Presentation by Judith Geerling – Senior Project Manager EuroClio – Inspiring History and Citizenship Educators

Today I will talk about the role of memory and collective memory in history education. How should we negotiate differences in memory and differences in history? How can we respect the past while respecting the different people involved?

Memory refers to the ways in which individuals and societies choose to remember (or forget) certain moments and events in their history. This can be in the form of statues, buildings, memorials, but also stories and textbooks. What emerges from academic research in different fields is that individual memory does not work as an archive of lived experiences, but is rather constructed anew at each moment of recall. It is a construction.

A collective memory of the past is what binds a greater group of people together. It examines how ordinary people understand and use the past. This is why shaping a country’s collective memory is an integral part of nation-building. At the same time, powerful collective memories can be root causes of prejudice, nationalism and even conflicts.

History is the study of the human past as described in written documents. It exists of an analysis or interpretation of facts.

Both collective memory and history can be misused to reflect a so-called mirror of pride and pain. On the one hand a trauma  – or pain – is chosen that exists of horrors of the past that are influencing the future. On the other hand instances of glory – or pride – are chosen that form myths about a glorious future, as a kind of re-enactment of a glorious past. Together these form important elements in the forming of group identity. A key component is formed by this connection between a common past, and a desired shared destiny that is legitimised by the creation of a sort of master commemorative narrative.

Memory and history do not coincide without problems. And this is becoming more obvious in the last decade with protests spiking up on contested memories. Look for instance at the Rhodes must fall movement. A protest by students of the University of Cape Town for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes turned into a broader protest that also spread to other universities in South Africa and across the world to bring out in the open institutional racism and decolonize education. This is an example of tendencies that are happening globally.

History education in turn focuses on how students learn about the past.

My organisation, has been active and involved in the Western Balkan region for over 20 years. As an umbrella organisation we work together with history teachers associations in the countries on responsible history education. We advocate for a different way of teaching history and tried multiple approaches in the region:

  • We have looked at the role of memory and remembrance in relation to the 1990s wars. Funded by the Europe for Citizens Programme we worked together with our member associations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro on how to deal with this history that is by many not considered as history yet.[1] We discovered that teachers find it difficult to deal with recent sensitive history in their teaching, for several reasons. They do not feel confident enough on the content – they do not know enough of the issues at stake. Also, they find it difficult that students come in the classroom with strong perspectives, often based on memories that have been handed over generations, by their parents and grandparents. And finally they have their own memories that play a role. Nevertheless, there was a strong belief that the time has come to deal with this topic in the classrooms, exactly to ensure that students’ knowledge and understanding exceeds personal (family) memories.


  • Secondly, we have worked on curriculum analysis in the framework of a common project with CDRSEE, to see how collective memory is currently integrated into the formal education system. This formed the basis of a research into the needs of history teachers to deal with memory in their teaching. In this research[2] we reached out to around 1300 history educators across the Western Balkans and asked them about their views and perspectives on their teaching. The results showed that teachers strongly feel a need for more training on how to deal with these difficult topics in the classrooms.


  • At the same time we worked on building the capacities of history teachers associations in the region, as they form the voice of history teachers in their respective countries.


  • Finally, we have organised public events with professional discussions on the issue across Europe.

Politicians often find it easier to go along with the majority collective memory of their own group or country, and history education often follows. The region does not take a unique position in this, it happens across the world. Political elites oftentimes continue the war through collective memory.

Responsible history is based on evidence and exists of different perspectives. By basing oneself on this evidence one can come to a substantiated historical interpretation. However research has shown that it is challenging to take different perspectives when it relates to sensitive and controversial history, especially when it becomes personal.

Why? Because these issues are emotional. Emotional as they encompass multiple generations with their own perspectives and experiences, and emotional as they are often influenced politically.

Education should be a sanctuary for different memories and responsible history, based on professional ethics. At the same time, history teachers need competences and skills to feel empowered to take that space. As we indicate in our manifesto on quality history education[3] future generations should not be burdened with feelings of hatred or guilt. Young people should become aware that the past is perceived differently and must be valued in the context of their values and time. Teachers across the region indicated in our research that they lack these skills and need more training. Apprehension about the possible reaction of parents or other community members also plays a role.

