Nelson to oust Nazis

August 13, 2004

The excessive focus on Nazi history in schools may be on the wane, suggests Peter Furtado

Educationists worry about the sway the Nazis hold in schools. Ofsted recently said that secondary schools focused too much on them and too little on the British Empire, even though last October Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, found himself defending the study of Hitler when faced with a complaint from the German ambassador that our national obsession with Nazism was keeping alive friction between the two countries.

But Clarke had earlier noted that young people can have too much of a bad thing, singling out the fact that some students can tackle the Nazis three times in their school career.

Just how Hitler ever got this unhealthy grip has long been a matter of debate. The key is the vicious cycle involving publishers, who size up demand for textbooks on different aspects of the curriculum; school managers, who have to eke out their budgets; and teachers who, with their eyes on the league tables, feel reluctant to shift to more exciting but more challenging options. At the same time, parents are demanding "relevant" (aka modern) history.

All blame one another for force-feeding the young with a diet of Nazis. And all argue that Nazism and the fight against it ought to figure in schools.

The dangers of leaving such a topic to the open market is that this could allow rogue elements to step in and pervert the truth for their own, undesirable ends. However, I feel that times may be changing.

Initial evidence comes from History Today 's annual survey of Britain's higher education history departments. For several years this has centred on the ever-narrowing focus of school history. But not in 2004. Not only has the number of applications to read history soared across the board, but the courses most in demand have become broader in scope.

This echoes what we see coming out of publishing houses. Of course, excellent historians such as Simon Sebag Montefiore and Richard Overy are writing about the dictators - but it seems that fewer run-of-the-mill titles on Nazism, the Holocaust and Stalinism are crossing my desk than did a few years ago. Just possibly, David Irving's own-goal libel case led to public feeling that the largest issues surrounding Hitler had been settled.

The number of memoirs is down, too - most have already been written - while professional history writers are moving to more diverse and more exotic topics, such as Jack Collins' Spice: A History of Temptation and Michael Lewis' A Social History of Nelson's Navy .

Yet these point to wider trends. Spice crosses centuries, continents and cultures. A tidal wave of books on Nelson is appearing in anticipation of next year's bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar - a sign that, if the tyranny of Nazism is in decline, it is being replaced in the media (thankfully, not in our schools) by a tyranny of anniversaries.

In trying to escape this anniversary stranglehold, writers - in an attempt to grasp the subtle historical origins of the strange new world we live in - are turning to topics, such as the spice trade, that try in various ways to finger the elusive essence of our world. Such books focus on the cross-connections between East and West, the fundamentals of civilisation, of geopolitics (the university survey suggested courses in the history of American foreign policy are particularly popular), and of cultural contacts and conflicts.

So, are the Nazis being knocked off their podium by an unholy, and heavily bearded, alliance of Old Father Time and Osama bin Laden?

Peter Furtado is editor of the monthly magazine History Today .

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