Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times

Marc Ferro - The use and abuse of history or how the past is taught (1981) 

 '“Tell me, mother, why do people hate the Jews so much?”

“Because they killed the infant Jesus and poisoned the wells. That is what I learnt when I was small, in the catechism.”

Heydrich: “I know all this is a pack of lies, but who cares; the tradition can be useful.”


Reinhard Heydrich, as SS-Gruppenführer in 1940. Heydrich chaired the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, which formalised plans for the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" - the deportation and genocide of all Jews in German-occupied Europe. Copyright: Bundesarchiv Bild.


‘Our image of other peoples, or of ourselves for that matter, reflects the history we are taught as children. This history marks us for life. Its representation, which is for each one of us a discovery of the world, of the past of societies, embraces all our passing or permanent opinions, so that the traces of our first questioning, our first emotions, remain indelible. It is these traces which we must know or rediscover, both our own and those of other peoples, in Trinidad as in Moscow or Yokohama. It is a journey through both time and space. It has the quality of reflecting moving images from the past, for it is not simply that this past is different for everyone, but that everybody’s memory changes with time, and that these images alter as knowledge and ideologies develop and as the function of history changes within society.

It is high time to confront these differing presentations of the past, for with the widening of the world’s horizons, with its economic unification but continuing political disunity, our differing views of the past have, more than ever, become one of the factors in conflict between states, nations, cultures and ethnic groups. To control the past is to master the present, to legitimize dominion and justify legal claims. It is the dominant powers – states, churches, political parties, private interests – which own or finance the media or means of reproduction, whether it be school-books or strip-cartoons, films or television programmes. Increasingly, they are abandoning us all to a uniform past. Revolt comes from those to whom history is “forbidden”. (…)

Provided we do not limit ourselves to the study of school textbooks or strip-cartoons, nor to the present-day constitution of the historical science, the history which is taught to children, to adults, will also be able to tell us something about the identity of a given society and its status across time. (…)

Independently of its scientific vocation, history effectively exercises a double function, both therapeutic and militant. At different times the “cause” of this mission has changed, but not its significance: in Franco’s Spain it was to glorify Christ the King; during the Republics in France, the nation and the state; in the USSR or in China it is no less missionary as regards the communist party; the talk of science and methodology are no more than fig-leaves covering the nakedness of ideology.’  


The broken mirror

‘The mirror has been shattered. Universal history is dead; it died from being a European mirage, which reflected Europe’s own illusions as to her own destiny. (…)  

Through all these epochs and cultures, history clearly stems from many different centres with their own ways of doing, forms, norms and demands. There is, first of all, “institutional history” which dominates, because it expresses or promotes a policy, an ideology or a government. Whether it serves Christ, sultan, republic, church or even party, it is based on history in the making; like all history, it therefore evolves and constantly changes its referential system. It undergoes all kinds of metamorphosis and can accommodate all manner of writing. Such history is based on a hierarchy of sources. At its head in all their glory come the words of the great, royal autographs and other holy texts, whether Marxist or Maoist; then, though less imposingly, come commentaries, laws, treaties, hadith, or statistics; and at the tail of the procession, like some humble third estate in black, march public and private documents, anonymous or named witnesses whose role is at most to confirm the miraculous doings of the rulers. Such history-from-above is embodied in institutions and, since it essentially deals with acts and decisions of a particular power, whether by official right or indirectly, it perishes when its supporting institution collapses. (…)

Societies’ memories, whether individual or collective, are a second centre of history. At some times and in some particular places, this centre can be confused with the first, especially with institutional anti-history, when the group can only preserve its identity through traditions, whether oral, cultural or even alimentary. However, this centre itself is quite different in several respects from the first one. History of this kind does not have specialist servants at its beck and call, i.e. historians. Hence it does not have to observe the customs and rules of the guild, which vary across time and place, but are at least identifiable, regulated and defined in all cases. A singularity in such history is that it is not subject to criticism; another feature is that it often confuses time, e.g. with myth and reality, especially as regards matters of origins, as with Berber tribes, the Japanese nation, or whatever group. History like this survives as autonomous and intact or perhaps incorporated elsewhere, and it has flourished despite all the denigration it may have to face in official, scholarly history. It is not transmitted in the same way as anti-history but lives side-by-side with the institutional history, which it may have been itself, in the distant past, though it has long vanished as such.

