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If you are going to rewrite history, do it properly

Posted by Helen Monday, October 25, 2004

Yesterday’s Sunday Times carried a somewhat confused article with many different subjects and opinions from all sorts of people, whose main theme was how history is perceived. Or that is what I think its main theme was.

It focused on a most peculiar textbook that seems to have been published in Belgium by, we are told, the Belgian Office of the European Parliament, but with EU money. This is the first volume of Histoires de l’Europe and is intended for the country’s schoolchildren.

This is another twist in the ongoing saga of the European history textbook that will, ... well how shall I put it, ... exclude certain unpleasant aspects of European history. Like wars and conquestst and nasty people. In fact, all the things that make the study of history interesting.

This effort seems to have excelled itself. First of all, it is in French, which means that half Belgium will refuse to read it. Secondly, while incredibly lavish, it devotes four pages to each of the present and possible future members of the EU, even though the span of the volume is two millennia.

Not having seen the book itself and having to rely on rather waffly and hysterical journalistic accounts, I cannot quite tell how Belgium, which has existed since 1830 can merit the same number of pages as Britain. But, I suppose, half a page might have been devoted to Flanders and Burgundy.

The real problem seems to be the somewhat eccentric way of dealing with the twentieth century. (Well, apart from inaccuracies in dates, that is.) The Second World War is mentioned in the pages devoted to several countries but not, it seems, in those on Britain. The same goes for the First World War. The only thing of note that happened in Britain between 1931 and 1949 (formation of the Commonwealth and independence of India and Pakistan) was the arrival of Charles de Gaulle, clearly the only European who put up any kind of resistance to the Nazi (woops, no, they are not mentioned either) German invasion. Germany is there but apparently not the Nazis, though there is a throw-away comment that Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. Somebody had to be Chancellor, I suppose.

Peter Thomas, director of the Belgian section of the European parliament’s Office of Information, explained that all this complaining is completely unnecessary as the book was just a textbook and was not scientific. No reason why a history book should be scientific, unless you happen to believe in scientific materialism, an ideology long past its sell-by date, but it ought to be historical. Or, in other words, it ought not leave out large and important chunks of the history it is supposed to cover. As this is volume I, perhaps, all the excisions will be in volume II.

The oddest thing is that before publication the book was sent round to all the ambassadors who gave their opinions. Clearly they did not reply in time as the negative opinion sent by the Hungarian and Turkish envoys to Belgium had not prevented the pages they disliked from being published. We do not know what the Hungarian ambassador objected to. Perhaps, the inclusion of Romania among European countries, perhaps an inability to spell Mohács or Székesfehérvár correctly. Whatever it was, the pages had to be torn out before the book could be sold to the Sunday Times journalist.

I call that rank amateurism. Why did they not have other pages to substitute? The whole thing ought to have been produced in the form of a loose-leaf file, so pages readers or potential buyers are dissatisfied with could be replaced with other, more congenial ones. These people should learn some history themselves. In particular, they ought to learn the well-known story of what happened when the relevant volume of the Large Soviet Encyclopaedia arrived at the homes of the subscribers, just before Lavrentiy Beria became an unperson. Every subscriber then received instructions to cut out the pages that had a long entry on someone who clearly did not exist, had never existed and could never have existed, and to substitute similarly numbered pages, which, quite properly, covered the Bering Strait in great detail. That is how these things should be done.