Tamara Pavasović Trošt (University of Ljubljana) and Jovana Mihajlović Trbovc (Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts) Yugosplain history revisionism.
Tamara Pavasović Trošt is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the School of Economics and Business, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. She holds a PhD in Sociology from Harvard University, and was previously a Fung Fellow at Princeton University (2015-16) and a Visiting Professor at the University of Graz, Austria (2013-14). She works on issues of nationalism, ethnic identity, and history and memory, with a geographical focus on the Western Balkans. Her most recent publications include Europeanization and Memory Politics in the Western Balkans (co-edited with Ana Milošević, Palgrave 2021), Beyond Ethnic Identity: Changing Youth Values in Southeast Europe (co-edited with Danilo Mandić, Routledge 2018), and recent articles on history textbooks in Nations and Nationalism, Memory Studies, and War & Society. She is currently working on a new project on the impact of genetic ancestry testing on ethnic identities in Europe.
Jovana Mihajlović Trbovc is a research fellow at the Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts (ZRC SAZU), Institute of Culture and Memory Studies. She has been awarded the 2015 Jean Blondel PhD Prize for the best thesis in politics issued by the European Consortium for Political Research. Her research focuses on the memory reproduction in media, social impact of the war crimes trials in former Yugoslavia, and history teaching in connection with the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and World War II. Recently, she published papers in journals War & Society, International Journal of Transitional Justice and International Criminal Justice Review, and contributed to edited volumes: The Media of Memory (Brill, 2020); Legacies of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia: A Multidisciplinary Account (Oxford University Press, 2020); The Use and Abuse of Memory: Interpreting World War II in Contemporary European Politics (Routledge, 2017).
While the past is omnipresent in our daily public and private lives, the relevance of tackling history and establishing the “right” historical narrative is now center stage. From the dismantling of monuments across the US and the simultaneous debate about “cancelling” historical figures with morally problematic actions, the question of how history matters, and who should be allowed – and is given the space – to (re)interpret it, seems to be critically important now more than ever. How to teach children the history of the US, instilling national pride and fostering national unity, while at the same time acknowledging the brutality and endurance of the oppression of Native Americans and Blacks the country was founded upon? How should modern societies approach monuments, street and university names (e.g. Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton) and holidays (e.g. Columbus Day) that are founded upon racist and fundamentally unequal principles? And more importantly, how do we decide who gets to decide the moral principles based on which we establish the “correct” historical narrative?
Along with public debates about the interpretation of history, the academic field of memory studies has extensively studied uses and misuses of history, demonstrating that spinning particular versions of historical narratives – such as those relying on stories of victimization, which are intended to inspire resentment and naturally buttress us/them dichotomies – has played a critical role in virtually all wars. In Yugoslavia particularly, the ruling Croatian and Serbian regimes’ ability to fuel fear and anger via playing on sentiments from historical events has been established as one of the leading factors contributing to the extent of violence in the 1990s wars. More recently, across the region, the trend toward re-painting fascism and communism as “two totalitarianisms” has led even further to justifying the horrific fascist past. What must be stressed here, however, is that what happened in Yugoslavia is no different than scenarios we are observing elsewhere. As underage bystanders who both lived in Serbia during these events, and later studied the same textbooks we were taught from in the 1990s, the authors of this piece can only watch in horror as we see similar patterns unravelling across the globe. History textbooks that teach kids a particular kind of national narrative – either based on victimhood, or on delusional grandeur – can be especially potent by laying the groundwork for populist mobilization. So, while the post below focuses mainly on the outcome of history revisionism in the post-Yugoslav region, it must be kept in mind that the processes described below are by no means unique to the Yugoslav context.
Transmission of history to youth: why do textbooks matter?
Why do we care about history textbooks? Aren’t kids increasingly seeing history as a boring and unnecessary subject, and hasn’t research demonstrated that other agents of socialization (such as movies, music, TV) matter much more in shaping children’s worldviews than textbooks?