These two centres of history prevail: they mix certainty and illusion, and cannot produce a single universally-trusted scientific truth, for the versions of the past suggested, imposed or copied are different and contradictory. In these circumstances, to “grind out” some “universal history” from a single centre, and even more, a single institution, is an act of imposture or tyranny. It is the heart of liberty to allow several historical traditions to coexist and even to fight it out. To ignore these histories would, however, also be illusory and absurd, because they have a reality as do all beliefs, faiths and power. To construct a history on the basis of such histories would be wrong, if that were all that was attempted. This was appreciated by the founders of the Annales School, Bloch, Febvre and in particular Fernand Braudel, who saw the two-fold necessity of knowing history and of putting it on new, generally experimental foundations. I myself know practitioners of such experimental history who take as their startingpoint documents, figures or pictures to undertake analysis of the past. This kind of history is still incomplete and fragmentary, and cannot claim to offer a universal explanation of societies’ development as a whole. It tries to be comprehensive, and even total, but it is not totalitarian. It is the future of history.

History: what teaching methods for the future?

For over a generation the western world has successively debated the nature and function of history as a discipline. This debate is a result of several phenomena:

1 The bankruptcy of ideology has had the effect of making historical discourse less authoritative; quite suddenly, historical writing has appeared to be suspect in its approach, perhaps excessively indulgent towards one or another style of thinking: liberal, conservative, Marxist. Such questioning affects not only the interpretation of events (“Who caused the war of 1914–18?” or “Was the revolution of 1917 inevitable?”), but also the very choice of “facts” to be discussed and regarded as significant (is it more important to study wars or taxation during the reign of Louis XIV? Is it more important to study family history or international relations?, etc.).

2 The changes that the world has seen since 1945, especially decolonization, have had the effect of multiplying the various centres of historical production. Besides “white history”, which itself varies according to ideology, other perceptions and interpretations have emerged which are not Eurocentric, for example, in the Islamo-Arab world, and in the Far East, in China. Parallel to this, and in contrast to the nation-state vision of the past, many societies have also claimed their right to a place in history, and have contested the official version (Corsicans and Bretons in France, blacks in the USA). The idea that there might be a single and universally acceptable vision of history has become increasingly illusory.

3 The multiplication of forms of history, which is seen by the appearance of films, television programmes, novels or even cartoon-strips, has relativized the traditional discussion of history, previously the domain of schools and scholars alone. In the consciousness of today’s societies, there is a certain telescoping of historical knowledge, the verdicts emanating from these various sources. Their multiplication has also caused some confusion in chronological structuring, in that the reader or viewer is successively assailed by Napoleon, the Vikings, and the First World War.

4 The questioning and this relativization of historical discourse have become all the more confusing themselves have for many years been attacking traditional history. This history, described as “chronological” (i.e. based on events), is no longer seen as a final product. Rather, the narration itself must be “deconstructed” and used as a starting-point for historical analysis. To achieve this, historians have recommended a method of defining questions, objects, objectives and problems to be solved. This implies a divorce from the old chronological history: such narratives, being a synthesis of a single society’s various individual memories, are said no longer to represent the culminating point of historical work, but only a stage of this work. Besides, it has become clear that the division of history into chronological parts, though useful for the reconstruction of what has been experienced, none the less ignores long-term historical processes such as social and economic trends, the transformations of customs and beliefs, etc.

5 Furthermore, some teachers have become conscious of these kinds of problem and have sought to understand the mechanisms of the society in which they teach history. They have been struck by the fact that their students want to understand the connections between the present and the past, and they have felt that their discipline needs to help make comprehensible the origins of our own times, i.e. to create aware and selfconscious citizens. Without such efforts, the very discipline of history would lose its significance. Such teachers have thus analysed the status and the positions of those to whom their teaching is addressed, so as to adapt their teaching to the needs and capacities of each one, according to age, social and ethnic origins, etc. A debate over the ways of teaching history has to a certain extent taken over from the acquisition of knowledge pure and simple; and in the classroom sociological enquiry has taken over from general historical knowledge. In some cases, in France, for instance, single-street histories of schoolchildren’s neighbourhoods have become widespread as an extreme response to the questioning of “historical facts”. Consequently, students learn how to approach documents – even contemporary ones – rather than merely memorize dates and events. The result, however, is that sometimes “children no longer know any history”. Given this situation, the aims and objectives of the teaching of history at the end of the twentieth century should be as follows:  1) A chronological sense of the national past must be taught in any case, but so must a knowledge of the differing visions and interpretations of that past; 2) Pupils must be introduced to an understanding of other societies in order both to understand those societies and to confront those societies’ visions of history with our own; 3) Historical teaching should also be aimed at an overall understanding of historical phenomena and at an evaluation of the relationship between particular problems (towns, regions, countries) and the overall course of history; 4) The teaching of history must also provide students with the capability of distinguishing between those historical vestiges which have completely died, those which have survived over the long term and those which have perhaps even survived to our day; 5) History must also give everyone the possibility of making his or her own assessment of historical and contemporary problems and of learning how to formulate questions. (…) A practical knowledge of social science methods – economics, demography, etc. – must thus be taught in conjunction with history. (On the use of films, see my book, Analyse de films, analyse de sociétés, Paris, Hachette, 1975.) In this way, progress in historical knowledge will come about not through the accumulation of knowledge of more events, but through the acquisition of a better methodology of comprehension.’  

