Missing Pages of “European History”


Despite Austria being home to many people who have a Western Balkans background the Yugoslav Wars of the 90s are rarely being covered in history classes of Austrian secondary schools. The causes are multiple. History teachers have little time to teach a lot about history. Many of them feel they do not know enough about this subject 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. However, many teachers interviewed for this article said they would like to cover the Yugoslav Wars and would like to further educate themselves on them. They asked for access to quality sources and teaching materials. Furthermore, they believe the students would be highly interested in the topic. In their professional opinion, these wars show certain patterns that occur with most ethnic and religious conflicts. Finally, they said that it is vital for the students to understand that peace cannot be taken for granted. This article is not a scientific paper based on sound scientific methodology. It is the result of a fact-finding mission in order to provide analysis of the status quo and policy recommendations to make it easier for teachers to cover the Yugoslav Wars in class.


For my project as a Europe’s Futures fellow I was looking into how we treat our Western Balkans neighbours from a human, a social point of view. How do we talk to them and about them? Do we treat their identities and their history with the same appreciation as our own historic experiences? After all, they are densely woven into the history of European Union member states. I asked myself a rather basic question: What are Austrian kids being taught about the Yugoslav Wars of the 90s in our schools and how and why and who decides that?

This article is the result of a fact-finding mission in order to provide analysis of the status quo and recommendations for action to make it easier for teachers to cover the Yugoslav Wars in class. I spoke to more than 50 teachers from all relevant school types in Austria and several educational experts, historians and civil servants on different levels. I also interviewed a number of middle school and high school students.

The Yugoslav Wars in the 90s are not acknowledged as European history

Without a doubt, the European Union is unprecedented as a peace project and otherwise. However, it has not ended 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 European Union to say things like "Europe is the guardian of peace" (Jean-Claude Juncker 2018) and European Union 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 European Union" 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 European Union 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 about "pleasing" the Western Balkans region, even though it would be a badly needed sign of respect for the victims of this horrible time. 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 or more effectively 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 European Union 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 European Union must recognise it as European history that happened maybe not primarily due to our actions, but at least partly because of our non-reaction.

The most official way to recognise these wars as part of history, a history we cannot choose, for it is in the past, is to teach it in schools. It would be a gesture of respect and of acknowledgement of the pain this region has experienced and of owning up to the fact that everything that manages to tear up European countries, borders, buildings, economic structures, human beings and their souls will affect the European Union, its member states and it will simply affect who we are. Moreover, our society – which continuously experiences challenges because of carelessness in the face of a more and more heterogeneous population – would benefit greatly from a generation of children who have learned to deal with parallel and conflicting historical and political narratives and their causes and consequences. From a security and peace point of view, this is a particularly crucial skill, because of ongoing processes of further polarisation in the public debate.

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.

Who writes Austria’s curricula and schoolbooks?

One would assume that in a democratic European state it is common knowledge who writes schoolbooks and how they do it. After all, it is not irrelevant to our democracy. To get a clear and reliable explanation sent me on somewhat of a quest in a labyrinth of public administration. "It depends" was the closest I got to a universal answer for the whole school system. It depends on the school type, the county, the subject in question. Austrian federalism and the basic organisation of the school system have done their part to make things confusing to the outsider and even to some insiders.

A civil servant at the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research, said he could not say anything about the time before the year of 2000. But ever since it works like this he says:

The actual process of writing the curriculum is conducted within working groups of experts for a certain school type and a certain subject. The working groups are compiled from academic experts in the relevant field, teachers, educationalists and civil servants. Because the working group should not be too big in order to ensure swift progress, not every historic topic is represented by an academic expert for this particular issue. Their recommendations and suggestions are presented to a selection of stakeholders e.g., from the Chamber of Commerce and Unions, who provide feedback. There is also a 4-week peer review process before the curriculum becomes a federal law in the form of a ministerial decree. It does not need to pass the Austrian Parliament. 

A new curriculum usually draws on the previous curriculum. The existing curriculum is usually the starting point for the debate about a new one. There is a reform of the curriculum every ten years on average. However, there are still curricula that are over 18 years old because not all parts of the curriculum get reformed during a reform.

