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The presence of the past: selective national narratives and international encounters in university classrooms

In mid-February 2017, the BBC started airing SS GB, presenting viewers with an alternate outcome of the Battle for Britain, this time won by Nazi Germany. This dramatised version of a 1978 novel is only the latest in a series of (British) cultural products engaging with World War II history and its persistent cultural narratives. More than 70 years after World War II ended across Europe and Asia, it continues to have a strong hold on national imaginations both in terms of popular culture and governmental narratives.

The question of how to remember past events such as World War II has long become official business. Governments, intent on sustaining unifying national narratives, therefore choose what and how the past should be remembered and told, for example through teaching history at secondary schools and memorials/museums.

These choices have become the subject of an academic debate in the fields of memory and reconciliation studies. For how states choose to remember tells us something important about how they see themselves which can have decisive effects on how they are seen by others. The fact that France or the United Kingdom are still struggling to integrate self-critical examinations of their colonial histories into official remembrance and the history curriculum therefore points to the deep unease states may feel when it comes to the negative sides of their past. It is obviously more attractive to celebrate heroic achievements of the past than to bring the harsh reality of colonialism into the open. As Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, remarked when talking about the UK: “Maybe we mention a little bit of slave trade here and there, a few wars here and there, but the chapters we insist on are the sunny ones.”

Apart from allowing us to access state identity, how states deal with their past can also have important consequences for their interactions with each other. In the context of World War II remembrance, Japan remains uneasy in engaging with its role as an aggressor in the Asia-Pacific, a position that continues to have an adverse influence on its relations with South Korea and China. Ironically, in East Asia, disputes about the past and ways of remembering it appear more current in 2017 than they did in the immediate aftermath of World War II, as reports on anti-Japanese sentiment in China illustrate.

holocaust memorial
Holocaust Memorial [explored] by Jaime Pérez, CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Interestingly, much academic and public debate on memory concentrates on the role of political elites. But we cannot simply assume that the general public accepts and shares whatever narrative of the past is presented to them. People’s understandings of past events will be influenced by the chosen portrayals of their governments because they have been socialized into ways of understanding. The German government’s decision to build a memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe in central Berlin, which opened in 2005, therefore certainly affects the German public’s way of understanding their country’s violent past. But socialization into official historical knowledge does not by necessity equal a simultaneous acceptance of that knowledge.

These types of questions are particularly relevant for academic staff teaching politics and international relations at increasingly internationalized higher education institutions. In classrooms that often feature 20+ different nationalities, the teaching space becomes a room for encountering different versions of history. While currently enrolled university students, often born after 2000, are far from temporally proximate to past violent events such as World War II, they may exhibit entrenched views derived from official selective versions of history. This can lead to elements of surprise when students realize that there are “other” versions of “what happened” while discussing history and current issues with students from opposite sides of the world.

The significance of this encounter comes out in a piece of student artwork produced in the context of a university seminar on reconciliation (taught by Seunghoon Emilia Heo at Ritsumeikan Asia-Pacific University). Entitled “The Others in Us”, this picture highlights how borders drawn in the national imagination of the past create distinctions between “us” and “them” and often serve to conceal commonalities.

The Other in Us by Nguyen Huu Phu Gia, designed by Vo Ha Chi. Used with permission

Selective and often exclusively positive portrayals of national pasts can therefore work to the detriment of encouraging thoughtful historical dialogues that already include multiple ways of understanding. These can then become the basis for reflective insights. Similar sentiments are echoed in Bill Clinton’s recent tribute to Martin McGuiness, a key figure in the Northern Ireland peace process: “He expanded the definition of ‘us’ and shrunk the definition of ‘them’”. Realizing the part that relinquishing non-reflective understandings of the past play in this makes for an important learning experience for students of politics in increasingly international classrooms. It can also provide clear insights to countries still dealing with the legacy of World War II today.

Featured image credit: “classroom” by wokandapix. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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