• Maria Immaculata von Liechtenstein (Austria)

The Impact of How World War II History Is Taught Across Greater Europe

The Impact of How World War II History Is Taught Across Greater Europe 2015 will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Commemorative celebrations will take place in all European countries, displaying the very specific way each country endured this worldwide trauma.

The Think Tank of the Youth Association for a Greater Europe has gathered young citizens from seven European countries – Austria, England, France, Germany, Poland, Russia and Ukraine - in order for us to have an overview of differences in how the history of World War II is taught in schools across our continent and so that people can take this into account in order to better understand each other.


The School History Program in Austria is decided by the Ministry of Education, who give schools and teachers some basic abstract topics, such as the contrast between war and peace. Nevertheless it is often up to the individual teachers how they want to teach the class and in what light they want the pupils to understand the implications of the Second World War.

One of the main messages at the forefront of Austrian pupils' minds is that Austria was also a victim of Nazism. Some teachers even teach that although the war officially began with the invasion of Poland in 1939, the war actually began with the 'Anschluss' of Austria to the 'Third Reich'. Although it is briefly mentioned that many people were Nazis at the time and actually welcomed Hitler when he invaded, the blame from an Austrian perspective lays squarely with the propaganda and the pressure the Nazis put on the Austrian people. In addition to this is the fact that it is possible to talk to the old people who were born during the war and also to the descendants of people who survived concentration camps. Many of them often want to and consequently tend to forget that their parents were either Nazis or just passively went along with Nazism in fighting for the Reich because they felt they compelled to.

Furthermore, an important issue is how Austria dealt with and still deals with the atrocities of the Holocaust. Trips to concentration camps, films and pictures of Jews and persecuted people who had to flee or survived the concentration camps coupled with the implications of Nazism on people's lives are an important part of how history is taught in Austria. This is even further enhanced by the fact that it is not only in history class that one learns to reflect about the Nazi propaganda and the War. In German Class one has to read books that are written during or about the war and how people have suffered, how propaganda influenced people, and how one should always be critical and beware of such extremism.


History programs in England are relatively flexible, and whilst the Department for Education stipulates that study of the Holocaust in Key Stage 3 (age 11-14) is compulsory, the Second World War is just one of several topics of study of the modern era, and in later years when exams are taken one of several examination boards creates and sets exams; in other words, there is no 'standard' curriculum which is adhered to.

However, there are general trends. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the Holocaust is the defining event in how the Second World War is conceptualized and understood. In addition to this, there's a focus on linking the First and Second World Wars and understanding more how the rise of Hitler could be linked to the situation in Europe following the Treaty of Versailles. In this light there's not so much focus on what happened, rather how it happened. As a historical figure Winston Churchill also features and his role both in forewarning about Nazi Germany and as a wartime leader is discussed. Also important is the framework of WW2 itself- from 1939 to 1945 and not exclusively in Europe, but also in the Pacific against Japan, much like for the US.

As a historically vital period for the UK and one which united the country, WW2 is seen as much as a moral struggle (as opposed to WW1) where the UK held out throughout against an abhorrent system, as it is a tragedy, the roots of which can be traced back to the ending of the First World War. Having said that, there's no single, 'right' version of history taught and in later years (in A-level) debate over the causes and responsibilities for war is encouraged, making history a study not only of events but of their interpretation.


In France, official history curricula are discussed at length by historians, school inspectors and teachers and are then signed by the Minister for Education. The teaching of WW2 to French children has been decided to focus on three main guidelines: the war as a worldwide confrontation, an annihilation war with national and ideological stakes, and the Nazi genocide of Jews and Gypsies perpetrated in Europe.

A reading of different history textbooks reveals a coherent evolution of the way WW2 is taught in primary and secondary education in France. First of all, the question of the war has long been tackled from a purely national point of view: the main topics studied by the children and the teenagers were the French resistance and its decisive role in the Normandy landings and the effect of German occupation on French territory. Until the early 70’s, the teaching of the 1939-1945 period was characterized by what we later pronounced the myth of résistancialisme, that is to say the belief that French resistance was both unanimous and natural during the war, whereas in fact a dissension actually existed between Gaullist and communist forces. The evolution of the school curricula over the last few decades has provided more space in the history textbooks for the study of Vichy France and its collaboration with the Third Reich – for instance the picture of the handshake between Petain and Hitler at Montoire is often shown as an illustration of this collaboration.

Besides it is also very noticeable that in France, the teaching of the WW2 is essentially the teaching of the Shoah: the duty to remember is illustrated by the viewing in the classrooms of different movies on the topic– Shoah by Claude Lanzmann for instance, or by the reading of memorable testimonies like The diary of Anne Frank. This duty to remember is particularly important today in France insofar as the XXIst-century-children, compared with their parents and grandparents, are less concerned with the Holocaust because of the remoteness of the event: that is the reason why French Ministery of Education regularly thinks about new ideas to teach children the Shoah, and concurrently the universal principles of human rights and the notion of crimes against humanity without traumatizing them.