While both of those arguments are true, textbooks nonetheless still serve as representations of the “official” history that the nation has decided is legitimate and truthful by sanctioning it, usually via some centralized textbook approval system, as the “correct” version of history that should be taught to children. This narrative is generally similar to the history represented through other state-level manifestations of official history, such as commemorations, official holidays, street (re)naming, school excursions, museums, etc. This makes history textbooks a handy venue to study the official narratives that the state has sanctioned. While other representations of history youth might encounter, such as local, subnational, regional memory initiatives, might be at odds with this official representation, material included in textbooks is attributed much greater importance and is given as “the national” one. Simply speaking, children see material in textbooks as “true”, undisputable knowledge, and at the same times, history textbooks – precisely because of their function for the state – largely still present Manichean narratives, in which students are not asked to question or debate the material: it is simply represented as the undoubted truth.
At the same time, though, extensive research has demonstrated that students largely do not know basic events and information included in the textbooks, even about events that were drilled in as core identity facets of history. If students don’t know and don’t care what’s in textbooks, and parents and teachers exert much more influence in forming their opinions, indeed, why should we care about what’s written in history textbooks? Our answer is this: because textbook materials, and more importantly changes that they endure at times of political upheavals, are a good indicator of how political communities are being (re)imagined, and how hierarchies of political values are being changed. The story below serves as a cautionary tale on how manipulating history textbooks – even slight tweaking of historical facts that might seem innocuous – reflects (not causes) nationalist political projects that ignited the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia, and still, two decades later instill the same kinds of ethnocentric narratives that ensure youth are continually socialized into enmity.
History textbooks in Yugoslavia and after
While the outbreak of the war in 1991 might have been seen as a huge surprise to some, textbooks actually contained warning signs of impending doom as early as 1982. The Socialist narrative, based on the idea of brotherhood and unity among Yugoslavia’s ethnic groups, had started cracking first in Serbian textbooks – in the beginning with minor additions (such as introducing the notion of Kosovo as an “inherited chasm” between Serbs and Albanians; later by adding the word “Catholic” throughout Croatian textbooks), and after 1987 in full-blown ethnonationalist mode. Essentially, all of the Yugoslav republics shared a similar historical narrative during Communist times – the memory of WW2 was devoid of ethnic connotations; none of the ethnic groups are faulted with blame for the war, instead, blame is shifted to enemy Germans and Italians and their collaborators. By the end of the 1980s, this narrative was almost completely gone. In Croatia, new textbooks were introduced as early as 1991, containing an entirely new national narrative built almost entirely on shifting blame for any wrongdoings on the part of pro-fascist Croatian state during WW2, and creating imagined statehood continuity with it. In Serbia, 1990 textbooks contained a similar level of ethnocentrism, but taking a different narrative strategy: instead of rejecting the Socialist historical narrative, it was rather interwoven with presumed injustices committed to the Serbian nation, emphasizing its victimization during WW2. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, caught in between the two countries, the battleground fault lines were reflected in the schooling system: in the 1990s, territories under Serbian rule adopted textbooks from Serbia proper, places under Croatian rule textbooks from Croatia proper, while those towns under the control of the Sarajevo based government continued using the Socialist textbooks until the middle of the war, when Bosniak-orientated textbooks were produced. In them, again, the history of WW2 was most thoroughly transformed, introducing ethnonationalist language where the division between fascist and antifascist forces was the previously dominant explanative frame. The nationalist template for interpreting history through a pronounced victimization frame that was introduced during the early 1990s remains in place until today.
History textbooks published in the 1990s are indeed astounding, in several ways. First, the language used to describe horrors committed by others in the past is incredibly graphic, violent, and certainly inappropriate for the last grade of primary education (14 year olds). For instance, Serbian textbooks tell how during WW2, the Serbian inmates at Jasenovac concentration camp (run by Croatian fascists) were “slaughtered with knives, killed with axes, hatchets, hammers, steel crowbars and rammers, shot and burned in crematoriums, cooked alive in cauldrons, hung and devoured with hunger, thirst, and cold”. Croatian textbooks provide images of a father being shot in the back when running to hug his son upon being caught in Bleiburg, a place where fleeing anticommunists were taken over by Yugoslav partisans at the end of the WW2. These gruesome vignettes with no apparent informative value, obviously serve the purpose of communicating a certain feeling of grievance rather than historical facts. Second, textbooks purposely draw a continuous line between WW2 and the ongoing 1990s wars, sometimes anachronistically interweaving them, at other times explicitly drawing a parallel, so as to give a vivid impression that current events are simply a continuation of WW2. In this way, the ongoing political conflict is presented as part of larger historical trajectories, as a result of imagined historical forces rather than acts of present-day political actors who could have avoided the war if they had acted differently. Third, textbooks employ heavily normative language, such as telling children that certain events are an “unhealed wound” of our nation, that certain injustices “should not be forgotten”, or interpreting for students the morality of historical events (where morality is, of course, always on the side of one’s own nation). Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, textbooks were updated every year during the war in Serbia and Croatia, with the September new editions already discussing events that happened earlier during the same year, and littered with typographical and other errors, indicating that textbooks were revised – haphazardly and in a hurry, to be sure – even during the height of the war.
