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Joint German-French History Book a History-Maker Itself

Barbara Gruber / DW staff (kjb)July 10, 2006

A new textbook -- proposed by students and written by French and German historians -- will be released in Germany this week. The one-of-a-kind book is a landmark in French-German relations.

60 years ago, a joint textbook would have been unthinkable

With two bloody world wars and the formation of the European Union, the German-French relationship certainly had its ups and downs in the 20th century. What would have been unthinkable 60 years ago has recently become a reality: both countries teamed up to create the world's first history book co-written by two countries.

Released last month in France, "Histoire/Geschichte: Europe and the World After 1945" (Klett Verlag/Éditions Nathan) will be available in German bookstores for 25 euros ($32) starting July 10.

"You always have two views, at least two views, and that allows pupils to develop their own standpoint, their own image of history," said Peter Geiss, one of the book's two publishers. "That's very useful within democratic and liberal teaching of history."

Milestone text with psychological effect

Ten historians, five from each country, contributed to the bilateral book project, which has been published in both languages and will be used in high school history classes next semester. Not only is the publication a landmark in French-German relations, it's also a milestone for Germany as the only textbook to have been approved for use in all 16 federal states.

The book has educational significance, but its psychological effect is at least as important, reported the German Department for Foreign Affairs: Young German and French students will learn about their own history as well as their common European history from the very same book.

Student initiative

40. Jahrestag des Elyseevertrags, Unterschrift Konrad Adenauer und Charles de Gaulle
The textbook was proposed 40 years after Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle signed the bilateral friendship agreementImage: AP

Naturally, students are the book's target audience, but they were also the impulse behind it. Participants in the French-German Youth Parliament meeting in 2003, on the 40th anniversary of the Élysée Franco-German Friendship Treaty, proposed the project, which was then taken up by the German Department for Foreign Affairs and the French Ministry of Education.

As is evident in its origin, the book project is not only the result of bilateral understanding, it is also a tool for even better Franco-German relations in the future.

Lost in translation?

"In Germany we try to give a lot of space for pupils to find their sources of information," Geiss said. "We try not to prepare the information in a very schematic way, and this was not always easy for our partners to understand that questions can be very open, for instance."

How to present the information was not the only difficulty the book team faced -- the information itself was also subject to contention. The authors didn't try to hide the differences, said Geiss, but explained them instead.

Galerie Berliner Mauer Militärparade
The authors couldn't on how to discuss communism, in the former GDR for exampleImage: dpa

"For France, traditionally the US is considered a great power which is a sort of rival," he said. "That's not possible in Germany. For Germany, the US after 1945 has never been a rival. Public opinion in Germany still remembers the American contribution to economic and political welfare. The reconstruction of Germany is associated with American presence."

Communism was another problematic area. While the communist movement was of political importance in France in the 1950s and 1960s, it has always been associated in Germany with dictatorship, the East German regime and Soviet expansion.

Eighty percent of the book's content is identical in both languages. Assessments of the US and the history of the communist German Democratic Republic differ, as do the presentations of French colonial history and the Christian Church.

Confronting World War Two

The title conspicuously discloses that the book begins in 1945 after World War II, thus avoiding the touchiest issues of all. However, two "prequels" are in the pipeline. A book covering the Vienna Congress through the end of the Second World II is expected to be released in 2007/2008 and one on antiquity to Napoleon should be available the following year.

Marschallplan Schott-Gaswerke 1952
US-German relations are more positive than with France, in part due to post-war Marshall Plan funds from the USImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The recently released textbook does touch on how the war was dealt with in subsequent decades.

"This topic was never taught much in France," said Frédéric Munier, a teacher at the Henri IV High School in Paris. "Now the book offers lots of documents and analyses and this in turn enables French students to better understand their own history."

Primary sources offer students new insights about themselves and their neighbors, said Daniel Henry, one of the book's French authors, "such as the famous speech by former president Richard von Weiszäcker on the 40th anniversary of the end of the war."

A natural progression

As far as students are concerned, the textbook has one major advantage: Lots of pictures. The very fact that today's students take the project in stride is historically notable, considering the instances of German-French conflict in the 20th century alone.

"For teenagers today, it seems natural and interesting to have a Franco-German history textbook," Munier said. "But my grandmother is still horrified by it."