One quick look at the German school syllabus reveals already the focus of its take on World War II education: The word itself is not mentioned very often. Instead, the emphasis of teaching about WWII that stretches from 8th to 12th grade, depending on the school the students attend, is mostly called “National Socialism”, sometimes “Democracy and Dictatorship” or varieties of these terms [5]. Each of the German federal states can decide on its schools' syllabuses itself – theoretically, that is [6]. In practice, though, the aim of German teaching on WWII history is clear: To educate students about the genocide and inhuman cruelties that happened during the Hitler dictatorship and in this way prevent it from happening again.

Racism, Antisemitism, the totalitarian state and its propaganda, Holocaust and civil disobedience – these are probably the most central terms German students have to deal with in history, but are also apparent in their German, biology, political and religious education classes. More or less obligatory is a trip to one of the former concentration camp sites to make the topic more understandable and relatable to the students. The role of the individual in the National Socialism system is granted a prominent place in WWII education. By discussing cases like that of Oskar Schindler, who managed to save over 1000 Jews from being deported to concentration camps, civil disobedience is showcased.

The modern German syllabus on WWII tries to educate young Germans about the era of National Socialism in an authentic way that is not afraid of facing the facts. Though making the topic a central part of school education, it is facing a rather large problem: It has to deal with a generation that does not have any personal connection to that part of history anymore – such as a grandparent that could tell stories from this time period. The future will show how and if school education manages to overcome this problem and keep this part of history as a central tenet of the young generation's collective memory.


It is easy to think that polish system of World War II lessons depends solely on the content of the history curriculum in schools provided by the Ministry of Education, but in order to understand this issue, it is also necessary to examine it from a broader perspective. One of the major problem stems from the fact that the Polish history curriculum is too extensive and very often teachers simply cannot spend enough time on lessons devoted to World War II [7]. Therefore, it is very common for Polish students to know better history of their first kings than events from the middle of the last century, despite the latter shaping the modern world in which we live. Another factor of great importance is that for over 40 years after the war, the history program at schools has been created by communist governments presenting its very own version of WWII, distorting partly the truth about it — or at being very selective over the topics on which students had to focus.

Complexity and time requirements have obviously had a negative impact on the teaching methods, since history teachers usually adopt the easiest and most obvious perspective for the historical narration – that of the major victims of WW II. Polish approach to World War II is extremely idealistic and can be represented through the quotation from the response to the Germans’ demands expressed by Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Jozef Beck in 1939 and which almost every polish student knows by heart: "Peace is a precious and a desirable thing (…). There is only one thing in the lives of men, nations and countries that is without price. That thing is honor."

And therefore, one of the first topics studied is that of Poland being betrayed by its allies, at the very beginning of the war. Poles still have the impression that France and the UK did not support the country during the September 1939 Campaign invasion, leading to massive losses among Polish troops, surrounded by two powerful armies. But the end of WWII is also perceived as another “Western betrayal”, implying the country’s redrawing and becoming under the Soviet occupation after the Yalta Conference. Students mainly study the history of WWII through the perspective of Polish soldiers who were determined to never surrender or accept German occupation — and thus compare it to the situation in France for instance. Poles are taught to be proud of those who sought the occasion to fight against Germans by supporting English or Soviet armies [8] or by creating and effectively functioning the Polish Underground State as guerrilla warfare.

But on the other side, Polish pupils are also aware that this Underground State, and its actions (like the two Warsaw uprisings) were as heroic and idealistic as they were hopeless. The perspective of the “hopeless victim” has resulted in strong cultural connotations until now: every Polish student remembers indeed the Battle of Westerplatte — first battle of the WWII, where 180 Polish soldiers were fighting against 3500 Germans for 7 days — Katyń — the massacre of polish officers — and both Warsaw Uprisings — all the more so as the second Uprising led to the utter and methodical destruction of Warsaw.

Another subject, which is crucial for Polish history lessons is of course the Holocaust, perceived as combined tragedy of Polish and Jewish nations with clear separation between both groups, where notion of the “Polish Jew” does not exist. Polish approach towards Jewish society is shown solely as the actions aimed at helping and saving Jews. This historical aspect is also taught in form of the lecture focused on the areas where the massacres took place, as well as the numbers of victims and important dates without any causal link. Alongside the theoretical knowledge, most students at the age of 14 – 15 visit concentration camps with their teachers.


Teaching history in Russian schools is still relatively flexible ‒ although most recent trends suggest otherwise: under the initiative of President Putin, a detailed uniform school program is currently being developed [9]. Teaching of history is the cornerstone of this reform ‒ because history is believed to be the main instrument of teaching patriotism.

The need to create a new history textbook Russia is dictated by the development of the global historical science, accumulation of new historical knowledge and the increase of the public interest in the events of the past. The new educational system will cover issues of spiritual and cultural life of Russia and will use a cultural and anthropological approach. A special attention in new program will be paid to personalities who influenced history.

