In the spring of 1995 I participated in a conference in Levoča, Slovakia on teaching about nationalism in post-Communist Europe. One of the participants, a member of the historical section of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, told us a story that day that summed up one of the most difficult issues faced by historians in post-Communist countries.
On January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia dissolved and Slovakia became an independent country for the second time (the first time being the state that was an ally of Nazi Germany during the Second World War). This man’s group at the Academy of Sciences, the top historians in the country, had been asked to write a new high school history textbook for students in the newly independent Slovakia. After laboring for more than a year over the task, they turned their draft over to the government of the populist strongman Vladimir Mečiar only to have the draft rejected for being “not enough in the national spirit,” according to this scholar. [For more on this issue, see this article in Intermarium by Tibor Papp.]
He came to our conference with a plea. Could we, scholars from the region and from the West, tell him what this “national spirit” was? The only Slovak national spirit he was aware of, he said, was Slivovica and he was sure this was not the spirit that the Ministry had in mind. Not surprisingly, this quip drew appreciative laughter and applause from the audience and someone suggested that perhaps the Ministry meant the White Lady of Levoca. Once the kidding stopped, the audience then turned to a serious discussion of the serious issue of writing history after Communism (and, one could say, any dictatorial form of government).
I was reminded of this meeting the other day by a story in the Washington Post about Cambodian historians running into some of the same problems in their attempts to write a new high school history text for post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. It seems that the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen is no more interested in a dispassionate, professional version of his country’s history than was Mr. Meciar.
In the article, author Erika Kinetz points out that while waiting for a new textbook to be produced (the new publication date is in 2009):
Cambodia’s youth are “a lost generation,” said Chea Vannath, former president of the Center for Social Development, a local rights group. In the absence of a shared national story about the Khmer Rouge, a thousand conversations, fractured by politics, rumor, myth and the varieties of human experience are being passed down to a sometimes skeptical younger generation.
One might be tempted to say that in the globalized Internet culture of today the young people of Cambodia have access to plenty of information about the past at the touch of a computer key. Such a believe presupposes access. When I was in Cambodia in March, I saw a lot of this generation, but mostly on the streets working, socializing, trying to convince me to pay them for a “moto” ride rather than walking. There are plenty of Internet cafes in Phnom Penh, but the ones I went into were mostly filled with foreigners. Inexpensive though it is to access the Internet in Cambodia (by Western standards), the price is still high–often too high–for the average Cambodian young person.
And if they do go online, what will they do? My own informal survey of my students indicated that they look for friends or music first and information second (or third). There are only a few hundred Khmer language entries in Wikipedia and most of my students didn’t even know the world’s largest encyclopedia existed.
Given the pain and suffering of the Khmer Rouge years, it is no surprise that writing the history of those years is controversial. Given the lack of connectivity in Cambodia–just like Slovakia in 1995–books will continue to be the standard source of information for at least another generation of school children…a generation that will remain “lost”, but for how long?