Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Children of Tomorrow?

Art on the Berlin Wall,
Photo by Gonzo Carles

        As the UK recalls the 1979-90 years, in the week of Margaret Thatcher’s death, I did some parallel reminiscing of my own in an Oxford restaurant, when the music system began to play the Scorpions’ 1990 hit, ‘Winds of Change’, about Glasnot and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Take me to the magic of the moment on a glory night, when the children of tomorrow dream away in the wind of change. It captures that moment in 1989-90, when it was promised that Europe would be reunited, and believed that it had embarked on a new, happier historical course.

            Sitting in an empty Oxford restaurant 23 years on, in austerity Britain, with the EU in serious financial crisis, the gap between that Berlin Wall moment of hope for a new, historically more complete Europe and the current realities seemed rather stark. Yes, the countries of the former Soviet Bloc have mostly joined the European Union, made successful (if sometimes fragile) transitions to democracy, and their economies have long since moved from a control to capitalist model. Yet behind these seismic changes, I wonder as a historian if we have, somewhere along the way, suffered a failure of collective intellectual imagination. In English-language school textbooks, undergraduate survey texts, maps in exhibition catalogues, and even major works by academic historians, when we speak of European history, what we are teaching students, and what dominates our research agendas as academics, is still overwhelmingly west European history. We have, in the UK and beyond, collectively failed since 1989 to develop a convincing new narrative of pre-modern European history, which takes us beyond the Cold War model, retrospectively applied, of a thrusting west, and a distant, exotic, backward and peripheral east. We know that this is emphatically not how Europeans in, say, the Renaissance perceived their world and its geographies, but we don’t have anything to put in its place. If Chamberlain could declare the Czechoslovak crisis of 1938 to be a quarrel in ‘a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing’, one world war, a cold war and a revolution later, can even Oxbridge History students graduating today claim to be much better informed?

            This is a problem if we really want to understand the wider dynamics of European history (and I of course include British history within that category). But it is also a political problem for the European Union, as it tries to articulate its vision with reference chiefly to very recent history (since 1945). It’s a political problem too more locally here in the UK. Across the country, sitting at desks in British primary schools, there is a whole generation of children born in the UK to Polish, Slovak, Lithuanian parents. When the current painful debates about history in the national curriculum are over, what kind of story are we going to tell these particular ‘children of tomorrow’, the heirs to the revolutions of 1989, about themselves, and where they fit into Britain? How are they going to integrate the narratives they learn at school about west European history, with the national (or nationalist) narratives they will hear from their families about the history of Poland or Slovakia? Now, with major public funding cuts and media scare stories about an imminent invasion of semi-barbarian Romanians and Bulgarians, when Central Europe has such a bad image in the UK, is a very difficult time to try to tell a fuller, more integrated European history; but that is also precisely why now is such an important time to start doing just that.

            If anyone doubts that Central European history, identities and legacies do not stop at the UK’s well-manned borders, they need only read Deborah Levy’s ‘stealthily devastating’ (to quote one reviewer) Booker Prize short-listed novel, Swimming Home. On the surface, a social satire about a north London literary family holidaying in the Cote d’Azur, it is really about the challenges of surviving 20th century Polish history, and the devastating difficulty one man faces in holding together both a middle class British and Central European identity. Dissonance in identity, and in the basic stories we are told about the past, is bad for individuals, bad for societies, and bad for Europe; we need to tell our children better stories.  


  1. Certainly, the Central European history is worthy teaching but not the Eastern European one.
    The semi-barbarian Romanians and other savages from the East who are going to invade the uber civilised Britain have no history worthy to be studied and known (sic).Magister dixit.
    As a Romanian I am not surprised, keeping in mind that a history student from Oxford did NOT know what a Cenotaph is.

  2. How many Romanians have you meet? Do you know about the historian of religions Mircea Eliade, the patriarch of modern sculpture Constantin Brâncuși, the aerodynamics pioneer Henri Coandă, who boosted the aircraft development etc. ... So many Barbarians !
    Your speech looks very similar to a Nationalist politician we have in Romania :) !!!! I hope that your students will not become xenophobes because of your courses!

  3. Certainly, it is the fault of semi-barbarian Romanians and Bulgarians Oxford has never shown any interest in the glorious history of Central Europe !!!!
    Good work Madam, carry on denouncing those vile Romanians who prevents your history being known

  4. I think there's been a bit of misreading of the post here.

    It reads: 'media scare stories about an imminent invasion of semi-barbarian Romanians and Bulgarians', i.e. this is a factual statement about what the right-wing British media have been saying in recent months.

    And clearly, these media statements are ones which any historian will deplore.