The moment in time when a curriculum is changed can vary. Someone decides that changes need to be made in the content of the lessons. This decision is strongly related to domestic and foreign policy necessities. In Austria, the Holocaust can never be too prominent in the curriculum. You can send political signals by allocating more time and resources to a topic like this. Civil servants mentioned the debate around former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim and his purported involvement in war crimes during national socialism as one impulse to change the curriculum. Another example they mentioned is the time of European Union sanctions against Austria at the beginning of the 2000s, when the Austrian Conservatives formed a government with the far-right Freedom Party for the first time. Austria had to be able to show on the international stage that that government did not mean that Austria was turning away from democratic values again. Education and the history curriculum were used to show that, said one civil servant at the Ministry of Education. It was around the same time that political education and civic literacy entered the stage of education policy debate.

In 2008, this debate began to focus on a new – a competence-oriented – approach towards teaching. Curricula were and are still being adapted to this philosophy step by step. This basically means that e.g., students must be taught to recognise nationalism, antisemitism, etc. and the individual teachers get to pick the historic examples by which they want to teach this competence. This is what it is like today with the Yugoslav Wars. They are not mentioned by name in the curriculum. But teachers are at liberty to use them as an example for many different historic phenomena. So, while it is a prominent political demand to change the curriculum or write something into the curriculum, the curriculum is not the problem here. It does not need to be changed for teachers to talk about the Yugoslav Wars extensively in their history lessons. To the knowledge of three different civil servants I spoke to, there has never been a debate at the ministry-level on whether to literally include the Yugoslav Wars in the curriculum. Which is surprising, given the large number of Austrians, who have some family or personal connection to the region of former Yugoslavia. It is also interesting considering that Austria is one of the European Union’s strongest supporters of Western Balkans enlargement of the Union. There are children and grandchildren of refugees from these wars in Austria today who will never hear about these wars in class and does this not feel a tiny bit wrong?

Obstacles for history teachers

Over 50 teachers from different school types all over Austria answered my question about what their biggest obstacle is that keeps them from teaching the Yugoslav Wars in class. Almost all interviewed teachers named the following four points in their own words:

  • Not enough time to teach and prepare
  • No access to reliable sources and teaching materials in German language
  • Feeling of knowing too little about the Yugoslav Wars to be able to teach them
  • No training seminars on the topic available

None of them named fear of conflict between students or with parents on this sensitive subject. When confronted with the question they mostly stated that is the main task of a history teacher to be able to debate controversial and sensitive historic topics with the students. Some added that the potential conflict lines between students today are not along ethnic lines anymore, but between children from religious families and children who were raised in a secular environment.

1. Time

The lack of time to teach and prepare is the biggest obstacle, according to the teachers and civil servants interviewed. Depending on how the holidays fall in a school year there are 70 history lessons in the Austrian equivalent of Senior Highschool. There used to be more time, but history lessons were cut in 2004.

The time to prepare is short as well. Particularly in Middle Schools (Neue Mittelschule) teachers often teach many different subjects, in extreme cases up to 6. That means one person to prepare and teach 6 subjects that might not have anything to do with each other. Topics that are not sufficiently covered in schoolbooks need considerably more preparation. Many younger teachers who were interviewed for this article said that they do not rely too much on schoolbooks anyway and they would really like to create their own teaching materials and research interesting sources for their students but they simply do not have the time.

2. Sources and teaching materials

In Austria, publishing houses are only allowed to call something a schoolbook if it covers the whole curriculum. It is the authors’ choice which examples or details they use to explain e.g. nationalism, but all points mentioned in the curriculum have to be in there. Most schoolbooks are written by schoolteachers and not by academic researchers. There are some dominant publishing houses when it comes to schoolbook sales in Austria. Most of the schools have a system where history teachers get together and decide which book they want the school to order and then teach from this book. Teachers are rarely allowed to pick a history book by individual preference. Particularly younger teachers said that their elder colleagues dominate these decision-making processes and usually choose the same book they used for the last decade. This gives little room on the market for schoolbook publishers who try new approaches.

There are popular sources for additional teaching materials, such as the Austrian Parliament, the website erinnern.at, the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance, as well as the German Centre for Political Education (Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung), but no Austrian institution provides extensive teaching materials on the Yugoslav Wars.