When it comes to preserving history and memory there is a field of memory studies that is working on collecting testimonies and oral histories, for instance by interviewing survivors. Documenta in Croatia is a good example of this. The role of education is to deal with this content in a critical way, considering multiple perspectives, and being sensitive towards other person’s feelings, historical background and experiences.

At the same time a transnational justice process is on-going. Law is playing an important role in shaping collective memory. From documentation, like in the Nuremberg trials, to collecting oral testimonies like in the Eichmann case and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Although this forms a very important part of the reconciliation process, the categorisation of people in boxes of ‘perpetrator’, ‘victim’ and ‘bystander’ often does not do justice to historical complexities. It forms an easy basis for creating or feeding a constructed collective memory by politicians if not properly included in education. Evidence that manifests such processes is important, but it should be put into context and that is where historical rigour and education is important.

In the project I touched upon previously, dealing with the sensitive history of the 1990s wars, we worked together with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.[4] A group of history teachers visited the Tribunal and were introduced to the materials developed by the Outreach Programme and SENSE Agency, making use of some of the archive materials. This was a very enlightening experience for the teachers, where they realised they were not as confident in using these materials in the classroom, partially because they did not feel knowledgeable enough about the topic themselves. So teacher training is an important element to address when we talk about the role that education can play in preserving memory.

History is more than just what people did or what people said. It is much more complex. If you for instance look at the stories of members of the national socialist movement in the Netherlands during WW2 you see it is still not clear what to do with these stories. Even after almost 75 years. The Dutch share in the SS was bigger than any of the other occupied countries. Why did these individuals decide to volunteer? Was it their idealism and connection with the national-socialist ideology? Were they adventurers that wanted to escape their occupied country? Or did the Nazi propaganda machine persuade them? The answers are not black-and-white or straightforward. And that is what makes it complex, and difficult.

Intergenerational dialogue is also very important. It can transfer memories and with that prejudices and intolerances to future generations. At the same time it offers a potential for more open dialogue about the issues at stake, and an opportunity for students to use their historical skills to make sense of the stories they hear. There is need for this, not just in the region but European wide. The EU remembrance programme is very important in that light, and some of the countries in the region are already part of this programme. It would be great if this programme would be extended to the Western Balkans. The expertise on this front already exists within Europe. But currently there is a clear division between EU and non-EU countries in the region when it comes to participating in the programme. This has been an obstacle to deal with memory in the region, and it is not in line with historical realities. This is where the EU can play an important role.

The Western Balkans Strategy speaks of the role of education in terms of fostering greater tolerance, promoting European values and strengthening the cohesion of society.

Trust plays a very important role. And there are definitely positive examples where memory and education connect. If you look at the Friendship Treaty that was signed last year between Macedonia and Bulgaria, it acknowledges a shared history, but also the right to take a different view on some topics. The established committee with experts on history and education covers how history is portrayed in the educational systems and advocates for a scientific way.

History education has a role to play when it comes to memory and when it comes to reaching these goals. Collective memories are what bind groups together, and therefore it is only natural that these are considered important in the young states in the Western Balkan. At the same time, the risk of politicisation, prejudice, nationalism and even conflict make it vitally important to include different memories and complex perspectives on the matter in the classroom. Teachers should be trained and feel empowered to deal with memories in their education, having their students look at them critically and putting them into their context.

Finally, the Western Balkan Strategy speaks of a need for investment in the younger generation to give them a perspective for the future, not the past. Dealing with the past is however a necessary condition to imagine a shared future. And this is where history education comes in. By understanding each other’s and one’s own biases, and being considerate towards someone else’s history, we can work towards more cohesion and a common future.


[1] See:

[2] The research report is available to download in English, Albanian, Bosnian, Croatian, Macedonian, Montenegrin and Serbian here:

[3]See for Manifesto here:

[4] For more information see public report here: