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1066 and all that

Michael Gove argues that schools should teach children about kings, queens and wars. He's offering a

"Fewer and fewer students want to study the past," complained the Tory MP and historian Chris Skidmore recently, adding: "[G]iven the way it is currently presented in schools, who can blame them?" In 2011, in 159 schools no pupils at all were entered for GCSE history. "We are facing a situation," he warns, "where history is at risk of dying out in schools and regions in the country." His remedy is to reorient the GCSE towards "our national history, rather than focusing on Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia or the history of medicine. We should introduce a narrative-based exam that covers every age in British history across a broad chronological span", instead of focusing on isolated "bite-sized" chunks of history. "Local history," he adds, would bring it all to life and "can easily be woven into the school curriculum".

Skidmore joins a swelling chorus of voices clamouring for a restoration of a British history narrative at the core of the curriculum as a means of halting the subject's decline in schools. It has been led by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. The current National Curriculum, he says, neglects our national history: "Most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England." David Cameron has lamented the "tragedy that we have swept away the teaching of narrative history and replaced it with a bite-sized, disjointed approach to learning about historical events . . . [in a] shift away from learning actual knowledge, such as facts and dates."

Some historians take the same view. "The syllabus," thunders Dominic Sandbrook, "has been a shambles for years. Fragmented and fractured, obsessed with the Nazis and apparently indifferent to the pleasures of narrative, it leaves students struggling for a sense of the contours of our national story." The Labour MP and historian Tristram Hunt has added his voice to those demanding a replacement of the current National Curriculum with a British-focused national narrative, showing there is a cross-party consensus behind these criticisms.

But is history in our schools really in a state of terminal crisis? As David Cannadine has shown in his new book The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in Twentieth-Century England, such complaints are not new. They were made by Margaret Thatcher's government in the 1980s and by others long before, all of whom wanted history-teaching to be a vehicle for the creation of a unified sense of national identity. Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th century, history was barely taught in schools at all. When GCSEs were introduced in the 1980s, history, unlike many other subjects, was not made compulsory; still, about a third of all GCSE candidates voluntarily studied it as one of their exam subjects. Over the following years the spread of thematic and social history approaches pioneered by the Schools History Project, including the history of medicine, far from plunging the subject into crisis, actually led to an increase in its popularity and GCSE history entries reached 40 per cent by 1995.

The introduction of league tables in the 1990s, however, focused schools' attention on maths, English and science at primary level. The result was a rapid and drastic fall in history teaching, so that nowadays only 4 per cent of class time in primary schools is devoted to the subject. League tables based on GCSE and A-level results have led secondary schools to focus on subjects in which better GCSE results can be achieved, and pupils often prefer to take a GCSE in a subject that's compulsory until the age of 16 than add to their workload by taking one that's not - such as history. All this has led to a 10 per cent drop in history GCSE entries since 1995, putting it back to around 30 per cent. However, this is roughly where it was when the GCSE was introduced; it's not, as Skidmore implies, a decline from some past golden age when all 14-to-16-year-olds took the subject.

Blaming the curriculum is wrong. In 2007 the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority reported that a survey of 1,700 children, two-thirds of whom gave up the subject at 14, found that half of them liked and enjoyed the subject. And it's important not to exaggerate the decline either. A recent Ofsted report on the teaching of history in 166 primary and secondary schools noted that between 2007 and 2010 "there were more examination entries for history than for any other optional subject at GCSE level apart from design and technology".

The number of students taking GCSE history remained stable from 2000 to 2010. Moreover, Ofsted reported that "numbers taking the subject at A-level have risen steadily over the past ten years", making history one of the "top five subject choices at A-level". The report found the subject was well taught at a majority of schools at all levels, and that pupils enjoyed their lessons, found history fun, and praised it for making them think. Far from being in a state of terminal decay, then, history in schools is actually a success story.

Still, nobody seriously interested in the subject would want to disagree with the proposition that more schoolchildren should study it. Is the way forward to focus it exclusively on British history? In fact, the National Curriculum for children up to the age of 14 already has a chronological account of British history from 1066 to the present as its core, surrounding it with forays into European and extra-European history to introduce pupils to other countries and cultures. And local history is also a key part of the curriculum, as Skidmore would discover if he actually bothered to read it. So the Ofsted report, surveying the content of teaching across the country, concludes firmly that "the view that too little British history is taught in secondary schools in England is a myth". Complaints about the "Nazification" of the curriculum are mere rhetoric and nothing more. One can smell more than a whiff of Tory Euro-scepticism in the complaint that pupils learn more about Russia and Germany than they do about England.

