National History or Selective Memory?

, by Yves Lacroix

National History or Selective Memory?

I was taught many things at school when I was younger. I was told when the printing press was invented, how Rome won the third Punic War and how Constantinople valiantly lost in a hopeless defense against the Ottomans.

I had to learn how this country beat that country, simple as that.

I reckon not many people have heard of the battle of the Grand Alliance, but I think that if I called it the Battle of Waterloo, more of you would understand me. This is a good example. Now the battle of Waterloo is a very good indicator of how history is used for political ends. At the end of the battle, Wellington declared he would christen it “ Waterloo” rather than the “Grand Alliance” as Blucher proposed. Why? Because Waterloo sounded more English, making sure Waterloo was enshrined in the history books as a British victory, leaving the Prussian input as a mere footnote.

If we start looking more closely at the details we must recognise that the battle of Waterloo was not a victory of one country over another country. It was a European struggle, a field where European people fought with and against each other and died in the same manner.

First of all the British army consisted not only of British soldiers - only 25.000 of the total of 120.000 were British. Around 17.000 men on that side of the field were Dutch and more than 20.000 men came from various German states. The Prussians, of course, arguably saved the day.

The French army consisted of an even wider range of citizenships, with French, Dutch, Swiss, Italian, Polish and even some German regiments. Were the nationalities of that army even more united then we are today?

For me this shows how we have been taught the wrong information, maybe even the wrong way of thinking. We have grown up thinking that wars were nation versus nation and not people vs people. We were instructed to think within borders while, back then, those borders were far less defined and far more fluid then they are today.

If I look back at the Battle of Waterloo now, I’d rather call it the Battle of the Grand Alliance - the Napoleonic Wars in general were a European event. Whether or not Napoleon was a problem is up for debate for another time, but for the sake of the argument I’ll assume he was. This problem could not be solved by any one nation on its own. Napoleon could not have done what he did with only France. We see that even back then, European cooperation was necesary to solve any problem or achieve any goal on the continent.

It’s truly a shame that history is still taught in an old-fashioned, state-centric, simplistic way. Even doing European Studies in Maastricht I experienced this basic way of thinking where the teacher informed us that the fall of the Roman Empire was due to the Germanic tribes’ penchant for fighting. The reason for the Great Migration, or even the term “the Great Migration” were never mentioned.

Our educational systems have to stop misinforming our students, claiming victories or defeats were national or the Dutch wanted this and the Italians wanted that. They have to start showing how European people used to cooperate to achieve their goals, how borders were relative and nationalities unimportant and above all how interconnected we actually were and continue to be.