Since the early 2000s, most of the post-Yugoslav countries adopted new textbooks, and much of the extremely problematic material was removed. The textbooks are now devoid of the jarring text and many of the explicitly normative statements, and in most of the countries, multiple textbook versions to are approved each year, including textbooks from the state-owned publisher and both domestic and foreign private publishers. While all of these textbooks nonetheless need to be approved by the Ministry of Education and follow the nationally-prescribed curriculum, they do provide a wider range of alternative narratives. Across the board, unfortunately, diversifying the range of textbook alternatives has to no extent helped “clear” the textbooks from radically polarizing narratives, but the main ethnonational frame of interpreting WW2 and the wars of 1990s remained. The textbooks are still written in a clear us vs. them framing, relying on victimization and injustice master narratives. Over the past decade, increased anti-Communist sentiments have in Serbia and Croatia (much less so in the Bosniak and Montenegrin textbook) led to the solidification of the idea of “two authoritarianisms” (equalizing fascism with communism), which effectively justifies fascist collaboration and horrific WW2 crimes. The countries remain locked in victim Olympics, with vastly different interpretations of critical historical events, both in terms of numbers as well as the identity of the victims.
The role of textbooks in fueling animosities
But why do these changes in history textbooks matter if children are going to forget what is written in them anyway? And how are these textbook materials relevant for understanding what happened during Yugoslav wars of the 1990s? For sure, one cannot claim that textbooks fueled animosities among the nations, because they were read by children, not their parents. The people who fought in the war were raised during Socialism, taught by textbooks promoting “brotherhood and unity” among Yugoslav nations. In fact, contemporary national history (e.g. the 1990s wars) is taught at the end of the final grade in primary school, when teachers usually run out of time to teach material and students are preparing for their high school entrance exams, so in many schools, the last 20% or so pages of the textbook are never actually covered in class. This is in addition to the question of whether teachers would even consider teaching newly revised (and highly sensitive) material, after having taught the same version of history for so long. We can thus reasonably conclude that textbooks themselves don’t fuel animosities.
And they don’t, not directly. But they do indicate how history is being understood and politicised in society as a whole. They influence how historical topics are talked about in homes, over dinner table tables, among parents and their children. They reflect how official history defines who is a part of “our nation” and who is excluded from it, who should be recognised as a heroes and who as a villain. History textbooks are products of political ideologies, but at the same time a tool for solidifying them over time. They may perpetuate animosities if they reproduce particular kinds of narratives that stick with children long after they leave the classroom, even while they forget historical facts. This is especially the case if textbooks are written, like in the post-Yugoslav countries, on a clear us vs. them matrix, heavily employing victimization narratives, stressing that one’s own nation was never a perpetrator, always the victim, and that neighbourly relations are a zero-sum game in which any gain for the other necessarily implies loss for us. It is hard to walk away from a Serbian history textbook and not feel an immense sense of injustice – we did everything right, were always on the right side of history, continuously betrayed by allies and left at our own mercy, while the Other committed horrific crimes, and was never faced with responsibility. It’s similarly hard to walk away from a Croatian history textbook and not feel like the best thing to ever have happened to a Croat was finally gaining statehood, and that this goal was so noble and so incredibly deserved, that no price (read: war crimes) was high enough to finally achieve it. The details – the historical facts that were revised, the battles and borders that were rewritten, invented or omitted, do not matter – it is clear that these facts are not remembered by students once they leave school. What stays, though, are these dangerous “master narratives” of history that remain embedded in the nationhood worldview – they subsume all other details and are effectively transmitted even while the details of the historical lessons aren’t. This nationhood worldview permeates discourse about history inside and outside classrooms because the sanctioned official narrative does not only determine the historical imagination of children as future citizens of the nation, but provides the dominant frame of reference for present political discourse.
