The Impact of Textbook Diplomacy: Refraining from a Too Narrow Assessment

Romain Faure

Freie Universität Berlin

Romain Faure is deputy head of the International Network University Division of Freie Universität Berlin. He holds a PhD from the Technische Universität Braunschweig, Germany and the Université Paris-1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, France. In his dissertation, published under the title Netzwerke der Kulturdiplomatie. Die Internationale Schulbuchrevision in Europa 1945-1989 (Networks of cultural diplomacy. International textbook revision in Europe; Munich: De Gruyter-Oldenbourg; 2015), he mapped and analyzed the revision activities in Europe during the Cold War. He was a Harry & Helen Gray Reconciliation Fellow at AICGS in 2013.

His current interests revolve around the idea of encouraging a historical dialogue between historians of the Mediterranean. He organized a first workshop on this topic at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin, whose results are available on the Forum’s website.

He is a 2018-2019 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

Along with official state apology, financial reparations for victims, and truth commissions, international textbook activities have been a core symbol of reconciliation since the end of World War II. The activities consist of cooperation between two or more countries that aims to change the content of history textbooks used in primary and secondary education. Such cooperation has taken varied forms, with both bilateral commissions and multilateral conferences issuing joint recommendations for textbook authors and editors. Especially since the 2000s, binational and multilateral projects have evolved that seek to go beyond such recommendations and publish their own teaching materials, be it as online resources or as joint textbooks, such as the famous Franco-German joint textbook Histoire / Geschichte, whose three volumes were released between 2006 and 2011.[1] These projects have sometimes been supported and financed by governments, other times funded entirely privately, and in most cases have been based on joint ventures between governmental and non-governmental organizations.

I propose to coin these activities as international textbook diplomacy, using a wide understanding of the word diplomacy and emphasizing the significance of non-state actors and of diplomatic processes occurring beyond direct state control.[2] Yet, by employing the word diplomacy, I also intend to stress that international dialogues pertaining to history teaching, even those on a grass-root level, are necessarily embedded in and shaped by interstate relations. Such dialogues in a sense always react to interstate relations, either because they try to support a reconciliatory trend already initiated by official diplomacy or because they aim at ushering in such a trend, thus opposing official diplomacy. In a nutshell: history textbook diplomacy is a realm of international cooperation, involving both governmental and non-governmental organizations, trying to influence state and societal relations through negotiations on the teaching of history in schools.

Changing Textbooks

As with other kinds of reconciliatory initiatives, there is a major lack of research on the impact that projects of textbook diplomacy have had on the societies involved in them.[3] The most obvious effect is changes in textbooks. Yet surprisingly, there have been only a few attempts to trace such changes. The single study explicitly dealing with textbook alteration goes back to the beginning of the 1970s.[4] A major German stakeholder in the field of international textbook dialogue, the International Textbook Institute in Brunswick—known today as the Georg-Eckert-Institute—tried to assess whether its cooperation with partners in countries like the United Kingdom, the United States, and France had any impact on teaching materials used in the Federal Republic of Germany. The conclusion of this study has to be taken with a grain of salt: The International Textbook Institute was urged to legitimize its activities, which is why the author of this short study, Robert Multhoff, was altogether positive about the capacity of historical dialogue to lead to changes in textbooks. Yet, even if one prefers to remain skeptical of his optimistic conclusions, one has to admit that Multhoff gives examples of changes that are quite telling. In the 1950s, English historians involved in the binational textbook commission with West German partners sharply criticized a German textbook released in 1953 by the well-known publishing house Klett Verlag. In response, many problems brought up by the English historians and acknowledged by their German partners were addressed in the 1962 edition, for example, the portrayal of Poland’s invasion in 1939. The 1953 edition read:

“Germany enlarged East Prussia towards the South up to the Vistula and the Bug River. The former province of Poznan was extended up to beyond Lodz to the Reichsgau Wartheland. Western Prussia and Gdansk again formed the link between East Prussia and the rest of the Reich. The Poles living in the incorporated areas were evacuated to Eastern territories. The latter were attached to the Reich under the name ‘General Government.’ The properties that had been freed that way were taken by the repatriated Germans from the Baltic and Bukovina regions.”[5]

This description of the consequences of the German-Polish war in 1939 was most inappropriate. To give only two examples: It legitimized the German invasion by implying a natural “link” between East Prussia and the Reich and it presented territories seized by force in Poland as “freed” and given back to their actual owners, the Germans. Above all, the author remained entirely silent about Polish suffering. In 1962, after the revision prompted by the English-German textbook commission, the depiction was fairly different:

“Western Prussia, Gdansk, Poznan (enlarged up to beyond Lodz), and Upper Silesia were again associated with the Reich. The Polish population of these territories was ruthlessly deported to the east. Their properties were received by Germans from the Baltic and Bukovina regions, who were repatriated from Russia. Hitler incorporated the Poles living in the center of the country in a subordinated administrative territory (‘General Government’). There, Poles were deemed working slaves and had to live an uncivilized life.”[6]

From a contemporary perspective, we would have to criticize some formulations in this “revised” version, for example, the attribution of Nazi policy in Poland to Hitler alone. But one can hardly contest that this revision represented a true improvement compared to the earlier formulations. In particular, it addressed the consequences of the German invasion for the Polish population.

