. The following goals were therefore drawn up:

"The goals of the History Project are connected to the general goals of the project activities of llZ/DWin the South East European region, with a special focus on history teaching, reconciliation in the region and the human rights approach. IIZ/DW through the project aims:

  • To foster peace, democracy, respect for human rights and work for hope and reconciliation in South Eastern Europe
  • Setting a new approach to different history stories in order to provoke a dialogue between people who shared a common past
  • Creating a common space for dialogue as a ground for bringing awareness and a secure future
  • Creating a positive attitude towards the common history roots in South Eastern Europe
  • Diminishing the role of the stereotypes and guaranteeing tolerance and respect for "the other", concerning religion, ethnicity, culture, tradition etc.
  • Distributing knowledge and already achieved good practices
  • Stimulating the joint endeavours of different organizations (governmental and non-governmental), institutions etc. and making them popular for a broader audience
  • Focusing on lifelong learning and adult education - pedagogical approach"

The project opened with a study visit to Germany by representatives of the various countries in the region, during which they learnt about a wide variety of methods. Those taking part in this visit then formed the core of project groups in their own countries. "Remember for the Future - a Travelling Exhibition" was then organized in the region, and was shown in Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria between September and December 2004. The project group in each country, generally young historians and adult educators, decided on a particular topic from the recent history of their country, with the overall result that a fascinating range of different aspects and standpoints was exhibited:

  • Albania: "Spac Prison" - work with contemporary eye-witnesses who had been imprisoned in an internment camp during the communist era
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina: "Sarajevo during the socialist era and in the war of 1992-95"
  • Bulgaria: "Bulgarian socialist youth 1944-1989"
  • Macedonia: "The Future" - this contribution consisted of a brief presentation of Macedonian history during the Ottoman era, a photographic competition on the theme of "Macedonia today", and some information about prominent historical figures in the country
  • Romania: "Armed anti-communist resistance 1944-62"
  • Serbia-Montenegro: "Student resistance 1996-97"

The themes chosen therefore differed greatly and did not follow any unified pattern, thus revealing what each national group regarded as important. The exhibition was visited principally by school classes in each country, and workshops were arranged as part of a support programme.

Anther feature of the project was joint regional training courses for the activists from the different countries, such as (in 2004):

  • "Europe: Ideas and institutions", Sarajevo September 2004
  • "Interactive learning methods", Belgrade November 2004
  • "Minorities and majorities in the Balkans: Paths to understanding", Sofia December 2004

In each project country, a team has now been formed to conduct eyewitness sessions, textbook analysis and much more, with the help of this Institute, with the result that the project is now being taken over by the region.

Example 3: Uzbekistan

The country is one the five Central Asian republics that emerged from the Soviet Union. Historically, there never was an Uzbek state, the region being divided into a number of different emirates and khanates at the end of the 19th century before the Russians marched in. These were not organized along national lines, but were multinational, or rather pre-national. The Russians were able to build up a colonial regime which succeeded, at least during the Soviet era, in presenting itself as the "bringer of culture and progress" (combating illiteracy and oppression of women, introducing industrialization, etc.). It is therefore not surprising that the desire for independence was modest and was not based on a strong national movement, in contrast to the Baltic or the Caucasus, for example. It must be borne in mind that many Uzbek traditions continued to exist in Uzbekistan even during the Soviet era, as a kind of parallel structure.

Each of the new regimes faced the need to justify its statehood ideologically, which also meant historically. Everywhere, glorious epochs were selected from each state's "own" history and placed at the centre of the official view of history. In Tajikistan, this was the so-called Samanid period, when Tajik rulers allegedly governed Central Asia, and in Uzbekistan, the blood-thirsty Amir Timur (Tamburlaine) was chosen as the national hero, whose era was to be - and is - henceforth known as the glorious age of "Uzbekistan". Where Lenin and Marx had once stood, statues of the "greatest Uzbek" now decorate towns and cities, and the Lenin Boulevards are now called "Amir Timur Boulevard".

This ideologized viewpoint leaves the Soviet era out of account, the very epoch that people still alive experienced. The elite now in power has no wish to discuss it, since it has its own roots in that era. After more than 10 years, it is noticeable that myths are starting to form, and the very large numbers of young people in particular only have a vague idea of what things were like. Our project attempts to remedy this situation.

It began with a conference in cooperation with four other German organizations under the title "History and identity". With the help of domestic and foreign experts, the place of history in collective and individual identity was discussed, and the potential importance of dealing with history was shown, using examples drawn from Germany, Russia and Belarus, from debate among academic historians and even from educational work with the elderly. The aim was to raise awareness of the topic among Uzbek specialists.

Project activities then began, involving all five of the organizations and their Uzbek partners. Together with the "Mahalla" Fund, the IIZ/DW set itself the goal of organizing "story-telling chaikhonas" in a total of six pilot mahallas in Tashkent and Bukhara. The format is adapted from the method known in Europe by the name "story-telling cafe", in which eye-witnesses talk about particular aspects of their lives over coffee and cake in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere with a small group of interested people. The experiences recounted by the eyewitness open the way to a discussion in which all those present may take part, contributing their views, thoughts and experiences. Ideally, this leads to a joint process of remembering. An expert from Russia introduced the method to moderators and eye-witnesses at a seminar following the conference, and two such story-telling chaikhonas were then set up in each mahalla participating. As might be expected, there are a few problems associated with these activities. For one thing, it is not usual in Uzbek culture for people to discuss their private memories in public, and it is far more common to hide behind the community, so to speak, and to talk about an imagined collective memory which obscures the individual. There was much discussion of what was "conventional", how one "ought to behave", and what was "customary". Considerable patience and tact were required in order to reach behind this public face and to uncover individual stories - usually hidden in throw-away remarks.

Uzbek society is also organized very hierarchically, which particularly affects the relationship between the generations, and between the genders. It is often very difficult for young people and women to join in the conversations of the old men, let alone to express their opinions freely or even to ask open questions.

Now that the project has been running for about a year, it can be said that the methods originating in the West have met with great interest - older people in particular feel what is probably the universal need to talk about what they have experienced - but there is still a long way to go before the methods can truly be adapted to suit Central Asian culture and are accepted.

The aim of this article has been to give a brief insight into methods of dealing with history used in adult education (and elsewhere). I am certain that the subject will continue to be of topical relevance to many regions in the world, possibly including the Caucasus. At all events, the Institute is willing to support initiatives in this direction.