The role of textbooks in post-conflict transitional justice
And how do textbooks matter after the war? In both popular and academic writing, an implicit assumption is made that history textbooks should play a central role in post-conflict transitional justice. For societies to move past their “difficult past”, the argument goes, textbooks are supposed to be a “crucial response” to mass violence, having “special weight” over monuments, museums, family stories, popular fiction, etc. After conflict, education in general and textbooks in particular are taken as a barometer for assessing the effectiveness of the transitional justice process. Yet, even these optimistic expectations of the role that should be played by textbooks are scant on mechanisms on exactly how textbooks are expected to do this. The implied rationales for how textbooks are supposed to “help” in post-conflict settings are varied and conflate moral, political, and psychological goals: textbooks as a tool for 1) truth-telling and restorative justice (official acknowledgment of harm; challenging suffering-silencing narratives); 2) grounding transitional justice processes in lives of everyday people; 3) ensuring a more democratic culture by providing a platform for public deliberation; 4) providing children necessary historiography skills for understanding the mistakes of the past, 5) signalling to neighbours of the “change in heart”, allowing the state to create a new narrative, and 6) retrieving repressed memories as a part of a healing process.
Yet, we know little about what textbooks actually end up doing. Looking around the globe, textbook revision after conflicts has happened under such disparate circumstances, that it is impossible to actually “measure” the extent to which they “worked”. The means that were used in the textbook reform also matter: whether a truth-commission established the “true” narrative or not, whether the government supported it, and whether the state was committed in institutionalizing the processes of truth commissions or by outsiders. Rewriting textbooks will also vary based on whether the society in question was predominantly in the role of the victim or the perpetrator, and whether the state needs to forge a new identity without dealing with the past, or has to bridge with the past. Timing matters, as in some cases, textbooks deal with ongoing, frozen, or unsettled transitional justice processes. And at the end, figuring out whether the textbooks were successful or not is impossible: “measuring” whether textbooks reform “worked” typically takes one of two forms: analysing the reformed textbook content, curriculum and history education pedagogy, or simply noting an absence of conflict; neither of which actually tell us how textbook reform contributed to post-conflict transitional justice.
Even if we take “successful” post-conflict textbook reform to be something clearly measurable, after the textbooks and curricula are revised, there are numerous obstacles remaining: will teachers – do they want to, are they equipped to – actually teach from the textbook? (Normatively: is it fair to expect teachers, especially in stressful post-conflict environments, to act as conflict mediators?) Do states have the resources to print and publish new materials, and how much political will is there to distribute them? Has the broader educational system also adapted to a multi-perspective, didactically advanced model that encourages critical thinking, or are these new textbooks still a part of the old students-as-passive-learners model? Is the production of history still seen as a state-directed process focused on instilling patriotism?
Textbooks in post-Yugoslav countries after the conflict certainly represent a case of textbooks not adequately dealing with the past, furthering a one-sided, victim-oriented narrative. Post-1989 Germany, on the other hand, is taken as an exemplar for “properly” tackling textbook reforms. Here, history textbooks acknowledge German wrongdoings, stress the horrors of war, and take on national responsibility while still assessing the global relevance of the Holocaust. From a content analysis standpoint, these textbooks should be the golden standard of transitional justice textbook reform. Somehow, supposedly, such revised text is supposed to contribute that such crimes happen “never again”. But what do we know about the long-term effects of such textbook reform? In her study of working-class youth in Germany (published in the book Blood and Culture), Cynthia Miller-Idriss persuasively showed that precisely this absence of a source of national pride, and the fact that history teachers approached any nationalist-type of thinking as fascist thinking, caused a backlash amongst youth who did want to feel pride in being German and resented having to share shame in the crimes of their parents’ generation. She concludes that the state dictating how each generation should remember history and what identity “ought” to be can have unintended consequences. Lea David’s new book The Past Can’t Heal Us: The Dangers of Mandating Memory in the Name of Human Rights argues the same thing: that the human rights memorialization agenda frequently, instead of improving human rights, actually strengthens nationalism, ethnic cleavages and animosities and new forms of social inequalities.