Such alterations of the content of textbooks form the kind of effects that sponsors of international historical dialogue want to see to be sure their investment makes sense. Consequently, they are also the effects that the actors of textbook diplomacy need to deliver in order to demonstrate that their work has an impact. Such changes are important, yet may not matter the most, as it is arguable whether such changes in formulations—at least when they remain isolated—really affect students. One could even claim that such revisions are not actually addressed to students, but rather to adults capable of grasping the nuances of different formulations.

Empowering Textbook Authors to Address Difficult Topics

Assessing the impact of textbook diplomacy, one should reflect on significant “hidden” effects that occur on levels other than formulation changes in textbooks. These effects still have to be mapped. One positive impact of textbook diplomacy is that they can empower textbook authors to address difficult topics. This appears quite clearly when comparing German-Polish textbook dialogue and Sino-Japanese textbook controversies.[7]

The historical relationship between Germany and Poland has been profoundly marked by intense and lethal conflicts, from the partition of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century to World War II. This painful past was addressed in the 1970s by a Joint West German-Polish textbook commission, which gradually developed into a point of reference in the field of textbook diplomacy. It was launched in the context of German Ostpolitik and was formally based on the cooperation between the German and Polish national UNESCO committees. The commission released its common Recommendations in 1976.

Studies from the 1980s show that the coverage of Polish history in German textbooks increased after the publication of the Recommendations. And in fact, it can be assumed that the Recommendations played an instrumental role in this evolution. First, they triggered a passionate debate in West Germany, calling public attention to German-Polish history. Second—and quite substantially—they provided German textbook authors with the current state of research in Polish and German-Polish history, a state of research elaborated by leading historians in Germany and Poland. As a result, textbook authors could feel secure in writing chapters on Polish and German-Polish history: They had some kind of a guideline. It is important to remember that textbook authors, unlike researchers, have to address a wide range of topics with which they often are not particularly well acquainted. Recommendations passed by binational textbook commissions, assuming they receive a large acceptance, can empower textbook authors to address difficult topics.

The link between textbook commissions and empowerment of textbook authors is confirmed by the Sino-Japanese controversies of the 2000s. They show that the lack of well established textbook commissions can result in the reluctance of addressing contested topics. As in the case of Germany and Poland, the historical relationship between Japan and China can be described as delicate. War was waged at the end of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century witnessed increasing Japanese aggression toward China as a part of Tokyo’s imperialist expansion.

A first textbook controversy came about at the beginning of the 1980s, when Japanese media reported that the Ministry of Education had passed new resolutions that tried to sugarcoat Japanese aggression in Northeast Asia during the 1930s and 1940s. This information spilled across the border and prompted strong reactions in the Chinese press. From this moment on, heated controversies about the portrayal of Japanese behavior during the war have flared up time and again. In this context, the question of the Nanjing massacre and of the so-called “comfort women” have been the most contested issues. The controversies were multilayered, taking place simultaneously on the domestic scene, between “conservative” and “progressive” forces in Japan, and in the international arena, between Japanese and Chinese historians and officials. According to Claudia Schneider, a German scholar who has examined this Sino-Japanese historical rift, the recurring controversies made Japanese textbook authors insecure. She asserts that the outbreak of textbook controversies first fostered a debate on history in Japan but that in the end, there was a general shift back to cautious positions: “The Nanjing Massacre may serve as a telling example here. While all junior high school textbooks approved in 1997 cited relatively high figures for the number of victims, books published in 2005 generally refrain from giving any numbers. Likewise, the term ‘massacre’ almost completely disappeared, replaced by the previously used term ‘incident.’”[8]

We can speak here of a reluctance to address difficult topics that cannot be explained by arguing that Japanese textbook authors would be conservative. Rather, this reluctance has something to do with the fact that the historical debate remained highly politicized and thus unresolved. By the time Claudia Schneider wrote her article, no Sino-Japanese textbook commission had established itself as a point of reference that could have shaped the dispute and thus guided textbook authors. The latter, rather than taking the risk of being criticized for biased views in one way or another, preferred to avoid the topic as much as possible.[9]


The empowerment of textbook authors to address difficult topics is only one of many “hidden” effects that textbook diplomacy can have. One can think of a few more that still need to be systematically explored, for example, the fostering of public debates on history or the overcoming of simplistic perpetrators/victims dichotomies.[10] Further research should also take into consideration some negative effects, like the nationalization of historiographical positions.[11]

To sum up, if we want to assess the results of reconciliatory initiatives seriously, we need to refrain from the too narrow ways of thinking that are often adopted by those in charge of evaluating these initiatives—for example, sponsors. If we want to understand what kind of effects textbook diplomacy brought about, we cannot just trace changes in textbooks. And this for the very simple reason that textbook commissions do not only deal with textbooks. They also deal with history debates in the public sphere, with representations of the national self and the national other, with publishing strategies, with the construction of new identities and so on and so forth. Hence, when we try to assess the impact they had, we have to bear in mind these different levels. For example, we need to look at the way a textbook commission contributed to shift the boundaries of historical debates in the public sphere. This can be a very interesting but also quite challenging new field of research.

