Realising Socialism Abroad? What Communist History Has To Offer In International History Education

Ilana Hartikainen

Even in an age of increasing globalization and close connections between different countries and regions, most history in schools is still taught from a national perspective. American students, for example, learn of the American Revolutionary War with a clear set of good guys and bad guys, never giving a thought to the soldiers who fought on the other side and the reasons they might have had for doing this. When they turn to English history — or the history of anywhere else in Europe or even the world, like Ancient Rome or the Spanish Inquisition — this is relegated to the ‘World History’ section. Immediately, divisions like this contribute to a nationalist view of the world by implicitly building an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, or more specifically an ‘our history’ and a ‘their history’.

While the factors that drive the success of nationalist political parties, for example, lie far beyond the bounds of school history classes, this should not prevent education systems from taking every possible opportunity offer views of history that go beyond the borders of a national master narrative. At the Department of Education at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR) in Prague, the group of historians and educators who developed the educational website Socialism Realised: Life in Communist Czechoslovakia, 1948 – 89 has some experience in promoting this idea. For this purpose, we’ve found that it helps if you liberate history from the bounds of, well, history.

Street photo from the “Velvet revolution” in Prague 1989, by Josef Šrámek ml.

Our journey along the path of international education began in 2015, when we decided to make an online portal that would allow international (English speaking) audiences to use the wealth of material that USTR) had built up to help Czech teachers teach 20th century history to their students. What quickly became apparent, however, was that the vast majority of the materials were practically unusable with students who came from outside of the Czech context. We had intended to base the activities in the theories of constructivist pedagogy, in which the teachers act as guides for their students, who learn through guiding questions in a process called inquiry based learning. However, most materials would have required the teachers to turn to more traditional methods of instruction, in which they one-sidedly transmitted information about the Czechoslovak state socialist past, for which the students would have no use once they left the classroom.

What we ended up with in response to this problem was Socialism Realised: Life in Communist Czechoslovakia, 1948-89, an online educational environment in which users can build their critical thinking skills while discussing moments from Czechoslovakia’s state socialist past through the lens of four internationally understandable perspectives: official ideology, personal stories, oppression, and memory. The website contains a catalogue of primary sources and audiovisual material that allows users to view each moment through each perspective and challenges them to analyse the catalogue’s objects with the help of guiding questions. Its development included a thorough process of cultural translation, geared to make each item accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

In promoting our resource, though, we often run up against a very fair question: why should anyone care about this? Why should anyone teach Czechoslovak history abroad? Although we based our resource on the Czechoslovak past, it wasn’t because we consider it to be somehow exceptional, but rather because it’s where our expertise lies. However, the reasoning comes back to the problem of nationally-based history teaching as well. Introducing far flung students to the history of a country that they may not have previously heard of, particularly when the material is multi-perspective and urges them to think about how people there actually lived, combats the process of othering that nationally-based history education contributes to.

Figure 2. Vaclav Havel and protesters commemorate the struggle for Freedom and Democracy at Prague memorial during 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Our primary concern, then, isn’t that students walk away remembering what happened in 1968 or 1989 in Czechoslovakia. Rather, the aim is that they walk away having engaged with material that pushed them to think critically about the media sources in front of them, and to consider the broad themes that had emerged from the sources, like idea of civil disobedience or what it’s like to live under an occupation. Still, we felt that a platform like Socialism Realised would be even stronger if it included material relating to other countries’ pasts — and so we embarked on our Experience of State Socialism Reimagined Erasmus+ project along with partners from Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Bosnia & Herzegovina. As the project teams began gathering material that could be put into the form of a ready-made lesson plan and shared internationally, it soon became clear that the lesson plans’ overarching themes had civic angles in addition to historical ones.

The team from USTR, for example, landed on a lesson plan that explored elections in Czechoslovakia. Elections are, of course, something that students are almost universally familiar with, so that made the topic accessible to begin with. Their existing knowledge of what democratic elections tend to look like is then able to intertwine with the sources that the team chose, guiding them to see the ways in which elections in state socialist countries function differently and, indeed, serve different purposes than elections in democratic countries do. And while this is never the primary pedagogical aim, the sources can also call to mind contemporary situations with which the students can draw parallels.   

In this project, Czechoslovak history was once again a lens through which students could delve into a broader civic theme. Our partner organisations took similar routes, be it ideology in the public space from the Slovak group or forced migration from the Bulgarian team. While we were happy to introduce the specifics in each of these cases, our primary aim wasn’t to have students remember all of these names and dates, but rather to allow the case to open up discussions that could both introduce students to new parts of the world and combine history and civics in a fun, engaging way. And, judging by the responses from the teachers who took part in our piloting process, we were quite successful.

Figure 3. Prague Cityscape Silhouette.

Beyond the fact that this region constitutes our area of expertise, though, we see certain other pedagogical advantages of using state socialist history outside of the countries that actually experienced it. The situations from state socialist history that students explore through our material is both distant and proximate enough that it offers a safe space in which they can critically reflect on their own present. Introducing more people to this history will also, we hope, help break down whatever remain of the stereotypes left over from that period. The process of developing both our approach and this material hasn’t been entirely straightforward, of course; while we are always happy to see when sources we’ve chosen work well in the classroom, our mistakes also serve important guiding roles. At the moment, we’re only one team doing this work, though, and larger-scale changes will require lots of additional work. By advocating for the benefits of teaching socialist history abroad in a constructivist, multi-perspective way, that breaks the bounds of traditional history teaching, we hope that we will also encourage others who study different regions and different periods to do the same, and look across their own national borders.

Ilana Hartikainen is a member of the Department of Education at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague and a co-creator of the educational website Socialism Realised: Life in Communist Czechoslovakia, 1948 – 89. She is also a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Helsinki, where she researches celebrity populist success in hybrid media systems through the case study of the Czech Republic. She is also part of the Kone Foundation-funded Now Time, Us Space project, where her work will look at populism through the lens of history, memory, and the public space.

Figure 1. Street photo from the “Velvet revolution” in Prague 1989, by Josef Šrámek ml. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence.

Figure 2. Vaclav Havel and protesters commemorate the struggle for Freedom and Democracy at Prague memorial during 1989 Velvet Revolution. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Figure 3. Prague Cityscape Silhouette. Black and white image of the silhouette of houses and Prague television tower. Reproduced under a public domain license.

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