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Fresh look at history in Eastern Europe, 20 years on

Sofia — Twenty years after the end of communism, history textbooks in Eastern Europe are lifting the curtain on the taboos once imposed by the regime and giving high school students a fresh look at their past.

"For young people, the communist era is as exotic as ancient Greece," notes Anna Dzierzgowska, a history teacher in Warsaw.

"We are lucky not to have to wear uniforms, observe army-style discipline, have our hair cut for school and admire Lenin," Clara Dimitrova, a Sofia high school student, says with relief.

What students learn in school often clashes with the memories of their disillusioned parents, who struggled during the transition to democracy and remember with nostalgia the feeling of security they had during the "Socialist" era.

It also took time before historians could shake off the communist propaganda language and start teaching a more objective view of this period, in a country generally regarded as Moscow’s closest ally.

But after years of mulling how to represent communism, textbooks in Bulgaria have now settled on descriptions like: "the adoption of the Stalinist totalitarian model signifies suppression of political pluralism, imposing the role of the communist party leader and non-respect of the rights of the citizens."

In Hungary, history lessons have become "fairly objective," says Gyorgy Nemeth, a Budapest history professor.

Textbooks are filled with pictures and original documents — primary sources that allow students to make up their own judgement — he said.

"Some of these specifically show how (political) power seeped into people’s everyday life."

The disappearance of communist-era taboos has made a difference between what high-school students today learn about the regime and what their parents were instructed over 40 years ago.

In Latvia, what was once called "the voluntary incorporation" of countries in the former Soviet bloc, is now qualified as a Soviet "occupation."

The deportation of tens of thousands of Latvians to Soviet camps in 1941 and 1949, once unheard of, is also now part of the school curriculum.

Polish history books meanwhile tend to free society of any guilt by depicting it as a "victim" of a communist regime imposed by a foreign power — the Soviet Union — while anti-communist movements like the Solidarnosc union are given extra attention.

And in Bulgaria, students now learn that 2,730 people were sentenced to death and executed during the Stalinist repressions of 1944-1945, while 4,500 others were sent to camps in 1949.

Their parents’ textbooks never mentioned these victims of the regime.

Another subject that was a taboo during communism finds its place in modern textbooks in the Czech Republic: the expulsion of three million Sudeten Germans from then Czechoslovakia after the end of World War II, as a consequence of growing hostility against all Germans following the Nazi occupation.

Textbooks today tell of "a wave of nationalism" that left "numerous victims."

But some states still have a way to go.

In Romania, for instance, history lessons on the former communist regime are relatively short and leave many questions unanswered.

"Students ask themselves why the regime lasted so long if it was so bad," when they read what their textbooks say, notes Denisa Radu, who teaches history in a Bucharest high school.

But despite their attempted objectivity, history volumes still fail to beat the vivid accounts of that period that students hear from their parents, teachers say.

Kina Kotlarska, a history teacher in Gorna Oryahovitza, in Bulgaria, points to the findings of a field study conducted by her students.

"Eighty percent of adults were nostalgic about the communist era, when there was no unemployment or financial problems," she notes.