Arbeitsbereich Geschichtsdidaktik / History Education, Universität Hamburg

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Neutrality in History and Political Education on the Ukraine War? Understanding the Beutelsbach Consensus

28. März 2022 Andreas Körber Keine Kommentare

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[The fol­lo­wing post docu­ments a Twit­ter thread )ori­gi­nal­ly in Ger­man) from 27 Febru­ary 2022: Tog­e­ther with the ori­gal repli­es, it can be found here: https://​twit​ter​.com/​A​n​_​K​o​e​r​/​s​t​a​t​u​s​/​1​4​9​8​0​5​3​7​9​8​9​8​3​6​1​4​4​7​0​?​s​=​2​0​&​t​=​O​q​a​x​0​V​S​W​v​S​Q​8​q​w​L​E​U​e​V​vSg].

The Ger­man col­la­ti­on on this blog is  here: https://​his​to​risch​den​ken​ler​nen​.blogs​.uni​-ham​burg​.de/​u​k​r​a​i​n​e​-​k​o​n​f​l​i​k​t​-​u​n​d​-​b​e​u​t​e​l​s​b​a​c​h​e​r​-​k​o​n​s​e​ns/


Many insti­tu­ti­ons and accounts in seve­ral count­ries are curr­ent­ly com­pi­ling advice and mate­ri­als on how to talk to stu­dents about the war in Ukrai­ne. This includes valuable advice on how to deal sen­si­tively with fears and anxie­ties as well as on poli­ti­cal edu­ca­ti­on. One exam­p­le is the pad­let with mate­ri­als from the Ham­burg Sta­te Insti­tu­te for Tea­cher Trai­ning and School Deve­lo­p­ment. The­re, the cover let­ter refers to the prin­ci­ples of the Beu­tels­bach Con­sen­sus, i.e. to the prin­ci­ple of con­tro­ver­si­al­ty 1 (“Trea­ting Con­tro­ver­si­al Sub­jects as Con­tro­ver­si­al”) and the pro­hi­bi­ti­on of over­whel­ming the pupil, in the spi­rit of Ger­man poli­ti­cal didactics.

In con­trast to the lat­ter, the for­mer is per­haps not so obvious in view of the unani­mous and jus­ti­fied assess­ment of the war as a breach of inter­na­tio­nal law. Nevert­hel­ess, it is not only jus­ti­fied but neces­sa­ry. One must just not make the mista­ke of assum­ing that under the “prin­ci­ple” or even “com­mandment” of con­tro­ver­si­al­ty the­re is some kind of neu­tra­li­ty or an atti­tu­de that “both” (or all) sides are somehow equal­ly right. It can­not be about a for­mal “balan­ce” — and accor­ding to the Beu­tels­bach Con­sen­sus it is not.

The “prin­ci­ple of con­tro­ver­si­al­ty” sta­tes that what is con­tro­ver­si­al in poli­tics and socie­ty needs to appear as con­tro­ver­si­al in the class­room — neither as “incon­sidera­ble”, nor as “not to be deci­ded” or even as not to be with­drwan from eva­lua­ti­on. So it is not “the Rus­si­an” vs. “the Wes­tern” side and view that form the con­tro­ver­si­al topic, but some of the many issues that are quite right­ly (albeit not sim­ply sym­me­tri­cal­ly) con­tro­ver­si­al in our (and the world’s) socie­ty. The­se points must not (and must not) sim­ply be redu­ced to value jud­ge­ments, but must always be based on ques­ti­ons of fac­tu­al jud­ge­ments, such as, e.g. the ques­ti­on of the cha­rac­ter of war as a breach of inter­na­tio­nal law, as a breach of inter­na­tio­nal trea­ties, etc. Even though (and may­be espe­ci­al­ly becau­se) the­se lat­ter ques­ti­ons are lar­ge­ly unam­bi­guous and appear to have have been deci­ded — still they have been dis­cus­sed: Not whe­ther, but why and to what ext­ent this war is wrong — the­re were and are fac­tu­al jud­ge­ments on this.

Like­wi­se, ques­ti­ons of the legi­ti­ma­cy of Germany’s reluc­tance to sup­p­ly arms, of the pos­si­ble effects of sup­port or lack the­reof, of forms of sup­port for civil socie­ty can be dis­cus­sed and con­side­red — even and espe­ci­al­ly wit­hout arri­ving at a sin­gle com­mon and pre­de­ter­mi­ned answer.

The prin­ci­ple of con­tro­ver­si­al­ty thus means a non-for­mal­ly balan­ced dis­cus­sion and con­side­ra­ti­on of ques­ti­ons with the pos­si­bi­li­ty of dif­fe­rent assess­ments (and also eva­lua­tions), but it also means that argu­ments and jud­ge­ments are con­side­red and weig­hed up, wher­eby strengths and weak­ne­s­ses can cer­tain­ly be named. This can — and in many cases must — also include cle­ar­ly cri­ti­cis­ing the accep­ta­bi­li­ty of some argu­men­ta­ti­on, but wit­hout auto­ma­ti­cal­ly pre­scrib­ing exact­ly one sin­gle coun­ter-argu­ment as correct.

In such con­flicts, the con­tro­ver­sy refer­red to in the prin­ci­ple of con­tro­ver­si­al­ty does not mean the see­mingly neu­tral con­fron­ta­ti­on of the par­ties to the con­flict, but rather con­cerns more and more cle­ar­ly a who­le series of ques­ti­ons about the inter­pre­ta­ti­on of cau­ses, the plau­si­bi­li­ty of stra­te­gies, etc., which are inten­si­ve­ly dis­cus­sed in our socie­ty. It is pre­cis­e­ly such ques­ti­ons that can be dis­cus­sed in open socie­ties with an open and plu­ral media cul­tu­re — which (hop­eful­ly) distin­gu­is­hes this socie­ty from others — and in this con­flict from that of the oppo­sing side. This cer­tain­ly requi­res tea­ching units and pre­pa­ra­ti­on of vary­ing scope — and often also cross-cur­ri­cu­lar or inter­di­sci­pli­na­ry learning.

For exam­p­le, the ques­ti­on of what is and can be meant by “Rus­si­an secu­ri­ty inte­rests” from dif­fe­rent sides, and in what rela­ti­on they can and must be pla­ced to the inte­rests of Ukrai­ne, is cer­tain­ly debata­ble — but requi­res mate­ri­al. One last point: The prin­ci­ple of con­tro­ver­si­al­ty also includes avo­i­ding the impres­si­on that in the con­text of tea­ching, but also in life in the forums in which such ques­ti­ons are dis­cus­sed, one could ever arri­ve at ans­wers that would be con­clu­si­ve in any way, that could not requi­re re-shar­pe­ning (up to revi­si­on) with new infor­ma­ti­on, under chan­ged con­di­ti­ons, also with more life expe­ri­ence and other perspectives.

For ano­ther reason, the prin­ci­ple of con­tro­ver­si­al­ty does not demand that decis­i­ons, final or pro­vi­sio­nal jud­ge­ments be rea­ched and that argu­ments always be weig­hed against each other. Alre­a­dy the rea­li­sa­ti­on that the­re are dif­fe­rent posi­ti­ons, per­spec­ti­ves, fac­tu­al and value jud­ge­ments tog­e­ther with their under­ly­ing world views, con­cepts, values etc., and (bet­ter:) how they (or some of them) look like and “func­tion”, con­tri­bu­tes great­ly to the abili­ty to ori­ent ones­elf. Moreo­ver, their know­ledge also requi­res jud­ge­ments that can be discussed.

Per­haps it is wort­hwhile to coll­ect a few questions/​topics that can be honest­ly (con­side­red) controversial?

  • What can par­ti­ci­pan­ts in the public dis­cus­sion mean when they speak of Russia’s “secu­ri­ty inte­rests” and argue whe­ther they “should” be taken into account?
  • Putin’s poli­cy as “tra­di­tio­nal gre­at power aspi­ra­ti­ons” or as the result of “loss of rea­li­ty” or even ill­ness, insa­ni­ty? What do the­se inter­pre­ta­ti­ons mean, and what do they imply for expec­ta­ti­ons and pos­si­ble reactions?
  • Germany’s “his­to­ri­cal­ly con­di­tio­ned” res­traint in for­eign poli­cy — what is/​is meant by this? What is/​are the reasons for this? To what ext­ent is it jud­ged to be (no lon­ger) appro­pria­te? Which (dif­fe­rent) ide­as of a new ori­en­ta­ti­on are jus­ti­fied and how?
Anmer­kun­gen /​ Refe­ren­ces
  1. In con­trast to well-estab­lished prac­ti­ce of using “con­tro­ver­sy”, I use the pos­si­bly neo­lo­gist “controversial(i)ty” in order to match the cha­rac­ter of the Ger­man term “Kon­tro­ver­si­tät” as refer­ring not a mani­fest con­tro­ver­si­ty, but to the cha­rac­te­ristic of a ques­ti­on, a topic to be dis­cus­sed about in socie­ty and in aca­de­me. As will be visi­ble in the fol­lo­wing, this dif­fe­ren­tia­ti­on is cru­cial in our case at hand. It is not neces­s­a­ri­ly the war against Ukrai­ne which is the con­tro­ver­sy to be cover­ed and to be addres­sed from dif­fe­rent and open per­spec­ti­ves (alt­hough in other cases, wars and their inter­pre­ta­ti­on can form such con­tro­ver­si­al topics, and some aspects even of this war may be con­side­red to be legi­ti­m­ate­ly open to deba­te), but rather ques­ti­ons rela­ting to this war.[]