Along the same lines, history textbooks, including those deemed as “well” written, are criticized for reinforcing national and ethnic hierarchies and power structured. McCully has argued that, if the implication of the lesson is not made explicit, students “selectively assimilate” parts of the textbooks that reinforce dominant popular narratives. Christine Beresniova pointed to the unintended consequences of textbook reform, such as the backlash in Lithuania due to a perceived encroachment on the right of Lithuanians to develop a strong national identity. Chana Teeger showed that in South Africa, teachers attempting to tell “both sides of the story” ended up furthering racial stratification and detracted from the possibility that students would be able to properly connect past and present perpetrations. Even more radically, some authors have criticized textbooks for contributing to colonization, dispossession and structural harm, particularly in settler societies, and Western history heavy reliance on Euro-American narratives that reinstitute the marginalization of indigenous and Black culture and knowledge.
Why history textbooks are not the only textbooks that matter
As stated above, there is much reason to criticize the entire textbook publishing system, the way knowledge is produced and reproduced, and the larger educational and state structures textbooks and schools are a part of. In a post-national world, discussions about textbook content, and particularly content of topics such as history, geography, and the like, would likely take place in an entirely different educational setting, which would not include indoctrination of patriotism into pupils as its goal.
History education in the post-Yugoslav states, as in many countries around the world, has the explicit goal of instilling patriotism in pupils; and along with history, an additional set of school subjects are considered “subjects of national interest”; these include nature and society (priroda i društvo), history, music, arts education, and national language; in these subjects, ethnic minorities are allowed to have supplements published in their native language. History, of course, is in this sense a primary pillar of national interest and a tool for preserving national homogeneity, and unsurprisingly, academic research of textbook content focuses almost entirely on history textbooks: they are used to explain nationalism, ethnicity construction, treatment and stereotypes of minorities, images of the Other, etc.
But why just history textbooks? Even if we are to ignore all of the other media for memory transmission in schools – pictures of historical figures and maps on the walls, even school names, excursions, school holidays, etc – these messages, and the dangerous master narratives above, can be found just as clearly in these other “subjects of national interest”. Nature and society textbooks in 4th grade in Croatia, for example, explain the “discovering” of the Adriatic Sea by Croats, presenting a narrative of non-interrupted inhabitancy of Croats in the country that is presently Croatia, from the 6th century until present time. More directly, geography textbooks contain images and maps that relay identity messages perhaps even more overtly than history textbooks. The two images below, for instance, are from the Serbian and Croatian 8th grade geography textbooks. The text accompanying the map in the Serbian geography textbook points to Kosovo’s (which is included within the borders of Serbia, with no discussion of Kosovo’s independence!) high birth rate (12‰) versus central Serbia (-5.0‰), which is experiencing the “white plague”, clearly contributing to the idea of a “biological extermination” of the Serbian people from Kosovo. All of the Croatian geography 8th grade textbooks graphically represent the concept of the three “cultural-civilizational” circles which permeate, meet and overlap on Croatian territory: Mediterranean, Central European, and Southeast European or Balkan; whereas first two are a part of the European West, the third is a part of the European East; Croatia is firmly delineated as “a Mediterranean and central European country”. As is clear in the map below, the third “Eastern” circle extends all the way to the Middle East, with pictures of a mosque and an Orthodox church (whereas the other two “civilizational circles” have pictures of cities), with the “Eastern” circle hardly touching the territory of Croatia. There is nothing particularly ground-breaking about this: these are all examples of banal nationalism (as per Michael Billig), which is persuasive in all societies: from national currency, flags, pronouns, etc – identity messages are omnipresent, and certainly not only in history textbooks. The point is that these images – the maps and pictures – likely stay much deeper-engrained in the minds of youth after completing school than do the historical facts to which we pay much more attention.
