Missing pages of European history

Without a doubt, the European Union is unprecedented as a peace project and otherwise. However, it has not ended the war in Europe. The Yugoslav Wars in the 90s, the violent conflict between Ukraine and Russia for instance, were not prevented by the existence of the European Union. What „any war between France and Germany becomes not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible“ as it says in the Schuman Declaration 1950 has made war neither unthinkable nor materially impossible in the whole of Europe. 

Nevertheless, it is common for politicians within the EU to say things like „Europe is the guardian of peace“ (Jean-Claude Juncker 2018) and EU websites talk about „70 years of peace in Europe“. It is the exception, not the rule that this is followed by „except by the horrible wars in the 90s and the war in Ukraine“. Even if „European history“ only means „history of the EU“ to those who use that phrase within the Union it would be wrong not to count the wars of the 90s as part of it. 

Several EU states played a role in the wars of the 90s – for instance by being part of the coalition that bombed Belgrade in 1999 or by sending Blue Helmets to guard the „safety zone“ of Srebrenica or, on a more positive note, sending aid and receiving refugees who had to leave their home due to wars. 

Recognising these wars as part of European history is not just about „pleasing“ the Western Balkans region, even though it would be a badly needed sign of respect for the victims. It is also about looking at the mistakes of European states, the flaws in our systems and decision-making processes that caused us, not to react sooner to help to prevent these wars in the first place. Many people are convinced that something like the atrocities of these wars could never happen again in today’s Europe. Some claim that the EU and its alliance partners have learned their lesson and that something that poses such a high risk of loss of lives of many Europeans would make us act quickly and in agreement with each other. 

However, we have seen that other issues that other life-and-death-matters in recent times have not necessarily caused European leaders to stick together, speak with one voice, defend European values and react quickly. They were not able to do so regarding the management of our external borders, saving people from drowning in front of our borders and in the fight against the pandemic. Foreign and security policy action by the Union still requires unanimity among the member states, which is not impossible to achieve but normally takes time, possibly too much time to save lives. Uncomfortable truths of the past bear that lesson. For the European Union to learn from it though, we in the EU must recognise it as European history that happened maybe not primarily due to our actions, but at least partly because of our non-reaction. 

In my recent work, I have been looking into the question of whether the Yugoslav Wars are being taught in Austrian schools. I found that despite Austria is home to a large number of people who have a Western Balkans background the wars of the 90s are rarely being covered in history class. The causes are multiple. History teachers have little time to teach an awful lot about the history of the world, political systems and dangers to our democracies of today. Many of them feel like they do not know enough about this part of European history to discuss it with their students and react adequately to possibly conflicting opinions of students or even parents. There is a lack of teaching materials in the German language and school books tend to cover the basic dates of the wars at maximum. 

The curriculum itself is not the problem. It is set up in a way that hands kids the tools to recognise concepts such as nationalism, antisemitism or genocide and apply them to all kinds of conflicts. The teachers could choose the Yugoslav Wars as an example but are not obliged. Alternatively, they could pick the Middle East conflict or the genocide in Rwanda. The curriculum is flexible here to allow teachers to work with their classes according to the interests of the students.

The majority of teachers I spoke to so far do not cover the topic in class yet. However, all of them said they would like to cover it from time to time. All except one said they would participate in a seminar on the Yugoslav wars and that they would love access to quality sources and teaching materials. 

I also ask them about the reasons for wanting to cover it. They believe the students would be rather highly interested in the topic and that it relates to the family history of many students. In their professional opinion, these wars show certain patterns that occur with most ethnic and religious conflicts. Some called the Yugoslav Wars an important part of the geographic, historic and economic situation in Europe overall and crucial for the development of the European Union back then and today. Last but not least, they said that it is vital for the students to understand that peace cannot be taken for granted. Not even nowadays. Not even due to the existence of the European Union. 

For all these reasons my project aims at resulting in further training for teachers and giving them access to the materials and sources, they need to help us all remember a part of European history to learn from it for the future.