Dr. Romain Faure was a Harry & Helen Gray Reconciliation Fellow at AGI in August and September, 2013.

[1] Georg Stöber, “From textbook comparison to common textbook? Changing patterns in international textbook revision,” in History Education and Post-Conflict Reconciliation – Reconsidering joint textbook projects, ed. Simone Lässig and Karolina Korostelina, with Stefan Ihrig (London: Routledge, 2013): 26-51.

[2] See for example Robert Frank, ed., Pour l’histoire des relations internationales (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2012) and Akira Iriye, Global Community – The role of international organizations in the making of the contemporary world (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

[3] Elizabeth A. Cole, “Introduction – Reconciliation and History Education,” in Teaching the Violent Past, ed. Elizabeth A. Cole (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007): 1-28, Simone Lässig, “Introduction part 1 – Post-conflict reconciliation and joint history textbook projects,” in History Education and Post-Conflict Reconciliation – Reconsidering joint textbook projects, ed. Simone Lässig and Karolina Korostelina, with Stefan Ihrig (London: Routledge, 2013): 1-18.

[4] Robert Multhoff, “Beispiele der Schulbuchverbesserung,” Internationales Jahrbuch für Geschichts- und Geographieunterricht 13 (1970-1971): 29-36.

[5] “Deutschland vergrößerte Ostpreußen nach Süden bis an Weichsel und Bug. Die frühere Provinz Posen wurde bis hinter Lodz zu dem Reichsgau Wartheland erweitert. Westpreußen und Dantzig stellten die Verbindung zwischen Ostpreußen und dem Reich wieder her. Aus den eingegliederten Landesteilen wurden die Polen nach den östlichen Gebieten ausgesiedelt. Diese wurden als ‚Generalgouvernement‘ dem Reich angegliedert. Den frei gewordenen Grundbesitz nahmen die zurückgeführten Balten- und Buchenlanddeutschen ein,” quoted in Multhoff, 33.

[6] “Westpreußen, Danzig, Posen (vergrößert bis hinter Lodz) und Oberschlesien wurden wieder mit dem Reich verbunden. Die polnische Bevölkerung aus diesen Gebieten wurde rücksichtslos nach Osten abgeschoben. Ihren Grundbesitz erhielten die Balten- und Buchenlanddeutschen, die aus Rußland zurückgeführt wurden. Mittelpolen gliederte Hitler als unterworfenes Verwaltungsgebiet (‚Generalgouvernement‘) dem Reiche ein. Hier sollten die Polen als Arbeitssklaven des Reiches ein kulturloses Leben führen,” quoted in Multhoff, 33-34.

[7] This comparison has most notably been suggested by Yinan He, The Search for Reconciliation – Sino-Japanese and German-Polish Relations since World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[8] Claudia Schneider, “The Japanese History Textbook Controversy in East Asian Perspective,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 617 (May 2008): 116.

[9] It is necessary to clarify at this point that the comparison I draw by no means aims at suggesting that textbook diplomacy has proven completely successful between Germany and Poland whereas it would have definitively failed between Japan and China. In reality, these relations are much more complex. The opposition of both cases is utilized here as a sharpener in the analysis of “hidden” effects of textbook diplomacy.

[10] See reflections in Daqing Yang and Ju-Back Sin, “Striving for common history in Northeast Asia (China, South Korea and Japan) – between ideal and reality,” in History Education and Post-Conflict Reconciliation – Reconsidering joint textbook projects, ed. Simone Lässig and Karolina Korostelina, with Stefan Ihrig (London: Routledge, 2013): 209-229; Yangmo Ku, “The Politics of Historical Memory in Germany: Brandt’s Ostpolitik, the German-Polish History Textbook Commission, and Conservative Reaction,” Journal of Educational Media, Memory, and Society 2 (Autumn 2010): 75-92.

[11] See for example Achim Rohde, “Learning each other’s historical narrative – a road map to peace in Israel/Palestine?” in History Education and Post-Conflict Reconciliation – Reconsidering joint textbook projects, ed. Simone Lässig and Karolina Korostelina, with Stefan Ihrig (London: Routledge, 2013): 177-191.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.