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Nationalism in history textbooks

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Fiction over fact
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How it didn't happen
I learned our Government must be strong

It's always right and never wrong
Our leaders are the finest men
And we elect them again and again
That's what I learned in school today

That's what I learned in school
—Pete Seeger, “What Did You Learn in School Today?”[1]

Nationalism in history textbooks is common in many countries and is used to instill devotion to a nation-state, as well as hostile attitudes towards foreign countries or ethnic groups.

Common themes in nationalist historiography[edit]


See the main article on this topic: Ethnocentrism
Who is the strongest

Who is the best
Who holds the aces
The East or the West

This is the kind of crap our children are learning
—Roger Waters, “The Tide is Turning (After Live Aid)”[2]

Nationalist history textbooks will often go into great detail about the history of "our nation", including its brave exploits and achievements (whether real or imagined), while diverting attention from the country's ethnic minorities or other nations in the vicinity.[3] This paints a picture where the history of the country is disproportionately similar to that of the dominant ethnic group, with minorities neglected, ignored or treated as unwelcome intruders. A student taking such a textbook at its word is left with the impression that their own nation represents the pinnacle of all that is best in the world, with other nations' contributions to human culture diminished, denied, or labeled undesirable or even oppressive.[4]

For example in the UK, there was an outcry when then-education secretary Michael Gove attempted to launch a schools history curriculum that focused exclusively on British history. Under widespread outrage it was later revised so there would be less focus on British leaders like Winston Churchill and British cultural figures like 19th century English poet Christina Rossetti, and teachers were eventually given the option to teach about great non-Britons like Rosa Parks and Neil Armstrong.[5][6]

The Bulwark myth[edit]

You've got to be taught

To hate and fear, you've got to be taught from year to year
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear

You've got to be carefully taught.
—Oscar Hammerstein, South Pacific[7]

History textbooks often promote an Antemurale myth,Wikipedia the idea that a certain nation is the bulwark against some religion or group. For instance, the official historiographies of several Balkan nations (such as Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Albania, and Romania) promote the idea that they are the Antemurale ChristianitatisWikipedia (Bulwark of Christianity), without whom all of Europe would have been taken over by the Ottomans and (in the case of the non-Albanian narratives) Islamized.[4][8] Similarly, during the Cold War Americans were encouraged to consider the United States a bulwark against Communism, which would engulf the entire world if the country wavered from its steadfast opposition to Socialism and Communism in all its forms.

The myth of victimhood[edit]

Alas, Nationalism, the "cocaine of the middle classes", tends to stamp its nihil obstat on histories that overlook the negative aspects of the in-group. In appreciation of the full story we must look at history with our coveted victimhood set to one side.
—Liam Hogan, The Myth of "Irish Slaves" in the Colonies[9]

The nation is often presented as an immaculate entity that has rarely, if ever, done harm to anyone; wrongs "we" have committed are often stifled, revised, or outright ignored.[10] Wrongs of which "we" are on the receiving end, however, are frequently emphasized, embellished, and may even be fabricated.[4] This caricature of a saintly victim engaged against malicious, oppressive Others[note 1] tends to promote a siege mentalityWikipedia which leads to suspicion, mistrust, and hatred directed towards other nations, groups, and individuals.[10] Such an attitude can favor xenophobic oppression, which is portrayed as justified vengeance for historic wrongs[note 2][11] (regardless of how large, oppressive, or imperialist the "wronged" nation may be in the present) or preemptive defense against the predations of the Other, as noted by Leo Tolstoy:[12][13]

Those attacks upon language and religion in Poland, the Baltic provinces, Alsace, Bohemia, upon the Jews in Russia, in every place that such acts of violence occur—in what name have they been, and are they, perpetrated? In none other than the name of that patriotism which you defend.

Ask our savage Russifiers of Poland and the Baltic provinces, ask the persecutors of the Jews, why they act thus. They will tell you it is in defence of their native religion and language; they will tell you that if they do not act thus, their religion and language will suffer—the Russians will be Polonised, Teutonised, Judaised.

Extreme nationalism may be used as a justification for irredentism as well. Since "we" are a peace-loving people who would never dream of oppressing anyone (or at least anyone who matters), it is preferable that "our" country be as large as possible. Such an attitude also works in favor of assimilation and oppression of minorities; as "our" nation is universally superior, the world would be objectively better off if it contained only "our" nation and "our" kind of people.[10]


A nation is a society united by a delusion about its ancestry and by a common hatred of its neighbours.
—William Ralph Inge[14]

