John Brady Kiesling: History lessons for the Balkans





[John Brady Kiesling is a former US diplomat and author of "Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower".]

The new Greek textbook seems a sensible attempt to match the teaching of history to current Greek reality. Among its goals is to downplay the inevitability of national/racial/religious conflict in the Balkans, to reduce the sense of Greek victimisation by hostile outsiders and to weaken the myth that Greek national independence is a gift of the church.
 
Thousands of young Greek university graduates wait ten years on a roster for appointment as a schoolteacher. The pay is miserable, and they start their career in a remote village. If they looked more carefully at the Greek history they aspire to teach, they might well opt for another profession.
 
The Iraq on our television screens resembles late Ottoman Macedonia a century ago. When Greek, Bulgarian or Vlach freedom fighters arrived in the village in 1907, the schoolteacher was the first person they murdered. Today, Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish militias, with equally untidy beards but deadlier weapons, eliminate Iraqi teachers for the same reason.
 
Murdering schoolteachers is a token of respect for how dangerous they are. Winning the battle for Macedonia required persuading illiterate peasants that they were not humble taxpayers of the Ottoman Empire but rather patriotic sons of the Greek/Bulgarian Nation. The Nation, however, was a recent import from Europe, one prudent peasants viewed with alarm. To mobilise village children to kill and die for politicians in Athens or Sofia required giving them a nationalist education.
 
This is the context in which to understand the impulse of the Church of Greece, the nationalist bullies of Chrysi Avgi and a few Thessaloniki (ed. note: Salonica) politicians to burn the new sixth-grade Greek history textbooks. Mystical nationalism was a successful ideology for Northern Greece in the early 20th century. Perhaps it will be again. At the moment, however, people do not benefit when politicians and priests assure them that history proves God smiles on their hatred of the neighbours. ...


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