Preface to the Routledge classics edition (2003)

‘This work was written before the great events which left their mark on the last quarter of the twentieth century: the fall of communism in the East, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the confrontation with Islam – the challenge posed by Islam to the West, or more generally speaking the return of Islam. And yet it seemed to me essential not to modify the 1980 text by a single comma – at the most, simply to add a couple of extra points – because the historical memory of societies resists political change and the progress of historical knowledge more than is usually imagined. On this last point, surveys show, for example, that the French continue to lay the blame for the 1940 defeat on the Popular Front, whereas many researchers both in France and abroad have proved that this was not at all the case. Another sign: it can be verified that since the crises which the different worlds of Islam have experienced over these last decades, the view of the history of the Arabs, Egyptians, Persians and Turks has barely changed since the first edition of this book, whose text has remained unchanged.

However, several modifications have been deemed necessary. The French edition of 1992 included a few addenda on the USSR and Russia, Poland, South Africa, and Australia; likewise, I added a comparative study of the history of the Second World War.

In this new edition, aimed at an English-speaking public, these modifications have been preserved, and I will here add a few changes observed in France affecting history as it is taught to children.

First, as regards content. Faced with the critique of the excesses of the nation-state – whether it was brown in Nazi Germany, red in the USSR, or “red-white-and-blue” in French or British colonies – a powerful reaction of “repentance” has found expression first and foremost in a condemnation of the behaviour of the Vichy government and the fate the Pétain regime reserved to the Jews living in France. Then this “repentance” has been extended to the presentation of colonization, whose black pages have taken over from the rosy-spectacled and imperialist view of an earlier age. The ideology of human rights has replaced that of the nation-state.

Second, as regards method. History is no longer simply narrated, but rather analysed through documents, engravings, drawings, etc., as if their selection were any less arbitrary than the telling of a certain story. In school textbooks, lay-out started to seem more important than text. It was up to the teachers and the children to reconstruct this history, rather than getting to know, and correct, the story of the nation, which however remains the historical memory of society, and gave it a meaning. The excesses of this pedagogy have been amply demonstrated: “children and teenagers don’t know anything anymore”. So we have returned to a more balanced conception, in which both narrative and analysis play a part. For History is as much a matter of passion as of reason.’  

Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

All quotations are taken from: Marc Ferro, The use and abuse of history, or how the past is taught (1984), a translation of:  Comment on raconte l'histoire aux enfants à travers le monde (1981). The 1984 and 2003 versions are compared. The quotations are taken from 2003-edition. The cover text of the 1984-edition:

‘Our image of other peoples reflects the history we are taught as children. This history marks us for life. Every society, as Marc Ferro points out in this thought-provoking study, distorts history in order to condition the minds of its children and adults. The former colonies are taught to distrust the colonizers; racialists are taught to despise lesser breeds. In the Soviet Union, history books simply ignore vast tracts of politically unpalatable material. This falsification of the past is not restricted to any group or political tendency: all societies are concerned to censor the vision of the past presented to each new generation. Marc Ferro surveys the use and abuse of history throughout the world, covering the whole range of different societies, from the United States to the Soviet Union, from South Africa to Trinidad, from India to Iran, from Poland to Armenia, from China to Japan. He bases his account on a detailed examination of the means with which children and adults are indoctrinated - textbooks, films, cartoons, historical novels and so on. He questions the traditional concept of a “universal history”, showing that for many nations a version of history is all that is left of a former identity or a former grandeur. This book poses fundamental and disturbing questions about the use and abuse of history. Marc Ferro suggests that the roots of antagonism lie in the stereotypes which one society forms of another, and in the conflicting views different nations may have of the past.’ At the time of writing of The use and abuse of History, or how the past is taught Marc Ferro was Co-Director of the influential French Annales school. He was also “Director of Studies in the Social Sciences at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. He was already by then a distinguished author on the First World War and the Russian Revolution. 

A lot of Ferro’s book are translated to English. Some major titles: The Russian Revolution of february 1917 (1972); The Great War, 1914-1918 (1973, 2003); October 1917: a social history of the Russian Revolution (1980); Nicholas II: Last of the Tsars (1990, 1995); Colonization: A Global History (1997); Meetings in No Man's Land: Christmas 1914 and fraternisation in the Great War (2007); Resentment in History (2010).

This particular book on teaching children was translated in Dutch: Hoe geschiedenis aan kinderen wordt verteld (1984).