Nationalist historians may attempt to show that their nation is the only one that has the "right" to live in a certain region by emphasizing or creating myths of ancient origins and common descent, according to which the nation has homogeneous ancestry and inhabited its current territory before all others. This idea that "we were here first" can be used to delegitimize the rights of ethnic minorities, which supposedly "came later", and to promote an ideal of the nation-state as being ethnically homogeneous, as it supposedly was in the good old days. Often, this is accomplished by claiming the nation in question is "descended" from some ethnic group that in antiquity inhabited the territory they claim is "rightfully theirs". This can be seen in the phenomena of Slavomacedonians claiming to be descended from the Ancient Macedonians, with Alexander the Great being considered a Macedonian national hero,[15][16] the French claiming to be descended from Gauls, the Romanians claiming to be descended from the Dacians[17][note 3], the Bulgarians claiming to be descended from Thracians, and the claims of some Slovenians that the Slovenians are descended from the Veneti. On the other hand, one (small) saving grace to settler societies like the United States having occupied land well known to have previously been occupied by other people is that they can't get away with this sort of sophistry, though they may try to make up for it in other ways. Some groups within the country may make convoluted attempts to claim "their kind of people" were there before, somehow, but few pay those claims much attention.

Ethnic nationalist claims of "primordial ancestry" such as those described above are often very dubious. Linguistically, they can be highly tenuous. For instance, the French claim to be descended from Gauls, yet their language is not derived from Gaulish; indeed, France has had a history of persecuting Celts.[18] Additionally, all individuals have ancestors from countless different ethnic groups, so to claim one or a few of these many groups alone as being "our ancestors" is absurd and misrepresents human history. All ethnic groups have cultural influences from a wide variety of sources, and while certain influences are often stronger or weaker than others, it is illogical to focus exclusively on one of these sources while actively denying all others.

Indeed, ideologies regarding national ancestries are often a matter of selective picking and choosing rather than objective reality. One review[19] of the history book Neglected Barbarians, which is about lesser-studied ancient ethnic groups, contains the statement: "Even barbarians with persistent and documented identities may fall into neglect, however, if the particular group has failed to be claimed as part of a modern nationalist-historical narrative." In other words, nationalist myths of ancestry are selective; they are based on claiming one or more historical ethnic groups while ignoring others. This subjectivity and often arbitrariness means that these myths are fluid and can change over time, so that today's hated enemy or ignored no-name may be tomorrow's beloved ancestor, or vice versa. Nevertheless, regardless of whether a particular such claim of antecedence is true or not, to use it as a bludgeon with which to discriminate against minorities is nothing less than bigotry.


One cause of irredentism, both presently and historically, has been educational systems. Education is often used as a means of instilling nationalism, xenophobia, exclusionary ethnic loyalty, irredentist attitudes, and the idea that only one ethnic group has the "right" to live in a certain area. This was noted by Franz Boas in his 1915 essay Race and Nationality (emphasis added):

Progress has been slow, but almost steady, in the direction of expanding the political units from hordes to tribes, from tribes to small states, confederations, and nations. The concept of the foreigner as a specifically distinct being has been so modified that we are beginning to see in him a member of mankind.
Enlargement of circles of association, and equalization of rights of distinct local communities, have been so consistently the general tendency of human development, that we may look forward confidently to its consummation.
It is obvious that the standards of ethical conduct must be quite distinct as between those who have grasped this ideal and those who still believe in the preservation of isolated nationality in opposition to all others. In order to form a fair judgment of the motives of action of the leaders of European nations at the present time, we should bear in mind that in all countries the standards of national ethics, as cultivated by means of national education, are opposed to this wider view. Devotion to the nation is taught as the paramount duty, and it is instilled into the minds of the young in such a form that with it grows up and is perpetuated the feeling of rivalry and of hostility against all other nations.
Conditions in Europe are intelligible only when we remember that by education patriotism is surrounded by a halo of sanctity, and that national self-preservation is considered the first duty.
"See this tiny speck over here? When you're a grown-up, it's your job to die so that the glorious French government (may the blessings of Vercingetorix be upon it) can own it again — after all, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.Do You Believe That? The sole purpose of your otherwise meaningless lives is the restoration of this very important imaginary line on a map. And remember: Germans are sneaky bastards who have to be shot on sight. Any questions? No? Good. Class dismissed."

