Common culture of memory Colonial history in textbooks

French national cemetery for the fallen soldiers at Hartmannswillerkopf, a main scene of the Franco-German mountain war in World War I, where soldiers from the colonies of Germany and France also had to fight and lose their lives. The French alone sent 450,000 Africans to the front against Germany.
French national cemetery for the fallen soldiers at Hartmannswillerkopf, a main scene of the Franco-German mountain war in World War I, where soldiers from the colonies of Germany and France also had to fight and lose their lives. The French alone sent 450,000 Africans to the front against Germany. | Photo (detail): Uta Poss © picture alliance/Presse-Bild-Poss

Guillaume Le Quintrec teaches preparatory classes for France’s prestigious Grandes Écoles. And for twenty years now, he has been the managing editor of high school history textbooks for the French publisher Nathan. These textbooks contribute to the construction of our collective understanding and memory of colonialism, in line with school curricula, social developments and the latest findings in academic research. From 2003 to 2011 he also co-edited a German-French textbook on the history of colonialism.

By Aurélie Le Floch

What approach do French high school history textbooks take to colonialism and the independence of former colonies?


Depending on the curriculum, these subjects are taught either in eleventh (première) or twelfth grade (terminale). The authors in my team are teachers themselves, so they’re quite familiar with high school students and their needs. They write about these subjects objectively and without any taboos. The object is to provide a factual account of what happened as well as an analysis of various existing interpretations of the events, though without taking sides. We make a point of presenting every point of view, particularly in our choice of documentary and pictorial material, which is an important part of our job as editors.

The 2017 version of our textbook for twelfth-graders, for example, contains a chapter entitled "The historian and memories of the Algerian War". We look at the war from the Algerian and then the French point of view, as well as addressing a number of more specific subjects: the fate of the Harkis, the use of torture, and issues raised by the commemoration of the war and reconciliation between the two countries. As in all our textbooks, this chapter takes into account the latest findings in academic research. Our authors continuously monitor the historiographic literature, especially as regards the dimension of cultural memory. Their books also include contributions from postcolonial studies and other work on the construction of the postcolonial imaginary, which have developed considerably over the past fifteen years or so.

These are still highly controversial issues in France…

They sure are. However, although our approach proposes a history of remembrance, it is not, in and of itself, a vector of memory. It is a polyphonic approach that gives all high school students an understanding of these issues in order to create a shared culture beyond competing memories that may exist in the classroom. It’s essential for teachers to be able to talk objectively about colonization, independence and the emergence of the Third World from this detached perspective, especially with students whose families are from former colonies and preserve divergent memories of these past events. We apply the same approach to the slave trade: some young people from Africa or the Antilles are repositories of family memories that may relate to this subject.

Do you think this new critical approach to colonialism, as applied by the authors of your textbooks in particular, reflects a generation gap?

There’s no denying that, over the past few decades, young historians in particular have delved deeper into colonial ideology. This critical work is vital insofar as it contributes to the integration of minorities that suffered under colonization: by including the history of this part of the French population in the textbooks, we’re producing a shared history. The same principle applies to gender history, too. Women who have played a significant role in history are presented in every chapter of our te3xtbooks: if we are to raise awareness of gender inequalities, this approach seems to me more effective than a single separate chapter on women.

You co-edited a Franco-German high school history textbook that was jointly published by Nathan and Ernst Klett Verlag (Stuttgart) between 2003 and 2011. How does this binational book approach colonialism and the independence of former colonies?

This three-volume textbook for high school history classes came out on the fortieth anniversary of the Franco-German Treaty of Friendship of 1963. It’s a powerful symbol that responded to a real demand in civil society. The contents of each volume were identical for France and Germany, with a version in each language.

During the development of the textbook, the contrasts between the French and German perspectives on colonization and decolonization were particularly revealing. Fifteen years ago, the Germans had already done a considerable amount of work on memory in the teaching of their own history, which proved quite illuminating for the French authors. On the other hand, the German teachers gained a deeper understanding of this chapter of French history. After all, the two countries had very different experiences: German colonial rule, particularly in certain regions of Africa, was of shorter duration and lay further back in time, having come to an end after World War I.

The interview was conducted by Aurélie Le Floch.