Treatment of World War II in the secondary school national history textbook of the six major powers involved in the war, The

treatment of World War II in the secondary school national history textbook of the six major powers involved in the war, The

Santoli, Susan P


This study analyzed the treatment given World War II in current high school textbooks from Japan, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States. Information from each textbook was matched with a list of World War II events and leaders. The war was divided into six major time periods and one topic which included 10 leaders. Each text’s coverage of every event and person was entered on charts. Differences occurred in the both the inclusion and interpretation of the events and leaders included in each text. The Japanese text was the most blatant in providing imbalanced coverage. Data presented in the textbooks from the other five countries varied greatly.

Although there is much disagreement about what should be included in history curriculums, there appears to be agreement on the need to emphasize World War II as a turning point in world history. There is also little disagreement as well that in today’s social studies classrooms the primary tool used by teachers to convey an understanding of that war is still the textbook. Textbooks continue to play a major role in determining what our students will learn about their own country an other countries (Berghahn & Schlissler, 1987), and textbook versions of events are often accepted without question (Parsons, 1982). Textbook-related activities occupy 70% to 95% of class time in American schools (Wade, 1993), and studies in Japan (Goodman, 1983) report a similar reliance. The research of German’s George Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research emphasizes the important role of textbooks in shaping attitudes and understandings both nationally and internationally (Nose, 1986). The impetus for a joint Soviet-U.S. textbook study in 1977 was the shared belief that “what students learn from their textbooks can contribute to or detract from efforts aimed at improving relationships” (U.S./CT.S.S.R Textbook Study Project [U.S./CJ.S.S.R], 1981, p.1). One earlier study on international textbook revision concludes: “No sources of socialization in modern societies compare to textbooks in their capacity to convey a uniform, approved, even official version of what youth believe” (Becker, 1955, p. 338). What is presented in national textbooks more than half a century after the World War II ended still molds the understanding students have of that period.

The specific purpose of this study was to analyze and compare information concerning selected World War II events and people in one secondary level, national history textbook for college bound students from each of the following countries:

1. Great Britain

2. France

3. Germany

4. Japan

5. Russia

6. United States

The textbooks were selected with help from the International Textbook Institute in Braunschweig, Germany which provided lists of the British, French, and German history textbook publishers and the names of contacts in Japan Russia. The criteria for the texts was that they be most frequently or at least, frequently used national history textbooks published and currently in use after 1990. Because the Russian text was in the process of being written, an alternative text was selected with the help of Janet Vaillant at the Harvard University National Resource Center for Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies. The U.S. text was selected from a list of frequently used U.S. History texts published by the American Textbook Council.

The secondary school tests used for this study were:

1. Japan: Susumu Ishii et al. Shosetu Sekaishi. Tokyo: Yamakawa-shuppan, 1994.

2. France: Robert Frank and Valery Zanghellini. Histoire Ire L, ES, S. Paris: Belin, 1994.

3. Germany: Herausgegeben von Wolfgang Hug Unsere Geschichte. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Moritz Diesterweg, 1991.

4. Great Britain: Denis Richards and J. W. Hunt. An Illustrated History of Modern Britain, 1783-1980. Burnt Mill, England: Longman, 1991.

5. Russia A.A. Kreder. Noveishaia Istoriia. Mockva: Interpraks, 1994.

6. United States: Thomas A. Bailey and David M. Kennedy. The American Pageant. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1991.

Native speakers of the language translated the four non-English textbook selections into English. All translators were bilingual and had live in the United States for a number of years.

A method similar to one used in two previous content analysis studies was used (American Council on Education [A.C.E., 1947; Harbourt, 1931). The composition of the list was based on the Tables of Contents of several U.S. History texts and input from faculty in the History department of a local university. The development of such a list was consistent with the methodology used in other textbook content studies (Harbourt, 1931; Peiser, 1971). The finished list reflected the biases and backgrounds of the authors and faculty contributors since all were from the United States.