So, what we can learn from the story of post-Yugoslav history textbooks? First, textbooks should be observed as a locus of political discourse that gives insight into how society understands itself, how it defines the boundaries of the political community, and how it defines its future by creating historical continuities and discontinuities. It is a place for redefining dominant values of the political community which should not be taken lightly, but rather understood as a magnifying glass through which we can analyze larger social processes. Second, the Yugoslav case provides an example of how small changes in narratives can gradually build up incremental victimization and feelings of injustice that can be used for legitimization and justification of criminal political projects. Therefore, even subtle narrative shifts are often indicators of larger political ones. Third, while the post-Yugoslav case does not represent a good example of how textbooks can serve goals of transitional justice, an overview of theory provides more dilemmas than it provides easily applicable solutions. Since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s unfolded along ethnonational fault lines, an ethnonational framework of teaching history (and geography) does not help in coming to terms with this difficult past. Textbooks for other subjects also subtly reproduce differences and perpetuate animosities, in both “settled” and in post-conflict settings. A profound transformation of textbooks, therefore, would not involve a further amelioration of nationalistic historical narratives, but rather a breaking out of the national worldview as vantage point for narrating history. Multiperspectivity in history teaching, as a recommended panacea by many academics and international organizations, would not mean comparing and contrasting different interpretations of the same historical events as they are understood by different (national) historiographies, but should rather be imagined as replacing nations as primary historical actors and (re)introducing concepts like social groups, genders, classes, and movements.
Finally, history textbooks are dangerous when they serve as a repository of historical tropes that can be easily triggered on memorial days – such as the annual commemoration of genocide in Srebrenica which regularly triggers “victim Olympics” among politicians, opinion makers and “ordinary citizens” on social media. If perhaps the international and academic community, who are vested the power to interpret how “well” the countries have cleaned up their narratives, stopped participating in the “victim Olympics” and fundamentally helped with reframing the entire way history is taught, moving to a cosmopolitan/postnational version built on emphasizing similarities rather than differences, progress could perhaps be made. Instead, the only hope remains that young people, truly unburdened with and resentful towards history, will go a step beyond simply finding history boring and irrelevant, and make a conscious effort to transcend it , by seeing history as bigger than the nation itself.
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This post is based on our other published works:
- Trošt, T. and J. Mihajlović Trbovc. 2020. “Identity Politics in History and Geography Textbooks in the Western Balkans”. In Christina Giessler and Hana Semanich (eds.), Understanding Identities and Regions: Perspectives on Visegrad Four and the Western Balkans. Nomos.
- Mihajlović Trbovc, J. and T. Pavasović Trošt. 2017. “Who Were the Anti-Fascists? Multiple Interpretations of WWII in Post-Yugoslav Textbooks”. In Karner, Christian and Bram Mertens (eds.), The Use and Abuse of Memory: Interpreting World War II in Contemporary European Politics. Routledge.
- Trošt, T. and J. Mihajlović Trbovc. History Textbooks in War-Time: The Use of Second World War Narrative in 1990s War Propaganda in the Former Yugoslavia. War & Society, forthcoming.
- Trošt, T. “History Textbooks and Transitional Justice”. In J. Meierhenrich, A.L. Hinton and L. Douglas (eds), Oxford Handbook of Transitional Justice,
- Mihajlović Trbovc, J. 2014. “Public Narratives of the Past in the Framework of Transitional Justice Processes: The Case of Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Doctoral thesis, Faculty of Social Science, University of Ljubljana. http://dk.fdv.uni-lj.si/doktorska_dela/pdfs/dr_mihajlovic-trbovc-jovana.pdf.
- Trošt, T. 2018. “Teaching the National through Geography and Nature: Banal Nationalism in Primary Schools in Serbia and Croatia”. In Jeremy Morris et al., (eds.), Informal Nationalism after Communism: The Everyday Construction of Post-Socialist Identities. IB Tauris.
- Pavasović Trošt, T. 2018. “Ruptures and Continuities in Nationhood Narratives: Reconstructing the Nation through History Textbooks in Serbia and Croatia”. Nations and Nationalism 24(3): 716-740.
- Pavasović Trošt, T. 2013. “War Crimes as Political Tools: Bleiburg and Jasenovac in History Textbooks 1973 – 2012”. In Jovanović, Srđan (ed.), History and Politics in the Western Balkans: Changes at the Turn of the Millennium. CSDU Press, pp. 13-47.
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