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  • History Textbooks and Historical Scholarship in Germany
  • Simone Lässig (bio) and Karl Heinrich Pohl (bio)

Ever since the introduction of compulsory school attendance for all children, school textbooks have enjoyed considerable significance as instruments of socialization, particularly in the eyes of the state. Although we still know little about the ways in which the contents of textbooks are processed and learned, as a medium they undoubtedly influence many people during a phase of the life-cycle which often helps to shape their ideas for the rest of their lives. 'Textbook knowledge' is something that is seen to be the result of social discourse and thus a reflection of the Zeitgeist – and for that reason it is bound to be of interest to historians.1 Textbooks in subjects such as history or civics, which are likely to inspire concepts of identity and provide general social orientation, are of particular political significance, as debates throughout the world have shown. Thus the social and cultural knowledge found in textbooks not only reflects scholarly requirements and contemporary didactic codes: it is always of political relevance too, as this essay will show.

In this article we examine how current social challenges that have changed and continue to change academic approaches to history have also influenced the concepts and contents of history textbooks in Germany. The article derives from an ongoing project of research into the relationship between history tuition in schools and new tendencies in historical scholarship: the latter include regional, transnational and global approaches; an interest in the mutual perceptions of Europeans and non-Europeans and of majority and minority groups; interest in 'entangled histories' or histoires croisées; and a gradually growing sensitivity to post-colonial interpretations. The rest of this article will examine some of the ways in which these new approaches have entered – or failed to enter – school history textbooks in the German education system.

The German Education and Textbook System

'The German education system' is something of a misnomer. Although there is a basic national framework of compulsory coeducational schooling, for the most part state-run and free of charge,2 German education policy is controlled by sixteen separate federal states, each with its own ministry of education and its own curricula and standards.3 As a result, the many different curricula and textbooks do not only reflect new scholarly research. Beyond this, they also give voice to the opinions that are politically and culturally dominant in each German state and its public sphere. [End Page 125] From a legal point of view, the power of definition is in the hands of the state governments; nevertheless, politicians, scholars and journalists as well as 'stakeholders' such as teachers' and parents' associations also participate in the discourse and the negotiations about what may or may not count and be canonically defined as approved knowledge, accepted values and popular memory.

All German states follow a highly competitive and selective 'streaming' process that separates the more from the less academically gifted pupils at as young an age as ten.4 Those seen as less academically gifted are usually sent to the so-called Hauptschule, from which they will generally be expected to enter an apprenticeship in a manual trade. The middle stream is sent to the Realschule, from which they will hope to enter an apprenticeship in commerce or healthcare; a very few may attend college or university later. Pupils with the most academic promise – roughly thirty percent – may enrol at the Gymnasium, where they will be prepared for university entrance or a more prestigious apprenticeship, completing their schooling after twelve or thirteen years with the Abitur examination (equivalent to UK A-levels).5 For each type of school, the state governments compile specific curricula and approve textbooks from which schools may make their selections.

As a result of this system, there is a wide range of history textbooks to choose from, with a wealth of different didactic perspectives and contents. All state schools require a chronological approach to history, with coverage from the Stone Age until the present,6 and following the unification of Germany in 1989–90 many states revised their curricula to give more emphasis to the period after 1945...