The textbook analysis was primarily descriptive. The items on the Events and People list were used to determine how much space in each textbook was devoted to each item. A strategy used in other studies (Barth, 1991-1992; Ketchem, 1982; Social Studies Development Center [S.S.D.C.], 1981, 1984). The coding for space usage which follows is similar to one used in a previous study (Julian, 1979). n = no mention

b = brief mention (one sentence or less)

d = short discussion (over one sentence, but under one paragraph)

p = full paragraph

x = extensive coverage (anything over one full paragraph)

A modified version of this coding, used for the analysis of the People in the War category, was as follows:

n = no mention

b = brief mention (one mention)

x = extensive mention (more than one mention)

World War 11, 1939-1943

A comprehensive textbook presentation of the events that unfolded In the years 19391943 is vital to students’ understanding f World War II. As the Axis war machine began to roll, country after country was involved in the war, through conquest as combatants or sometimes as both, making World War II truly a global war. Because so many civilians were affected, presentations of both the military and the home front, combatant and resistor, are necessary for a balanced view of the war itself and its effects. The years 1939-1943 were characterized by great triumphs and defeats, by allies who became adversaries, by the use of new battle tactics and weapons, and by powerful personalities who controlled the destinies of millions of people.

“War in Western Europe, 1939-1943”

The French, German, and Russian texts address each of the eight events in this topic, with French authors providing “extensive coverage” in seven of the eight events (Table 1). The Japanese text provides the least coverage addressing only three of the eight events, none with more than a “short discussion.” Both French and Russian texts do a very good job of discussing activities outside their own respective countries, while the Japanese, British, and U.S. texts do little of this, providing only partial or no information in many areas. For example, in the discussion of Home Fronts, only France and Russia discuss any countries but their own. The American text provides far more information about the U.S. and the War before Pearl Harbor than for all of the other events combined in this topic. In fact, the chapter in the American text that contains a discussion of this topic is entitled “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Shadow of War, 1933-1941,” as opposed to chapter entitled “World War Two” in the other texts.

The differences in coverage provide readers with different interpretations of events. For instance, only the French text offers explanations as to why Britain and France were unable to help Poland. This is understandable because this would be a sensitive issue of national pride. It is surprising that the British text does not address this event; in fact, it is unclear in the British text whether or not Britain and France did intervene in Poland and exactly why the intervention was or would have been futile. Neither the German nor the Russian text relates that France and Britain entered the War as a result of the attack on Poland. British authors are the only ones to differentiate between the Battle of Britain and the Blitz.

In addition to the unequal coverage that occurs, there are also differences of opinion on the interpretation of certain events. An example of this is the British destruction of the French fleet at Oran. The British text clearly states that Britain was afraid that Germany would gain use of the fleet while the French text implies that since Germany promised it would not use the fleet, there was not danger of this occurring. An additional disagreement exists concerning the importance of the invasion of France by Italy, dismissed by the French and German authors as ineffective, but credited in the British and American tests as being the final pressure to convince France to surrender.

“War in Eastern Europe, 1939-1943”

The Japanese textbook addresses only one of six events under this topic area and provides only a “brief mention” of this event which is Hitler’s Invasion of Russia (Table 2). By failing to provide more discussion about this topic, the Japanese text has neglected an entire front of the War. Both the U.S. and British texts omit only one topic, the Japanese text has neglected an entire front of the War. Both the U.S. and British texts omit only one topic, the Resistance; however, they provide little information on the Soviet Expansion in Eastern Europe which receives “extensive coverage” in the Russia text.

The amount of Russian coverage of this topic is understandable since the focus is on war in the East; however, the Russian text provides a great deal of information about countries other than Russia, such as its discussion of the Mediterranean Sea and North Africa activities. Interestingly, under the event of Hitler’s Invasion of Russia, more information about Russian activities is contained in other countries’ texts. It is suprising that the Russian author does not mention the battle Stalingrad, referred to by the French authors as the turning point in the war. The Russian text gives the battle of Moscow that distinction. Only the Russian and U.S. authors mention the Lend Lease aid sent to the U.S.S.R. and the Russian text is the only one to emphasize the controversy that existed among the Allies because of the fighting in North Africa.

