The German-Polish Textbook Commission

Polish and German members of the Schoolbook Commission at the award ceremony for the Viadrina Prize in June 2017.
Polish and German members of the Schoolbook Commission at the award ceremony for the Viadrina Prize in June 2017.

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The aim was to avoid controversial topics and the dissemination of prejudices and propaganda about Poland and Germany. The contents of history and geography textbooks in the past often reflected the state of relations between the two countries. In 1972, under the auspices of UNESCO, the German-Polish Textbook Commission, consisting of historians, geographers and educationalists from both countries, was established in order to replace distorted ideas with historical truth. In 2008 the Commission began work on the "Joint German-Polish History Book". The first volume of the textbook was published in 2016.

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The first meeting of the German-Polish Textbook Commission was held in Warsaw between 22nd and 26th February 1972, in the presence of historians and geography experts from both countries. Since the Cold War and the lack of diplomatic relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the People's Republic of Poland had made official dialogue impossible for many years, this meeting was preceded by years of informal contacts and efforts between academics.

The pioneer of the German-Polish textbook discussion in the post-war period was the Oldenburg grammar school teacher, Enno Meyer (1913-1996), who had been a soldier in the Wehrmacht during World War II. After the war Meyer's experiences on the Eastern Front persuaded him to explore Polish history. His aim was to achieve the widest possible presentation of German-Polish topics in school books without them having a one-sided, national perspective. Meyer discussed his thoughts with Polish academics who lived in exile at the time. As a result, in 1956 the International School Book Institute in Braunschweig published 46 theses. Amongst others, Meyer warned against German school books excessively glorifying the Teutonic Order, and against Polish textbooks highlighting its military role. He also pointed out that Germans had focussed on the suffering of the Jewish population during World War II, whilst overlooking the injustices inflicted on Poles and other nationalities under the German occupation.

Although Meyer's theses led to major controversies, they were met with a tremendous response from academics in Germany and the People's Republic of Poland. They formulated the core problem, although it had not been possible for a long time to establish an official dialogue. On the German side the educationalist, ethnologist and historian Georg Eckert (1912-1974), who had been the President of the German UNESCO Commission since 1964, made an equally important contribution to setting up the German-Polish Textbook Commission. He established contacts in Central and Eastern European countries and joined forces with them to establish bilateral textbook commissions. 

The first meeting of academics in the context of the German-Polish Textbook Commission was preceded by a noticeable improvement in relations at government level. On 7th December 1970, the "Warsaw Treaty” was signed between the Federal Republic of Germany and the People's Republic of Poland on the basis of the normalisation of their mutual relations, and the Federal Republic of Germany recognised the western border of Poland on the Oder and Neisse rivers. In addition, the governments of both countries committed themselves to working to expand their mutual economic, cultural and scientific relations. On that day of Willy Brandt's genuflection before the Monument of the Heroes of the Ghetto in Warsaw, it also came to commemorate the murdered people. This historical gesture was to become a symbol of his policy of understanding with the East.

Despite the policy of détente between the two countries, the first meeting of the German-Polish Textbook Commission, which took place in Warsaw in 1972, was met with interest rather than enthusiasm among the academics who were hoping for a speedy agreement on the issues at stake. This is evidenced by the statements of the conference participants:

The [Polish] historian Professor Gerard Labuda (1919-2010) who was a member of the German-Polish Textbook Commission from 1972 to 1989, recalled that everyone was in dialogue: "The first contact was something like a mutual testing of the waters. Basically, we didn't even know each other. Contacts between the West German historians and us had been temporarily severed. I have to say, this first attempt was very congenial. They were all experts with their own theses.”[1] 

The Berlin historian Professor Klaus Zernack (born in 1931) voiced a similar assessment: “Looked at with political realism, at a first and perhaps a second glance it hardly stood a chance. Bearing in mind the year 1972, one could say: “Well, you can give it a try, but nothing much will come out of it.”[2]      

Nevertheless, the conference ended with the publication of 14 recommendations on how to deal with German-Polish relations in textbooks on history and geography. Barely two months later, the second meeting of the academics took place in Braunschweig from 12th to 15th April 1972. The meeting ended with the presentation of another 17 expert recommendations for textbooks. In their final report the academics at the textbook conference concluded that it "took place in an open, factual and scientifically stimulating atmosphere that fostered understanding"[3]. They also called for the results of the conference to be put into practice and implemented in the classroom without delay.

Both sets of recommendations dealt with problems of interpretation. They concerned the emergence of the first forms of state in today's Polish and German territories, the achievements of Poland in the Renaissance era, the Reformation in Germany and the period of Polish divisions up to the Second World War. With regard to this last period, it was decided to deal with this topic in detail at the following meetings. The Commission's conferences then took place at regular intervals, sometimes four times a year. New questions were discussed and the recommendations made so far were deepened.