Leo Tolstoy, in his 1894 essay Christianity and Patriotism, cites a French textbook advocating irredentism and militarism:

And why in all French schools is history taught from the primer of M. Lavisse (twenty-first edition, 1889), in which the following is inserted:—

"Since the insurrection of the Commune France has had no further troubles. The day following the war she again resumed work. She paid Germany without difficulty the enormous war indemnity of five milliards.
"But France lost her military renown during the war of 1870. She has lost part of her territory. More than 15,000 inhabitants of our departments on the Upper Rhine, Lower Rhine, and Moselle who were good Frenchmen have been compelled to become Germans. But they are not resigned to their fate. They detest Germany; they continue to hope that they may once more be Frenchmen.
"But Germany appreciates its victory, and it is a great country, all the inhabitants of which sincerely love their fatherland, and whose soldiers are brave and well disciplined. In order to recover from Germany what she took from us we must be good citizens and soldiers. It is to make you good soldiers that your teachers instruct you in the history of France.
"The history of France proves that in our country the sons have always avenged the disasters of their fathers.
"Frenchmen in the time of Charles VII. avenged the defeat of their fathers at Crécy, at Poictiers, at Agincourt.
"It is for you, boys, being educated in our schools, to avenge the defeat of your fathers at Sedan and at Metz.
"It is your duty—the great duty of your life. You must ever bear that in mind."
At the foot of the page is a series of questions upon the preceding paragraph. The questions are the following:—
"What has France lost by losing part of her territory?"
"How many Frenchmen have become Germans by the loss of this territory?"
"Do these Frenchmen love Germany?"
"What must we do to recover some day what Germany has taken from us?"
In addition to these there are certain "Reflections on Book VII," where it is said that "the children of France must not forget her defeat of 1870"; that they must bear on their hearts the burden of this remembrance," but that "this memory must not discourage them, on the contrary it must excite their courage."

In response to such nationalism, the writer Rafael Barret had a hypothetical Frenchman say, in his essay El antipatriotismo:

You tell me Germany has insulted me and that I should take vengeance. If you hadn't told me, I never would have known.

A third-grade Bulgarian textbook published in 1920, objecting to the 1913 annexation of Southern Dobruja by Romania in the Second Balkan War, contained the verses, "A thieving Wallach, in the most cowardly way, / Came in our country / He found houses where the master was gone / Loot on the head of the brigand and thief."[20] Numerous history textbooks in Serbia, Romania, and Macedonia promote the ideas of Greater Serbia, Romania, and Macedonia, respectively; they promote a persecution complex characteristic of nationalism according to which the ethnicity in question is beyond reproach and has always been victimized by everyone else, with territorial expansion being portrayed as a necessary and justified righting of past wrongs.[15][21][16][3][8][4] Irredentism was also promoted in Hungarian textbooks after the Treaty of Trianon of 1920:[22]

In the interwar years, irredentism was elevated to a national cult marked by annual memorials. Budapest's centrally located Szabadség tér was fashioned into a pantheon for the cause, sporting allegorical monuments to the lost territories, laden in romantic imagery, as well as a 'Statue of Hungarian Grief'. It was integrated into the school curriculum and children were taught to recite the 'Hungarian Credo' (the winning entry of a patriotic poetry competition in 1920): 'I believe in one God, I believe in one Homeland, I believe in one divine eternal justice, I believe in the resurrection of Hungary. Amen'. Constantly promoted through popular print, in particular the conservative journal Magyar Szemle [Hungarian Review], irredentism permeated popular culture, becoming a staple of banal nationalismWikipedia.

The 2000 book Historia de las Relaciones Exteriores Argentinas[23] (History of Argentinian External Relations) goes into some detail about the fact that the educational textbooks and official historiographies of many South American countries emphasize territories "lost" to their neighbors.[note 4] It quotes a passage from the 1988 Bolivian textbook El Mar Boliviano (The Bolivian Sea):

This book is intended for students and attempts to make them understand the entire magnitude of our tragedy, the methods that Chile used to wage its war of plunder and the inability of our governors to stop the machinations of the enemy, the enemy's treacherousness, and Chile's use and abuse of force to pursue territorial expansion at its neighbor's expense in order to take advantage of Bolivia's riches to facilitate the growth of Chile.

Indeed, Bolivia even has an irredentist national holiday, the Día del Mar (Day of the Sea), dedicated to commemorating and reversing the loss of its coastal territories to Chile in the War of the Pacific.[24] The Historia also notes that irredentism is non-existent in Western Europe:

In the past decades and centuries, territorial irredentism was a common phenomenon in Western Europe. See, for example, José Mará Areilza and Fernando María Castiella, Reivindicaciones de España, Madrid: Instituto de Estudios Políticos, 1941. Obviously, this phenomenon is dramatically prevalent in the Balkans today. Western Europe, however, has overcome this tendency to such an extent that it has gone to the opposite extreme, and nowadays it is difficult to find references to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 in French or German primary history textbooks.

While such an absence of irredentism in Western Europe is somewhat true, if one looks at mainstream politics, there are still fringe groups who seek to shift borders and bring supposedly fellow countrymen back to the motherland or undoing what they see as historical wrongs done to their country. However, the main venues for discussing border/minority issues tend to be more sedate and work for cooperation across current borders, as well as certain rights for those minorities that are left on the “wrong” side of said borders.