The German text includes information about the war in North Africa in early 1942, which is surprising since that was a time of German success. Rommel is not mentioned by name, nor is there any mention of the Italian mistakes in North Africa. The German text is very frank in its discussion of certain aspects of Nazi Germany. However, the author has a tendency to avoid much discussion of any military activities, whether they be German victories or defeats.

The French and German texts provide the most in-dept coverage of the Holocaust, including information about the German antiJewish policies and actions, the concentration camps, and results of the Holocaust. The French text is only one of the six that uses the term “Holocaust,” although both the German and French texts include the phrase “Final Solution.” It is interesting that these two texts also contain some of the same document excerpts including the Wannsee Conference speech and the Nuremberg testimony of the Auschwitz commander.

There are discrepancies in the Russian interpretation of the Katyn massacre as compared to those by the French and German authors. The Russian text does not mention the massacre of Polish army officers, which is discussed in both the German and French texts; in fact, the Russian author attributes the destruction of the village of Katyn to Germany. This has long been a topic of disagreement between the Germans and Russians, and the texts of these countries reflect the controversial nature of this issue.

“War in the Pacific. 1939-1943”

The Japanese, French, and Russian texts include information about all four events in this topic (Table 3). This is the only topic in which the Japanese authors have addressed each event. Three out of the four events receive “extensive coverage” in the Japanese text. Ironically, the only event which does not is the period from Midway to the U.S. invasion of the Philippines, a period of Japanese decline. Both the Japanese and U.S. texts provide “extensive coverage” of the events leading to Pearl Harbor, although both focus almost exclusively on their respective domestic situations. The German, British, and U.S. texts all omit any discussion on Occupied Asia, although each includes information about Occupied Europe. Less emphasis on the Asian War, as a whole, than on the European is found in the German and British texts and there is very little discussion on Japan itself by the German, British, or U.S. authors. The French text provides fairly equitable coverage of all events in this topic. It is the only text to discuss the joint chiefs of staff arrangement and the Allied strategy of defeating Hitler first. The battle of Midway is neither mentioned by name nor described in either the British or the German text. It is described in greatest detail by U.S. authors, which is understandable due to the U. S. participation in the battle, but it also receives a great deal of explanation in both the French and Russian tests. The Japanese text mentions Battle of Midway, but includes little else on this event. This is very similar to the coverage of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which also includes not details.

In discussing the Japanese expansion into Southeast Asia, there is disagreement as to the goals of Japan The British text insists that Japan wanted British colonies; the Russian text has Japan moving into French colonies; the German test says that American interests were threatened; and the U. S. text says that the Dutch Fast Indies were Japan’s primary goal. The Japanese text mentions both the Dutch East Indies and French territories as goals. . After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there are differences among the all of texts over who declared war on whom. There is also a difference between the Japanese and American authors’ descriptions of the events leading to why Pearl Harbor attack was late; the U. S. authors accuse Japan of purposefully drawing out the negotiations

“World War 11, 1943-1945”

During 1943-1945, the advantage in the war slowly began to shift in favor of the Allies; however, brutal fighting was necessary to force Germany and Japan to surrender. As the fighting in North Africa came to a close, new fronts were opened in Italy and France, and fighting intensified in the Pacific. The allied leaders met fact to face in a series of conferences that would determine not only the fates of Germany and Japan, but would affect the development of the postwar world as well. One leader escaped assassination, while another died before the end of the war. Finally, the war ended in a cloud of death as the most horrifying weapon the world had ever known was unleashed against the Japanese.