In 1976, the results of the textbook commission were published in both countries, something which caused a great deal of controversy and debate: things like the lack of the term "expulsion" with regard to the Germans who were forced to leave the territories they had lived in after the Second World War. To get round the problem terms such as "evacuation", "forced relocation", "flight" and "deportation" were used. The German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (Hitler-Stalin Pact or Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact) also remained mentioned, as any reference to it would have resulted in a sharp reaction from the Soviet Union that would certainly have brought the Commission's work to an end. For this very reason, there was also no information on the Katyń massacre in 1940, when Polish officers were shot dead by members of the Soviet People's Internal Affairs Commission (NKVD). Until 1990 the responsibility for this mass murder had been officially attributed to the Germans. So there were times when the political climate forced academics to set aside historical truth and seek compromises accepted by the Communist authorities.

 

[1]   Interview by Thomas Strobel, a member of the staff at the Georg Eckert Institute for international school book research, with Prof. Gerard Labuda on 28.10.2005, during the 35 anniversary celebrations of the German-Polish Schoolbook commission.

[2]   Interview given by Thomas Strobel with Prof. Klaus Zernack on 08.07.2003.

[3]   Introduction to the publication: Konferencja polskich i zachodnioniemieckich ekspertów w sprawie szkolnych podręczników historii i geografii, Państwowe Zakłady Wydawnictw Szkolnych, Warszawa 1972.

The political upheavals in 1989 opened up a new dimension to academic work. The upshot was that the activities of the Textbook Commission in the 1990s now focused on the development of teaching materials. During this time the Commission also published a series of thematic volumes addressed to teachers in both countries. In 2006, the then Federal Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmaier, proposed the development of a joint German-Polish history book. A project group of academics and politicians from both countries was then convened in May 2008. In 2012, the publishing houses Eduversum from Wiesbaden and Wydawnictwa Szkolne i Pedagogiczne (WSiP) from Warsaw agreed to join the project.

Finally, in June 2016, the first volume of the joint German-Polish history book was presented in Berlin at the Robert Jung High School in the presence of the foreign ministers of both countries, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Witold Waszczykowski. "Europe - Our History" ("Europe - nasza historia"), covers the period from antiquity to the Middle Ages. Following the Franco-German History Book (2007), this was yet another two-country publication that enabled each country to document similar historical experiences from their different viewpoints and styles.

All four volumes of the textbook are to be completed by 2020. The project work is being carried out by a bilateral panel of experts chaired by Professor Michael G. Müller from Halle and Professor Robert Traba, Director of the Berlin Centre for Historical Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences. The project is being funded equally by the governments of both countries.

Since 1972 the German-Polish Textbook Commission has been supported by the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Braunschweig. Institutional links on the Polish side are decided by the respective chairperson of the Commission. Since 2007, the Polish side of the Textbook Commission has been integrated into the Berlin Centre for Historical Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

In June 2017 the work of the German-Polish Textbook Commission was honoured with the Viadrina Prize. The prize is awarded by the Board of Trustees of the Association for the Promotion of the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt an der Oder, to persons and organisations who have rendered outstanding services to German-Polish understanding.

Monika Stefanek

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he presentation of the first history book on 22. June 2016 in the Robert Jungk High School in Berlin.
The presentation of the first history book on 22. June 2016
he presentation of the first history book on 22. June 2016 in the Robert Jungk High School in Berlin.
The project group that worked of the first volume of the “Joint History Book”: staff from the Georg Eckert Institute in Braunschweig and the Berlin Centre for Historical Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences, and the two publishing houses, Eduversum in Wiesbaden and Wydawnictwa Szkolne i Pedagogiczne (WSiP) in Warsaw.
The Project Group
The project group that worked of the first volume of the “Joint History Book”.
The presentation of the first volume of the history book. Left to right: Thomas Strobel, the Secretary of the History Book Project on the German side, and both Foreign Ministers, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Witold Waszczkowski.
The presentation of the first volume of the history book
The presentation of the first volume of the history book. Left to right: Thomas Strobel, the Secretary of the History Book Project on the German side, and both Foreign Ministers, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Witold Waszczkowski.
Piwniczna 1990
Piwniczna 1990
The conference participants enjoy a break together in Piwniczna, 1990.
A meeting of the German-Polish Schoolbook Commission in Münster, January 1980.
Meeting in Münster, January 1980
A meeting of the German-Polish Schoolbook Commission in Münster, January 1980.
Award ceremony for the Viadrina Prize
Award ceremony for the Viadrina Prize
Polish and German members of the Schoolbook Commission at the award ceremony for the Viadrina Prize in June 2017.
The Polish version of the history book “Europe – our History” (“Europa - nasza historia”).
The Polish version of the history book
The Polish version of the history book “Europe – our History” (“Europa - nasza historia”).
The German version of the history book “Europe – our History” (“Europa - nasza historia”).
The German version of the history book
The German version of the history book “Europe – our History” (“Europa - nasza historia”).