Some teachers stated that they have researched and created their own teaching materials from media reports, documentaries and books. It took them a lot of time, but for some mostly personal motivation, to them it was worth it. Most interviewed teachers however said that they felt insecure about the credibility of the sources and that they could not find what they needed in German language.

Some schoolbooks do mention the Yugoslav Wars. Bausteine, Zeitbilder and Go! are the names of three of them. In some of them the role of the International Community in these wars is not mentioned or not sufficiently explained e.g., Srebrenica Genocide. Other books list the dates of the main events in these wars chronologically, but do not give much context that could help teachers find their way through the labyrinth of Western Balkans history. The different narratives that are present and dominant in the relevant state in the WB region are rarely touched on. Go! of Westermann Gruppe publishing dedicates the most space to the topic and provides a lot of context as well as an interview with the former High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Wolfgang Petritsch. Compared to Zeitbilder for instance, this book is used by very few schools, though.

3. Teachers feeling of knowing too little about the Yugoslav Wars

Almost every teacher I interviewed for this article said they do not feel secure about their own knowledge of these conflicts. They worried that children came to school with strong narratives they heard in their families or communities or Western Balkans media. Only a handful of teachers saw themselves fit to challenge these narratives as well as they could do it with other historic topics. Even those who had spent a large amount of time doing research on the Yugoslav Wars did not feel like they knew enough. All interviewed teachers except one said they would be happy to attend a seminar on the subject.

4. No training seminars on the topic available

The way teacher training after university is organised in Austria appears somewhat mysterious to the outsider too. Unlike the curricula it is organised on a county level since education is county competence in Austria. Working groups of e.g. history teachers exist in each county. They make recommendations on what to cover in further teacher training seminars to the teachers’ colleges- None of the interviewed teachers and experts have ever heard of surveys conducted among the history teachers to base these recommendations on. The most given answer was something along the lines of: Usually there is one older guy, who knows everybody, asks around a bit and recommends what he thinks is needed. This might be true or exaggerated, but it was the only answer I received on this issue.

In theory, teachers have to take a set number of hours of further training in their career. However, there do not seem to be any drastic consequences if they do not fulfil this requirement. The interview responses let assume that there is no sophisticated strategy on what skills to strengthen or acquire for a teacher either.

Why teachers would like to teach the Yugoslav Wars – quoted from their responses to the survey

"I used to be able to feel these conflicts between the students after the wars. We had to think of that even when we decided where to sit them. Today this situation calmed down extremely. Today the conflict lines are between Kurds and (other) Turkish kids or between religious and secular families."

"My parents came to Austria as refugees from these wars. Nevertheless, I never covered the topic in class. I think it would be a great topic for my class and I am sure the kids would be highly interested in learning about it."

"I know many people who came here as work migrants (Gastarbeiter) or refugees and built a new life here. Today I teach the third generation of these families. It is important for them to get to know their families’ history from a source that is as objective as possible."

"It is important and interesting for all my students and particularly the ones whose families were affected by these wars."

"These wars show how in ethnic and religious conflicts the same patterns occur again and again all over the world."

"These wars are a highly important part of the geographic, historic and economic situation in Europe and their consequences are particularly relevant for the European Union."

"There are many reasons to teach these wars. Many kids have families that have been affected by these wars and they have questions. These wars were geographically and historically close to us today. It was the last big war in Europe and it had a strong impact on the behaviour of political actors in the region today."

Students’ and parents’ voices

A few students offered their experience and opinion on whether or not to teach the Yugoslav Wars in class. I did not gather a sufficient amount of data to make a representative statement on how the students feel about this. The ones I talked to said that in proportion to their general historic interest they deemed the topic rather interesting. They all knew someone with family roots in the Western Balkans and some realised that these wars did not happen that long ago and had a lot to do with today’s political realities in the region. One student who had the rare experience of being taught about these wars in depth before he graduated said: "It was the last topic that we covered thoroughly. I found it really interesting and it was easier to relate to the people affected because it did not happen so long ago. It wasn’t history in black and white. My teacher emphasised the importance of what these wars show. That it can happen again at any given time and that we need to know that to prevent that."

I received feedback from several parents who either came to Austria as refugees from these wars or had family from there. With one exception the tenor of these messages was: I am sure, your research is well-intended, but the past should stay in the past. We should not reopen old wounds.