Through their textbooks, students must learn how and why the advantage in the war began to change as it did, after years of Axis victories. They must also receive information on why the fighting continued and what strategies were used eventually to bring the war to an end. Many important battles were fought, and influential leaders made decisions that impacted the war. These international personalities should be noted and the military operations explained or summarized in such a way that students are given information about what happened on each front. The face to face meetings between the Allied leaders are of great historical note and affected every country involved in the war. Balanced coverage of the decisions made at conferences is needed. It is also essential that the textbooks relate the developing tensions among the Allies that affected many of the decisions both on and off the battlefield, leading to a very different postwar world. Lives of civilians continued to be greatly impacted by the war and some discussion of this is necessary in order to present a comprehensive picture of the war to students.

As with the 1939-1943 topics, several events are widely agreed upon while disagreement occurs among the texts on other events. There are problems with serious omissions and nationalistic biases that make the textbook coverage of the time period 1943-1945 just as varied as in 1939-1943.

“War in the Western Europe, 1943-1945”

With the exception of the Japanese text, all others address each of the four topic events (Table 4). The differences are more of omission than disagreement. Each text tends to focus on events and details closely related to its own national history. For example, the German text provides the most detailed information on the plot to kill Hitler which is not mentioned in either the U.S. or Japanese texts. This text presents much more material on social history, such as on the suffering of the German victims of civilian bombings, than on military operations. No German general is mentioned anywhere in the chapters on World War II. The British text accords as much space to the invasion of Sicily, which involved British paratroopers, as to the remainder of the fighting in Italy. The American authors are the only ones to mention the involvements of Canadian troops in the North African fighting the North African invasion was not supported by the Russians who were desiring a European invasion. The U.S. authors also make it a point to defend the importance of the North African front, whereas the Russian author gives no particular importance to this fighting. Evident in the U.S. text is the concern over the Russian expansion into Eastern Europe, and this is the first topic area where that is expressed.

The German surrender is reported somewhat differently in every text. The Japanese text is the only one which provides not dates. The French text provides the most information, giving both surrender dates, sites, and even the names of Allied commanders involved. The British and American texts mention only the May 7 surrender, which is the one in which they were directly involved; however, there was a second surrender that involved the U.S.S.R and Germany. The Russian text mentions that surrender, on May 89, but implies that was the only surrender, omitting the surrender at Rheims a day earlier.

“War in Eastern Europe, 1943-1945”

No country’s text addresses every event in this category (Table 5). Discussion of the Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam conferences are the primary areas in which omissions occur, with the British text omitting all three. None of the countries’ texts provides comprehensive coverage of the conferences and it would be impossible for students to know the scope of what occurred at each conference by what is presented in each text. For example, in discussing the Teheran Conference, the German author says that the war goals discussed were primarily Soviet demands for land and the division of Germany. The Russian text does not mention these, but says that the opening of a second front was a major goal. While the Russian text describes the Conference climate as a heated one, the American authors state that things went very smoothly. Surprisingly, nothing appears about this conference in the French text. Although no French were directly involved, the conference goals of the landing in France certainly concerned them. In addition, the French text has consistently provided the most comprehensive coverage of the events outlined of any text, this being its first omission. It is also interesting that the British authors do not mention this conference in which Churchill was intimately involved, but this omission is consistent with the authors’ tendency to include little about any joint activities which involved the U.S.S.R. In discussing the Yalta Conference, the Japanese authors discuss only those decisions which affected Japan, leaving the false impression that these were the only items under discussion. Neither the French, British, nor the U.S. text mentions Yalta, which is somewhat surprising since Britain and the U.S. were two of the participants and since it was Roosevelt’s last Allied conference. The Japanese authors mention nothing about the Eastern Front, which is included to some degree in all of the other texts, nor do they ever mention that the U.S.S.R joined the Allies. The amount of coverage accorded this event by the British and U. S. texts is disproportionately small when compared to the information included in these texts on the Western War, and in the case of the U.S., on the Pacific War.

