Re-Thinking History in Schools: What about the Little Folk?

The focus upon major battles and the Nazis threatens to leave young people with a limited understanding of the world we live in today

Mr. Gove’s decision to back down from the Anglo-centric history syllabus is a relief. Dropping Churchill is a shame, but the removal of men like Clive of India at least makes good sense. However, there are no major alterations to the History syllabus planned around World War II: a conflict which is woefully oversimplified and divided neatly into Italy, Japan, and Germany, against America, the USSR, the Empire, and the Free French. The reality is far from so simple, but the constraints of time and a borderline obsession with the Third Reich has stifled the debate about what other nations did in World War II. We need to ask what we want children to learn about the defining conflict in modern history.

Our teaching about the Axis powers in World War II could do much more to teach young people about the world today. Iraq, for example, was a Fascist ally during waves of nationalist, anti-British, and anti-Communist sentiment. Saddam Hussein would later rise to power greatly inspired by these principles, which continued to offer a strong base of support well after the end of the war. Hungary – an Axis ally often ignored due to its minimal military role – participated in the invasion of Yugoslavia and later the USSR. Last year, its controversial Fascist-leaning Regent Miklos Horthy had a statue put up in his honour; anti-Semitism and anti-Roma sentiments are sky high in both the government and the opposition. Salazar’s Portugal was the lesser-known of the Iberian dictatorships but proved as repressive as Spain. The focus on agriculture and exploitation of colonies is part of the reason that the Portuguese economy is so weak today. These are important points to consider, and few of them are touched on by the history syllabus.

Of course, in a classroom squeezing every Axis and Allied nation into the course would be ridiculous. Yet our A-Level History syllabus (OCR, for the record) had two definite fixations: Nazi Germany and the course of battles. What this gave us was a great ‘tactical’ understanding of the Second World War, if you will: we could discuss Swing Youth, whether the plans for D-Day were effective, the defence of Berlin, and the German Winter Offensive. We could not consider the alliance and role of smaller nations: nations which, today, play an increasing role in the globalised society. Our knowledge of Pearl Harbour and the Hitlerjugend is interesting and insightful, but not terribly useful in day to day life. These aspects are not unimportant by any stretch of the imagination, but they should not be taught to the detriment of more nuanced political issues.

If there is one change we should make, it should be to adapt the Key Stage 3 proposal of having children research a nation outside the UK to more adequately cover World War II. By dividing classes into groups, each tasked with a chosen nation, and ending the project with presentations, at the very least we would give students the opportunity to understand the history which underpins a lot of the tension in global politics today. World War II’s impact is still felt today, and without a policy change, we risk allowing children to miss too much of it.

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Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan

I am a 1st Year Undergraduate studying English at Pembroke, with an interest in religion, race and immigration.

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