These opinions are based on personal experience and are to be respected. However, what is necessary to know in the world of today is up to those who write the curriculum. Whether or not the Yugoslav War’s are something the kids should have heard about is up to the teacher.

Who else is working on this

The European association of history teachers EuroClio is working on teaching materials to be used in the Western Balkans countries together with teachers from the region. They also work with trauma therapists to create teaching guidelines which also include psychological considerations.

The Sofia Platform, an educational NGO in Bulgaria is working on history books for Eastern and South-eastern Europe focussing on system change. They also cover the Western Balkans and their transition from communism to whatever one wants to call today’s political systems in the WB states.

There were similar other projects in the past that aimed to create some kind of a historic consensus on what happened in the Western Balkans in the 90s. It is remarkable that most of this project aim at changing the teaching in the region itself, while the European voters who impact their political leaders’ decisions on enlargement know little about the region. There hardly seem to be attempts to change that.

One country that spends a little more time on the Yugoslav Wars in its history classes are the Netherlands. This has an obvious historic reason: The Blue Helmets who failed to protect the UN protection zone Srebrenica were Dutch. Courts ruled that these soldiers were partly responsible for failing to prevent the massacre.


1. Create an impartial hub for teachers’ training and teaching materials on the Yugoslav Wars

It is important to keep this subject as far away from day-to-day party politics in Austria as possible. Otherwise, there is a danger that one party monopolises the subject and others oppose it just because. There is not a high level of knowledge on these wars among Austrian politicians. An impartial hub could also provide training for politicians, policy advisors, civil servants, NGO people and representatives of the media.

The Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna could serve as an impartial hub and contribute to political education this way. It would also be an ideal location because there are direct flights from all European Union capitals and the capitals of the Western Balkans. Therefore, it is also an ideal location to bring together organisations working on similar issues regularly and help them share their materials with one another. The IWM and ERSTE Foundation are in the position to make a unique and meaningful contribution to political education in Austria and to further understanding between Austrian citizens and citizens of the Western Balkans states.

2. Create teaching materials on the subject

I asked the teachers I interviewed to write me a wish list of all they need to cover this topic in class more frequently. Here is what they wished for in what are more or less their own words

  • Teaching materials and seminars on the causes and backgrounds of these wars, timeline, different points of view on the conflict within the conflict parties back then and in the countries of the Western Balkans today, international reactions, simply everything about it
  • Materials on ethnic and religious conflicts from the Thirty Years’ War until the Yugoslav Wars to show parallels
  • A historic overview of the different narratives and which ones to include in class and what can possibly be left out
  • Sources, pictures, videos that can be used for the final exams
  • Didactic materials, draft teaching materials that show political, economic, historic, religious and ethnic relations at the time and today
  • Materials on the consequences of the wars and the conflicts
  • Training on how to manage heated and emotional discussions on this topic
  • Biographic materials, information on how people lived during the Wars, life realities of young people
  • Information on Austria’s contribution e.g. accepting refugees, Nachbar in Not donations, Austrian military stationed in the Western Balkans today
  • Materials on which conflicts are still an issue today when it comes to European Union membership

3. Provide further training for teachers

Seminars should be organised in cooperation with teachers’ colleges all over Austria in order to make them count as official teachers’ training. In doing so it does not make sense to create double structures. For instance, the teacher training seminars the Institute for Danube Region and Central Europe in Vienna offers could be a good foundation to build on. There could be different modules on historic facts, political debate today, dealing with emotional and heated discussions among students and how to work with Zeitzeugen (witnesses of the wars) correctly.

In cooperation with other organisations who work with teachers in the Western Balkans region, these seminars could also include an exchange among teachers from Austria and the Western Balkans to address mutual challenges and solutions to them and maybe even school partnerships or mutual projects.

Treating the Yugoslav Wars as European history, just like both World Wars or the founding of the European Union, is possible. The situation can be fixed without rewriting laws and without politicians yelling at each other in parliament. Supporting the teachers is key. While it would be hard to give them more time to teach and prepare from a political point of view, it is rather easy to provide them with further training and teaching materials and sources in German language. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for them to discuss these wars, their causes and consequences and what they mean for the European Union today. This project is not a quick fix for the world's biggest problems, it is a feasible way to overcome unnecessary barriers and contribute to peace in Europe in the future.

The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).