Colonialism - a European Site of Memory. Coming to Terms with the Past in Textbooks of the Twentieth Century

Colonialism was a European "project" supported by competing nations and nationalist movements. The purpose of this research project is to investigate the extent to which textbooks represent and interpret colonialism as a national, transnational or European phenomenon.

Focusing on Germany, France and the UK, the project investigates how colonialism has been represented and evaluated in textbooks since the beginning of the twentieth century. Focal issues within our work include European self-perceptions as reflected in colonial rule, which has been conceived of in terms of the "Western civilising mission" or as the "white man’s burden" and shaped to a considerable extent by the consistent creation of a sense of  difference from the peoples to be "civilised". The project also explores colonialism as a transnational phenomenon, thereby casting light on the various processes by which people have come to terms with the colonial past and developed cultures of memory as well as on shared areas of difficulty. In the long term, critical reflection on and reappraisal of the colonial past may be able to lay the foundations of a  European consciousness which would inform European politics in the future and which may serve to counteract the continent’s fragmentation.

The project’s objectives have arisen from the conviction that shared historical experience alone does not suffice to bring about genuine Europe-wide awareness of the issues; rather, European countries need to engage actively with their common history. Far from producing an interpretation of history which would be binding for all Europeans, this process is aimed at emphasising the inherently plural character of each of Europe’s historical narratives and raising awareness of the narratives with which others identify. We avoid the danger of relapsing into a latently colonial perspective by studying some examples of textbooks from former colonies within the project.



Funding: Federal Ministry of Education and Research

Duration: May 2009-April 2012