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Latvian historians debate school reform

  • 2006-02-22
  • By Ben Nimmo
RIGA - The Latvian government recently announced that it wants schoolchildren to study the country's history as a separate subject, in order to protect national identity. But in a country whose history is still under debate, the reforms are proving to be controversial.
"We need a strong system to protect our national identity while remaining open to outside influences," says Minister for Education and Science Ina Druviete. "I've received hundreds of letters of support for this initiative: society demands it, and the system serves society."
Dr. Antonijs Zunda, advisor to the president on historical issues, also stressed the move's popular appeal. "The history of the state is very important to people here, and it's been shown by the number of letters we've received on the subject," he said.

But some experts are worried that it may lead to an ideological view of history.

"The main argument used to back this reform is patriotism. History is a subject which teaches students to think critically. One way to teach a feeling of patriotism would be to use positive examples from history, but no country's history is only made up of positive examples, and those who want to show it all positively could distort the situation," said Gvido Straume, a professor of history at the University of Latvia. "People forget that in Soviet times, history was a political tool for turning people into patriots; we've come a long way since then, but it's still not always clear where history ends and politics begins."

History and politics are certainly closely linked here. Latvia's renewed independence is based on the claim that the country's annexation by the Soviet Union was an illegal act of occupation, a view which has won support in the West. Moscow, however, claims that Latvia volunteered to join the U.S.S.R., thereby calling into question a whole series of issues from the treatment of the Russian-speaking minority to Latvia's share of the Soviet Union's international debt.

A further scandal erupted late in 2005 when a Moscow film studio produced a documentary alleging that Latvia supports the resurgence of neo-Nazi groups: Latvian historians condemned it as biased and unscientific, prompting the Russian ambassador to Latvia to pen an open letter accusing them of double standards. And the most eagerly-awaited event of the year will be the opening of the regimental archive of the Latvian 15th Waffen-SS Division, recently returned from Holland and already the subject of intense debate both in Riga and Moscow (see story page 4.)

Despite this troubled background, Druviete rejects claims that the history reform is about countering Russian propaganda: "We're not going to teach ideological history. We have to find the right approach to inform our students of the significance of historical facts for our present and give them an understanding of why the world is as we see it."

The distinction between teaching ideological history and informing students of the significance of facts is a very fine one, but Zunda believes that it can be maintained.

"The reform is intended to improve children's respect for and knowledge of Latvian history, help strengthen and preserve our identity in the new EU, provide a foundation for social integration and lead to some feelings of patriotism," she said. "It won't idolize our history, but will allow for differing views and interpretations."

Interpretation will be the key in this debate. If the reform allows teachers and pupils to make up their own minds about historical events, based on the study of documented sources, it may well come to be seen as a success. But whether it succeeds or not, it is unlikely to move history further from the political sphere.

As Druviete admits, the reform is a political act: "This is a political decision, but it is not politicised."

With pilot schools due to implement the reform this September, and a general election due in October, Latvia's debate on the role of history in politics and politics in history is sure to continue.