Glossing over atrocities / genocide[edit]

A lot of countries have been involved in genocide or other types of atrocities during their history but usually it is glossed over or not talked about at all. If talking about it cannot be avoided, things are presented in a different light with common themes being "the victims had it coming", "it was war and chaos" or "but other nations were even worse". Even the poster child of "dealing with the past" – Germany – is guilty of this. While the Holocaust is anything but glossed over, atrocities like the Herero and Namaqua genocideWikipedia in Namibia are hardly to be found in textbooks of any level, even though German colonies are a known historical fact among the general public and are a subject of history classes.

Solving the problem of nationalist bias[edit]

We don't need no education

We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom

Teacher, leave them kids alone
—Pink Floyd, “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2”[25]

There have been a number of initiatives aimed at creating history textbooks that present history in a way that does not encourage or promote xenophobia or irredentism. These include projects involving historians from multiple nations collaborating to produce a text intended to be free of the ethnocentrism so often found in history textbooks, such as Histoire/GeschichteWikipedia (France and Germany), The Contemporary and Modern History of Three East Asian Countries (China, Korea, and Japan),[26] and The Balkan Wars (Balkan countries).[27]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. The phenomenon of portraying one's in-group as powerless in the face of an omnipotent enemy is humorously depicted in the following joke:Wikipedia
    Rabbi Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. "Herr Altmann," said his secretary, "I notice you're reading Der Stürmer! I can't understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?"
    "On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we're on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better!"
  2. In many cases, nationalists will point to past atrocities by members of an ethnic group they despise as a justification for their xenophobia against the ethnicity as a whole even when the perpetrators may be all (or mostly) long dead, with there being no individual alive who could conceivably be said to be responsible for or guilty of the crimes in question.
  3. A common theme in Romanian nationalism is that the Romanians' supposed Dacian descent proves that they alone have the right to inhabit Transylvania, with the Hungarians painted as later intruders. This obsession with the Dacians is puzzling, since the Romans (from whose language, as opposed to that of the Dacians, Romanian is unquestionably descended) were, in fact, "there first" before the Hungarians. From a Romanian nationalist point of view, the Dacian component of the Romanians' supposed Daco-Roman descent is totally unnecessary as far as proving Romanian precedence.
  4. It also discusses the artificiality of national identities (Latin American ones, but also more generally) and the indoctrination which sustains them.


  3. 3.0 3.1 Albanians and Their Neighbours: the Future’s Past, Dubravka Stojanovic.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 "History Textbooks in the Balkans: Representations and Conflict", Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, in The Poetics of Memory in Post-Totalitarian Narration, pages 139-154
  5. Historians attack Michael Gove over 'narrow' curriculum, The Guardian, Feb 16, 2013
  6. Michael Gove redrafts new history curriculum after outcry, The Guardian, Jun 21, 2013
  7. Six Words: 'You've Got To Be Taught' Intolerance, NPR.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Serbian and Albanian Contrasting History, The study mentioned in the article is Etnički stereotipi i nacionalni mitovi kao prepreke pomirenju: albansko-srpski odnosi (Ethnic Stereotypes and National Myths as an Obstacle to Reconciliation: Albanian-Serbian Relations)
  9. The Myth of “Irish Slaves” in the Colonies by Liam Hogan
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Have Xenophobia and Racism Become Mainstream in Turkey?
  11. For example, see the video Я Русский Оккупант (I am a Russian occupier), which cites the Polish conquest of Moscow during the Polish-Muscovite War as a justification for Russian imperialism. This reasoning is fairly nonsensical, but unfortunately common among nationalists.
  12. A Reply to Criticisms, Wikisource.
  13. Письмо Толстого М. Э. Здзеховскому (о патриотизме) (1895 г. Сентября 10. Я. П.)
  14. End Of An Age and Other Essays,
  15. 15.0 15.1 The (re-)making of the myth of ancient origin in Macedonian history textbooks, Darko Stojanov.
  16. 16.0 16.1 FYROM Primary School History Textbooks, Stavroula Mavrogeni.
  17. De ce au devenit dacii strămoșii simbolici ai românilor,
  18. Bretons fight to save language from extinction, Simon Hooper, CNN.
  19. Review: Neglected Barbarians. Studies in the Early Middle Ages [by Florin Curta, 32. Turnhout: Brepols, 2011. Pp. xx, 656] by Arnold A. Lelis (13.02.13) The Medieval Review .
  21. Proper Language, Proper Citizen:Standard Practice and Linguistic Identity in Primary Education, Amanda Greber.
  22. “No, Nay, Never” (Once More): The Resurrection of Hungarian Irredentism, Guy Beiner.
  24. Día del Mar – Bolivia Commemorates the War of the Pacific.
  26. A Joint Approach to History