Schools as Nurseries of Ethnic Antagonism
by Sead Hadžovic
Bosnia-Herzegovina remains divided by the existence of three separate educational systems, which give its children three different and contrary perceptions of their country. In Republika Srpska and in the predominantly Croat parts of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, teaching is based on curricula and textbooks used in, respectively, Serbia and Croatia - which prevent the children from developing any sense of belonging to Bosnia-Herzegovina. An educational approach that includes the whole country exists only in the mainly Bosniak parts of the Federation. The fact that the equality of all national groups throughout B-H is incorporated in the Bosnian constitution, and that substantial numbers of those who fled or were deported have been returning to their homes, highlights further the problem of this divisive education system, which does not aim to bring children together but instead stimulates their continued ethnic division and mutual antagonism.
This is true in particular for the teaching of history. Children are taught radically different and mutually counterposed versions of the country’s history. Serb children are taught that from the very formation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia the Croats were always separatists, always actively seeking Yugoslavia’s destruction. Croat children, on the other hand, are told that the Kingdom was the creation of Serb hegemonists, that the Great-Serb regime tried to suppress all signs of Croat national individuality, and that in both the first and the second Yugoslavias their nation constantly suffered from Great-Serb efforts to disintegrate and destroy it.
Serb textbooks seek to present Croats and Muslims as fascist collaborators in World War II, by contrast with the Serbs who fought a just war and contributed most to the national liberation effort. The Croat version of history, on the other hand, stresses the Croat contribution to national liberation. The textbooks used in Bosniak schools for their part lay the stress on the central role played by Bosnia-Herzegovina in that war, in both the military and the political senses, and describe all the major battles that took place on its soil. They also describe the struggle of the Bosniak people against the genocide perpetrated against them by both Ustashe and Chetniks.
In the textbooks used by Croat and Bosniak children, Draža Mihajlović’s Chetniks are described as infamous collaborators with the occupying regime, while in the Serb version the Chetniks are portrayed as anti-fascists and their movement as directed against the occupiers - the Chetniks merely wishing to preserve the monarchy, unlike the Partisans who favoured a Communist organization of state and society. In Serb textbooks the Ustasha NDH is described as a fascist formation created on the model of Hitler’s Germany, while the Croat textbooks - which also condemn the Ustasha government and its terror - try to minimize the relevance of its membership of the Axis alliance: thus, for example, the Ustasha leader Ante Pavelić appears as an ‘unwilling’ political pawn of Italy and Germany.
The textbooks used in Serb schools emphasize that the Serbs suffered the greatest losses in the war, and include a special section on Jasenovac, described as a mass Serb grave. The textbooks used in Bosniak schools concede that the Serbs suffered most in absolute terms, but point out that proportionally the Bosniaks suffered even more (losing 8.1% of the nation). They describe the genocide carried out by the Chetniks led by Draža Mihajlović - whose name, incidentally, is omitted from the Serb version. The Bosniak textbook alleges that it was forbidden to speak of the genocide for over forty-five years, ‘as if Bosniak victims were less important than the tragedy and suffering experienced by the members of other Yugoslav nations’. The Serb textbooks for their part argue that it was knowledge of the genocide carried out against the Serbs by the Croat Ustashe which was suppressed and covered up for the sake of political expediency.
The Croat textbooks include Chetnik genocidal crimes against the Croats and Muslims, aimed at the creation of ethnically pure Serb areas and the restoration of Yugoslavia under the Karađorđević dynasty. They describe crimes committed by Yugoslav partisans against the Croats, particularly those associated with Bleiburg and the Križni put. In the part dealing with post-war Yugoslavia, the Croat version argues that the Serbs were privileged whereas Croats and Croatia were hampered in their development.
Differences are particularly great in regard to the significance of the 1974 Constitution. In the Serb version, the constitution was a victory of nationalist and separatist forces based on the republics and provinces over Yugoslavia and Serbia: ‘it was the most destructive act in the modern history of the Yugoslav peoples’. In the textbooks used by Croat and Bosniak children, on the other hand, the constitution is praised as a ‘defeat for unitarist and centralist forces’, and as ‘the main barrier to the restoration of Great-Serb hegemony in Yugoslavia’.
The Serb textbooks interpret the 8th session of the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Serbia held in 1987 [at which Milošević became Serbia’s unchallenged leader] as the victory of those who were seeking the democratization of society, protection of Serbs and Montenegrins in Kosovo, and the restoration of a unified Serbia. According to the textbooks used in Bosniak schools, however, it was the occasion when ‘extreme Great-Serb forces won, which then proceeded to organize an "anti-bureaucratic revolution" whose effect was to destroy Yugoslavia’s federal foundation.’
When it comes to the events preceding the recent war, the Serb textbooks accuse the SDA and the HDZ of uniting to destroy Yugoslavia, and present the war as a Serb struggle for national survival - implying that it was a civil war. In the Croat and Bosniak textbooks, the war is defined as a Great-Serb aggression and genocide against the two peoples.
Ethno-centrism is displayed also in the so-called national subjects, which greatly exaggerate ethnic differences. In comparison with pre-war textbooks, the proportion allocated to literary works of an ‘ethnic’ nature is larger, as is the number of texts dealing with religious themes. Passages dealing with the National Liberation War are either omitted or greatly reduced in number. Geography textbooks falsify facts. Thus, for example, in the RS textbook called ‘Learning about society’ and in the ‘Atlas’ used in RS for fourth-year primary classes, Bosnia-Herzegovina is not pictured as a single country, but as being divided into the Federation and RS. The ‘Atlas’ even formerly depicted RS as part of Serbia, which is why the textbook was recently withdrawn at the insistence of the High Representative.
In most cases the schools are mono-ethnic. In cases where they are not, children are either taught separately in all subjects or divided when it comes to the so-called national ones. Universities and faculties are also ethnically divided. In Mostar, for example, there is the ‘Džemal Bijedić’ university in eastern Mostar and the Croat University in western Mostar. In Sarajevo a separate university has been established in so-called Serb Sarajevo (Pale).
This system of education cultivates ethnic division. Since for the past decade the children of Bosnia-Herzegovina have been subject to systematic nationalist indoctrination directed against their co-nationals, it is not surprising that the younger generation votes for nationalist parties, which present themselves as national protectors. This educational system, indeed, is preparing them for the next war. Despite attempts to reform the system, little has been achieved. The High Representative has ordered the removal of only some of the most extreme elements. Textbooks imported from Croatia and Serbia have been replaced by Bosnian ones in some cases, but these usually reproduce the same content. The politicians favouring separate education insist that Dayton left education to the entities, and claim that this protects national individualities. They conveniently forget that Bosnia’s Dayton constitution also incorporates a Declaration on Human Rights, which speaks of the need to encourage understanding and friendship between the different nationalities. It is obvious that a unified system of education alone can bring the country’s young people together, and that its introduction would greatly contribute to the restoration of normal life in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Translated from a longer article in Helsinška povelja, February 2003