Would a greater emphasis on kings and queens help? Dominic Sandbrook notes that, "for all the efforts of academic historians, popular history is still dominated by vivid characters and bloody battles, often shot through with a deep sense of national pride". But many of the most popular history books don't deal with British history at all, even if they do focus on vivid characters and bloody battles: Antony Beevor's Stalingrad, for instance; or Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao: The Untold Story; or, in a rather different way, Edmund de Waal's bestselling part-history, part-memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes. And many popular history books deal with social and cultural history, including, ironically, Sandbrook's own marvellous, best-selling trilogy of books on post-war Britain; some of the greatest bestsellers of recent years, such as Dava Sobel's Longitude, are on subjects about as far away as one could imagine from kings and battles.

How about teaching narrative rather than analysis, then? It is wrong, David Starkey has asserted, that history in the schools has modelled itself on university research. What we need, he declares, is to give children "a sense of change and development over time . . . The skills-based teaching of history is a catastrophe." But what sells in the bookshops or what succeeds on TV is not necessarily what should be taught in schools. Teaching is a profession with its own skills and techniques, different from those needed to present a television programme (as Starkey's performance on the reality TV show Jamie's Dream School dramatically indicated). Physics, biology and every other subject in schools is taught along lines that reflect research in the universities. One wouldn't expect physics teachers to ignore Stephen Hawking's ideas about black holes, or biology teachers to keep quiet about the discovery of DNA. So what makes history so different? Chemistry devotes a large amount of time to transmitting skills to students; why shouldn't history?

The narrative that the critics want shoved down pupils' throats in schools - as they sit in rows silently learning lists of kings and queens - is essentially what's been called the "Whig theory of history"; that is, telling a story of British history over a long period of time, stressing the development of parliamentary democracy in a narrative that culminates in a present viewed in self-congratulatory terms.

This theory was exploded by professional historians more than half a century ago, under the influence of the classic tract The Whig Interpretation of History by the conservative historian Herbert Butterfield. Yet it still has strong support in the media. The Daily Telegraph and the right-wing think tank Civitas even campaigned to get H E Marshall's patriotic textbook Our Island Story put on the National Curriculum. Dating from the Edwardian era, this book, with its stories of how the British brought freedom and justice to the Maoris of New Zealand and many other lucky peoples across the world, has rightly been described as "imperialist propaganda masquerading as history". In what other academic subject would people seriously advocate a return to a state of knowledge as it was a hundred years ago?

Perhaps instead of this outdated volume they might therefore use Simon Jenkins's new A Short History of England. But its message is in the end not very different. Interviewed in the Guardian, its author intoned with breathtaking complacency his view that "England really is a most successful country" and claimed that English history was separate from that of the other European powers. "The British talent," if we are to believe Jenkins, "had always been to keep away from wars overseas. We had kept out of Europe all the time."

Jenkins talks as if there had never been a Norman conquest, an Angevin regime, a hundred years war, a Dutch invasion (in 1688), joint rule of a large chunk of Germany (Hanover) from 1714 to 1837, or a series of wars with France, ranging across the world from India to the Americas, from the age of Louis XIV to that of Napoleon; as if there had never been any immigration or any cultural exchange with the Continent; as if our history had not been part of Europe's through two world wars and the ensuing decades of peace. The thought of such an ignorant and insular approach to English history finding its way into the hands of children is frightening; but on the other hand, its errors of fact and perspective are so egregious that it might provide a good starting point from which they can sharpen their critical faculties.

It's all very well demanding that the curriculum should be filled with facts, but what facts you choose depends on what vision you have of British national identity. The concept of "British history" itself is contentious and politically debatable, which perhaps is why some of the National Curriculum's critics advocate a narrative history of England instead; though in the case of Jenkins the justification for this, that "England is an island", is a geographical howler that even six-year-olds should be able to spot. Time and again, the advocates of a national narrative confuse English history with British history, in a way that would not go down well in Cardiff or Edinburgh.

History at every level, not just in the universities, is endlessly contentious and argumentative. How can this provide a basis for a unified national consciousness? Rote learning suppresses critical thought; narrative isn't something you can teach unless you subject it to critical analysis and for that you need the skills to interrogate it. For analysis, especially in depth, you need to study selected topics, even if it has to be within a broader chronological context. Critics who complain of the breaking up of the seamless web of chronology have no concept of what history teaching and learning actually involve.

Forcing students to study a narrowly focused curriculum based on British kings and queens would soon lead to students in their thousands being put off history as a subject. There would be a collapse of take-up at GCSE and A-level. Our culture and our national identity would be impoverished. A quack remedy for a misdiagnosed complaint, it would only make things worse. The real threat to history teaching in our schools doesn't come from the curriculum, it comes from somewhere else, not mentioned by Skidmore at all: it comes from the academies, Michael Gove's flagship secondary schools, which are free from local authority control and don't have to follow the National Curriculum. In 2011, just 20 per cent of academy students taking GCSEs included history among their subjects. As academies - which already make up 10 per cent of secondary schools - spread further, with government encouragement, the teaching of history really will be in crisis.

Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History and president of Wolfson College, Cambridge. He is the author of "The Third Reich at War" (Penguin, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?

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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle