Eastern Europe in American High Schools

Joseph T. Kelly

The Soviet Union and its satellite countries were viewed as a threat to free and democratic Western nations. They were believed to be a malevolent body ready to pounce upon and pressure other nations to follow in their Communist footsteps. But the satellite countries of the eastern bloc: East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, are not "evil" as they are seen by many in the world. The Soviet Union was seen as a threat, therefore, other countries with close ties to the Soviet Union seemed to threaten our democratic existence as well. This created a guilt by association syndrome. "Show me your friends and I will tell you who you are." Although seen as such, these countries were not an extension of the Soviet system. They are countries which unfortunately found themselves under the direct control of the Soviet Union after World War II. These countries were grouped with the Soviet Union into a collage of communism so that their own existence in the world community was denied.

Today, with the political and military domination of the Soviet Union being a matter of the past, these nations are struggling with the "guilt by association" image. This image is not a result of misrepresentation, but of underrepresentation. The people who are in a position to help these struggling countries are relatively ignorant of them because of a lack of substantial, informative material.

America has many citizens of east European background, but in high school history textbooks I found only shoddy treatment of the countries of eastern Europe, and they were associated entirely too much with the Soviet Union.

Before analyzing how the countries of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and East Germany are presented in school textbooks and research materials, I think that it will be beneficial to look at the results of those presentations in the opinions and perceptions of my peers and fellow students. I conducted an informal survey and the results coincided with my hypothesis which I outlined above.

Of the ten high school and college students polled, only one did not make some type of association between the nations of Eastern Europe and the USSR. The remaining nine offered relatively uniform answers and opinions. They saw virtually no disassociation between the countries of eastern Europe and the Soviet military. They also offered many trivial opinions about how cold it was, or how it was always cloudy in that particular region, etc. These types of answers and attitudes indicate that there is not adequate focus placed upon these countries as individual entities in the American educational system.

Not relying upon my memory of high school and junior high, I also reviewed the textbooks and reference materials available to students in an average Midwestern school district. The results were disturbing. On the world history level I looked at Global Insights(1). In this book, a study of world cultures, there is no mention of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or East Germany. The only reference to an eastern European nation is made with regard to Poland, and that reference is in regard to Nazi Germany's and the USSR's agreement not to attack each other, and to the plan to carve up Poland and other east European nations.

The second book, People and Our World(2), does a better job illustrating the colorful histories of these countries, and showing that they, in fact, did exist and prosper before their takeover by the Soviet Union. The treatment still focuses heavily upon their association with the USSR, however, and is lacking in historical information, by comparison with other countries of similar size and importance.

The area of truly severe underrepresentation is the American history textbooks which I surveyed. The authors of these textbooks create the illusion that the world revolves around the United States and a few other countries. I found this attitude in every one of the books that I reviewed(3). America is a nation of vast diversity and has many citizens of eastern European background, but in high school history textbooks I found only scattered and shoddy treatment of the countries of eastern Europe, and again they were associated entirely too much with the Soviet Union.

The reference materials are better, but most are old an outdated. It appears that the people responsible for the production of these aids do not view eastern Europe as an important material of study. Most of the books were printed in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The authors opine on how isolated the peoples of eastern Europe were, and how they were only allowed to know what the Party wanted them to know. This is a rather naive attitude and it does not take into account that people are not sheep and they manage to acquire information from sources other than the government. If those people were so isolated, then how come the Solidarity labor movement came into being? Also, such opinions seem to me hypocritical. In the school library where I studied, the only updated resource, other than periodicals, were Background Notes, a publication put out by the US Department of State. In a pluralistic society such as ours, young people should be exposed to more than a single point of view.

Joseph T. Kelly is a sophomore at Buena Vista College in Storm Lake, Iowa, majoring in biology and political science.


1. James Hantula, Ellen Johnson, Dr. Thomas Flickema, Katherine Thuermer, Dr. Mounir Farah, Dr. Abraham Resnick, Andrea Berens Karls, and Paul Kane, Global Insights (Columbus, Ohio: Merrill Publishing Co., 1987).

2. Allan O. Kownslar and Terry L. Smart, People and Our World (New York: Holt, Reinhart 1984).

3. L.J. Buggy, G.A. Danger, Ch. L. Milsakos, C.F. Risinger, America, America (Dallas, Texas: Scott Foresman & Co., 1985); L.P.Todd and Merle Cutti, Rise of the American Nation (New York: Harcourt, 1982).

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