“War I the Pacific, 1943-1945”

The French and U.S. texts address each event in this category, with the U.S. text providing “extensive coverage” in three of the four events (Table 5). In contrast, the dropping of the atomic bombs is related very factually in one sentence in the Japanese text. The French, German, and Russian authors agree that the use of atomic weapons was based on estimates of Allied casualties that would occur in the invasion of Japan. The German author concedes that this is one explanation, but also questions whether the atomic bombs were also a desire to exhibit American military power to the Soviets. The U.S. authors note only that the bombs were dropped because of the failure of Japan to surrender. Only the German author discusses the later results of the bombing and only in the German text are there descriptions of the suffering of the victims. The texts differ in the casualty figures of Hiroshima; four different figures are given.

The Japanese and British authors do not mention the Soviet declaration of war on Japan. Neither text has included much information about any Soviet operations. The U.S. text states that the Soviets entered the war when they were supposed to, but then disparagingly remarks that they had ulterior motives in doing so. The German text implies this as well. The Russian text notes not only the declaration of war on Japan, but mentions the transfer of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe to the borders of Manchuria.

“Leaders Throughout the War”

It is difficult to imagine writing a chapter on World War II without mentioning Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, or Roosevelt, but that is what the Japanese authors have done. Only Tojo is mentioned by name in the Japanese text (Table 7). This sole inclusion is consistent with the practice of Japanese authors totally to ignore or to provide very little information on aspects of World War II outside of Japan. The French text includes the largest number of leaders, omitting only Yamamoto, who was also omitted in every other text, including that of the Japanese. Zhukov is mentioned only in the French text. Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt and Eisenhower are mentioned in every texts except that of Japan. In focusing primarily on these five personalities, most of the texts missed the opportunity to include some very remarkable leaders who accomplished significant feats, and the chance to broaden students’ knowledge of leaders to whom they might not be exposed in other courses. Especially surprising is the lack of mention of someone like Zhukov in the Russian text.


Ketchem (1982) concluded, following his analysis of international textbooks, that some students were presented with “profoundly inadequate information about World War Ir” (p. 100), and this conclusion is certainly valid in this study, as well. Few of the textbooks which were examined are adequate to provide comprehensive, bias-free information to teach World War II. Most of the texts are biased in emphasis, content, or omissions. Excessive nationalism is sometimes present, creating distorted views of events being presented to students. There is the possibility of problems in international understanding resulting from a biased impression in the minds of the readers. Of all six textbooks examined, the French text is the most free from these problems.

The most serious problems occur in the Japanese text, which ignores the European War, both East and West, to the such an extent that not al of the main countries in the war are brought into the discussion, and while fronts of the war are missing. The Japanese authors omit the largest number of events and leaders from the topic outline, focusing almost exclusively on the Pacific war and, more particularly, on Japanese activities In that front. The earlier years of the Pacific war receive more discussion than the later years. Much of the information in the text is purely factual, containing no descriptions or explanations. Most events concerning both the Western and Eastern European fighting were omitted, only one person from the “Leaders Throughout the War” topic was mentioned. The emphasis on the Pacific War and the lack of narrative echo the observations of authors in previous studies involving Japanese texts (Duke, 1969; S.S.D.C., 1981). Particularly disturbing is the fact that this textbook is used by over 62% of high schools in Japan, meaning that the majority of Japanese high school students are using a text which has inadequate coverage both because of the information that is included and that which is not. Failure to include more comprehensive information about the European arena potentially affects not only Japanese students understanding of World War II but of post-war international relations as well due to the impact of the war on these relations.

The French text includes numerous examples from many different countries that are used in the discussion of events. No topic receives substantially more coverage than the others, excluding a separate chapter devoted entirely to France. The French authors mention leaders from every country represented In the “Leaders Throughout the War” topic. The only events which receive significantly less coverage are those events in which the Soviet Union was the primary actor. French students will receive a more comprehensive presentation of the war if discussions of these events are expanded.

