Nicole Itano of the Christian Science Monitor reports on a fascinating project that seeks to change the parameters of national identity in the Balkans:

In this still-fragile region, history is often served up as a nationalistic tale that highlights the wrongs perpetrated by others. Now a group of historians from across the region is trying to change the way the past is taught in southeast Europe – from Croatia to Turkey – in an effort to encourage reconciliation rather than division.

“History plays an important role in shaping national identity,” said Christina Koulouri, the editor of a series of new history textbooks and a professor of history at the University of the Peloponnese in Greece. “We want to change history teaching because we are concerned about the joint future of the Balkans and we think mutual understanding can be promoted through better history teaching.”

More than 60 scholars and teachers from around the Balkans have joined to create a new series of history books that tackle some of the most controversial periods in the region. The books, which are being translated into 10 regional languages, present history from various perspectives and excerpt historical documents to challenge interpretations of key events like the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

Most students, Ms. Koulouri says, know little about their neighbors, despite the region’s intertwined past and the relative youth of most of the countries that exist today. Schools typically use government-issued texts in which wars – and there have been many in the region over the centuries – are portrayed in “us versus them” terms with ancient wrongs visited again and again.

The Joint History Project, run by the Greek-based Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe (CDRSEE), has translated the books into Greek, Serbian, and Albanian, and has begun training teachers how to use them.

Dubravka Stojanovic, a professor of history at the University of Belgrade, has witnessed first hand how history is used for political means. Under
Slobodan Milosevic, the country’s textbooks were changed in 1993, during the Bosnian war.

“The aim of that change was to show that the peoples in ex-Yugoslavia lived in constant conflict since the 12th century or so,” she says. “The intention was to show that the war was something normal; that it was the normal state of things for Serbians and Croats to hate each other.”

Now, says Dr. Stojanovic, who is editor of the Serbian editions of the series and who helped organize some of the first teacher-training efforts in Serbia, the texts are being changed again, this time to vilify communists.

The project has run into some problems, particularly in Serbia.

I’m reminded, of course, of struggles over history textbooks in Japan and the United States (the fact that groups tried to get the “Out of India” theory into US textbooks is kind of disturbing, but no less so then attempts to exclude mentions of Japanese internment or cast the Civil War as a struggle over “States’ Rights”).

So, dear readers, any thoughts about the Balkan history project? Or what about your own favorite examples of identity construction through textbooks?