In Russian schools lessons about the World War II are mostly focused on the Great Patriotic War ‒ the final five years of the war, in which USSR was directly involved [9]. The majority of Russians don’t remember the date when World War II started, although everybody knows that the Great Patriotic War broke on June 22, 4 am, when Luftwaffe suddenly attacked the western border of Soviet Union. The memory of World War 2 is very deeply ingrained in Russian society, and Russians learn about it before they go to school: every family in Russia has been affected by it, so every year, on the 9th of May, there is a relative to remember or congratulate. Colloquially, World War II is often referred to as simply “the War”. Thus, lessons about World War II at schools are very much connected to histories of every child’s family: pupils are encouraged to interview their relatives that remember the war, and present their stories in class. Memories of the war can be traced to the modern Russia’s everyday life: in St. Petersburg, it is disrespectful to throw away food, because many people still remember the famine that happened during the siege of Leningrad (8.09.1941 – 27.01.1944). Schools have their graduation parties every year on the 21st or 23rd of June ‒ but never on the 22nd (in 1941 many schools had their graduation parties on June 22nd ‒ and many boys had to leave for the frontline the next day).

9th of May ‒ the Victory day ‒ is one of the biggest national holidays in Russia, and most schoolchildren would go to some commemorative event the week before, or take part in a concert for old veterans, playing music or singing war-era songs.

The words Great Patriotic War, that every child in Russia and former Soviet Union is told, sums it up very accurately: it is presented as a massive nation-wide effort, which didn’t really have a distinctive leader. School children would, of course, learn the names of Zhukov, and other important Soviet generals, but the role of Stalin is consciously downplayed, due to the controversy around him: he is blamed for the poor state of the Soviet army in the summer of 1941, which allowed Hitler to make such a quick progress, but he also was able to realize the mistakes he made, and give free reign to the talented people who could win the war.


The educational system of Ukraine is based on an 11 year-long program common for all pupils in every region of Ukraine [10]. The topic of WWII is briefly taught in the 5th grade and more deeply presented in the 11th grade during the lessons of World History and History of Ukraine.

WWII is observed as a consequence of a world economic crisis and the German policy of breaking the Versailles treaty and preparation for war together with Italy and Japan. The policy of keeping peace with Germany failed and caused the beginning of WWII. A special place in the lesson is devoted to Soviet-German friendship at the beginning of the war and the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as well as the destiny of Eastern Europe according to that document [11].

The war is presented varyingly on different stages and in different regions (e.g. Western Europe, Balkans, Pacific Ocean, South-Eastern Asia, and South Africa). Special place is given to Ukrainian regions that were out of the USSR and on which territory the WWII began earlier than on the rest of Ukraine. Nevertheless due to the influence of the Soviet historiography school books give a special place to the period of the Great Patriotic War. It is remarkable that a whole paragraph is devoted to the role of women in WWII that makes traditional “men history” more gender sensitive.

Ukraine in the period of WWII is observed as a victim of the big players’ plans. It took the main attack of the Great Patriotic War and suffered the biggest losses. Occupation of Poland by the Soviet army in 1939 is shown as a chance and the national wish for Ukrainians to unite in a common state. But the forced collectivization of Western Ukraine and deportation to Siberia caused a strong antagonism to the Soviet policy among citizens of Western Ukraine.

The Nazi regime in Ukraine is shown as a period of vast crimes against humanity: famine, holocaust, extermination, forced labor etc. It is also depicted as being opposed by partisans that “opened a second fighting line” on the occupied Nazi territory. History of Ukrainian nationalists’ organization (OUN) and Ukrainian insurgent army (UPA) is briefly presented as well. The task of the pupil is to compare and make his/her own opinion toward movement of oppression to Soviet and Nazi regimes in Ukraine during WWII [10].

The result of WWII is shown on the multiple layers. An accent is made on the post war Soviet deportation of indigenous groups from Crimea.


The article shows that there obviously is a link between each country’s experience and current political stance and the way Second World War history is taught in schools. German programs spotlight the inner functioning of National Socialism, and all countries which had been collaborating with Nazism see education as a precious tool to forge the minds in order to ensure that this won’t happen again. While holocaust appears as the main focus of French, German and Austrian school programs, the memory of the Second World War for the British and for Russians is a historically vital period, deeply bound to their identity. Russians typically can get offended when they see that the role of the Soviet Army is minimized in the way western countries’ World War II history. On the other hand polish students perceive its country as the biggest victim of World War II being attacked simultaneously by both German and Soviet army which effects are noticeable even these days. Similar approach is represented by Ukrainian education system, however it draws more attention to Great Patriotic War and chance for united and independent Ukrainian State during this period.

This overview on how the Second World War is taught in schools across Greater Europe gives a broader understanding on what happened to our continent between 1939 and 1945. The way each country is going to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of this war isn’t anything neutral – it is deeply bound to how people perceive themselves and the others and it has the powers both to bring people closer or to hurt people and generate negative reactions – let us bare this in mind.