A Joint Past for Europe’s Future

National Memory, Bilateral Reconciliation and the German-Polish Textbook Initiative


Thursday, November 3, 2016, 6:00 – 8:00 PM
Panel Discussion at the GHI
Speakers: Lily Gardner Feldman (AICGS), Igor Kąkolewski (Polish Academy of Sciences), Simone Lässig (German Historical Institute)

In cooperation with the German and Polish Embassies, Washington DC.

Panel discussion “A Joint Past for Europe’s Future” in cooperation with the German and Polish Embassies, Washington DC. © Chester Simpson

The panel discussion “A Joint Past for Europe’s Future: National Memory, Bilateral Reconciliation, and the German-Polish Textbook Initiative,” moderated by Cathleen Fisher from the American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, featured Lily Gardner Feldman from the AICGS, Igor Kakolewski from the Polish Academy of Sciences and Simone Lässig from the GHI. The panel addressed the recently published first volume of a joint German-Polish Textbook series entitled Europe – Our History. To start the discussion, Simone Lässig provided introductory remarks in which she briefly outlined the history of the project. Her introduction was followed by remarks by Maciej Pisarski, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Poland, and Holger Mahnicke, Minister of Communications and Culture of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. 

In framing the discussion, Cathleen Fisher asked the panelists to provide a general context for the textbook and to elucidate both the challenges and the unique successes of the project. Lily Gardner Feldman provided comparisons to other similar textbook projects, giving the audience an opportunity to see this textbook in the larger context. She pointed out that whereas the Franco-German textbook resulted from a recommendation by a youth organization, the German-Polish textbook was spurred on by the governments of the respective countries. In addition, Ms. Gardner Feldman stressed the important fact that, in the case of the latter, civil society was nonetheless connected and involved in the process, a critical precondition for the success of such a project. Despite the fact that the project can be placed in a broader context, the speakers all addressed the uniqueness of this particular textbook: Igor Kakolewski and Simone Lässig pointed out that Germans and Poles know less about each other’s history than was the case in the German-French context. 

The discussion also provided a clear-eyed view of the challenges that the project faced, including drafts in two different languages and an editorial process that involved multiple stages of translation for each section of the textbook to ensure that both versions were indeed equivalent and stayed true to the conceptual framework of the editorial board. In this context, Simone Lässig and Igor Kakolewski both also stressed the different cultures of learning and diverging didactic methods that had to be overcome.  The point was also made that Germany is currently a diverse society, one that has embraced, to some degree, its status as an Einwanderungsland, or “immigration society,” whereas Poland is currently more homogenous. This affects the groups that seek representation in a history textbook.

All of the panelists agreed on the symbolic significance of the textbook, with Lily Gardner Feldman calling it a “beacon of hope.” She pointed out that in battling stereotypes, education plays a critical role, because children carry the knowledge of the future and that through the educational process children can gain empathy for the respective “other.” The panelists saw it as a good sign that civil society was involved so deeply and with such agency in the process – though the politicians encouraged the project, they did not get involved in the content or the concept of the book. In many ways the very process of working together to create the final product was a part of the outcome – the challenge of the joint editorial process proved to be a triumph in its own right. As they wrapped up the discussion, the panelists emphasized that the short 20th century in Europe was a century of conflict and tragedy, but also a century of dialogue and partnership and good will in the latter half of the century. Nonetheless, the legacy of loss during the Second World War is still very much imprinted in the cultural memory of the Poles. Taking this into account, the panelists concluded that in order for such a process to be successful, both sides – perpetrators and victims – must work together to build trust and continue a process of reconciliation.