Military operations are covered in much less detail by the German author than are events affecting civilians. All military operations are briefly summarized with few battles and people mentioned, both for those in which Germany was involved and those involving other countries. As in the Japanese text, the military coverage is factual, lacking both narration and description. The German author focuses primarily on German activities and operations. As far as the inclusion of events and leaders from the topic outline is concerned, the German author omits only three events and five leaders. Students using the German text are presented with a great variety and number of documents in the text. They are asked to draw conclusions, make inferences, and answer questions. In many cases, however, students will lack the factual background to consider certain national or international implications, having been provided too brief a summary of certain events in the war. Even the coverage of German military operations is too inadequate to provide a comprehensive understanding of what happened and why.

The British text contains very little discussion of activities which do not primarily feature Britain. All operations involving the Soviet Union and the Pacific are especially lacking in coverage. Three of the omitted events relate to the Eastern Front and two leaders related to the Pacific front. Problems in the British text are similar to those noted in earlier studies involving British texts (Billington, 1966; Ketchem, 1982) where authors found a lack of comprehensive coverage. Because of the primary emphasis on British actions during the war, students using this text will lack information about actions by other countries, which may result in an exaggerated view of the importance of British actions in winning the war at the expense of the other countries who are involved. The partial information that British authors provide about Japanese and Soviet operations during the war potentially impairs British students understanding of post-war international relations.

The Russian text provides fairly equal coverage of all topics and events. Military operations are presented in a fairly factual manner, almost entirely devoid of narrative. The author omits only two events and four leaders. Although the Russian text provides a comprehensive view of the war, it lacks discussion of certain events and leaders that should be of particular interest to Russian students since this is a national history book. Inclusion of more information about these items would provide a more complete picture of the war as well. Curiously, the items omitted in the Russian text about Soviet activities are included in most of the other countries’ texts. The problems of distortion and error found to be present in Soviet texts in previous studies (Duke, 1969; Harbourt, 1931; Ketchem, 1982) do not exist in this text.

The U.S. authors provide the most coverage of those events in which the U. S. was involved. The major overall emphasis of U.S. authors is the Pacific war. Within the two Pacific topics, however, the emphasis is overwhelmingly on U.S. activities. The U.S. text fails to include events which focus on civilian involvement in World War II. Only three leaders are omitted by U.S. authors. Events are seldom presented only factually, at least where U.S. involvement occurs, and the discussions contained biased language. An example of this is in the description of Stalin as a “Hardened conspirator” and a “nasty Communist” while references to U.S. personalities such as Eisenhower, characterize him as “gifted” and “easy smiling.” No other text contains as much imbalance in this area. The tone and type of language used in the World War II chapter is consistent with that used throughout the text, and it may be that the colorful language is designed to engage the readers; however, in many instances, the language goes beyond interesting and engaging. Students using this text are presented with a U.S.-dominated World War II.

For the many problem areas that occurred in the texts, there are also some outstanding features. Most of the authors provide very comprehensive coverage of the events involving their respective countries, which is to be hoped for, as these are national history textbooks. The French text not only provides the most comprehensive coverage of all aspects of World War II, but by incorporating many primary documents, photographs, and maps into the text requires students to evaluate sources and formulate conclusions. The German text, as well, includes many documents, photographs, and maps. Like the French authors, the German author poses questions to be considered or provides materials to be interpreted. These textbooks require the student to do more than simply read and memorize the text material as they provide an opportunity to actively involve the student in the learning process. Students are asked to formulate and support conclusions from the documents. Active thinking as opposed to memorization is required, and the French and German texts lend themselves to discussion-based classrooms, rather than to teacher-dominated lectures.

The majority of the textbooks selected for this research inadequately provide students with comprehensive, bias-free information about World War II. The nature of these inadequacies lies in information that is included in texts, that which is not, and the emphasis given certain actions or events. Unless supplemental materials are used, students studying these texts will be presented with very different, and in some instances, erroneous depictions of a war which profoundly involved and affected their respective countries.


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Susan P. Santoli, St. Paul’s Episcopal School

Andrew Weaver, Auburn University

Copyright University of Northern Iowa Winter 1999

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