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Lecturer's expectations

Ian Copland, Lecturer

In this section, one of your lecturers - Ian Copland - sets out what he expects from student assignments on this topic.

Essay topic:

Read the three articles by Christopher Browning, Richard Breitman, and Henry Friedlander on the beginning of the Holocaust. Which of these three interpretations do you find more persuasive, and why?

What's required?

This assignment is based on the idea that whilst historians agree about many things (e.g. that a certain event occurred), there is also much about which they disagree (why it occurred, how important it was, etc.). In this way, much historical writing needs to be thought of not as "a laying out of the facts", but as the presenting of a particular interpretation (or argument).

When historians present a range of interpretations about an event or period, we think of them participating in a debate - this is what a lot of historical writing is about.

In this assignment, you need to consider three interpretations of an event, in this case "the beginnings of the Holocaust". This type of essay - one involving an analysis of historians' different accounts of an event or period - is known as a historiographical essay.

The articles by Browning, Breitman, and Friedlander were selected because they have recognisably different points of view about the beginnings of the Holocaust, especially those by Browning and Breitman. The issue (or debate) that they're engaged in is:

  • whether the Nazis had some sort of preconceived genocidal plan that they always intended to implement, or
  • whether the Holocaust happened in a kind of haphazard way - driven mainly by circumstances at the time, especially military circumstances

How to go about writing the essay?

  1. In a historiographical essay, first of all you need to identify what the issue is that historians are debating - in this case, how the Holocaust got going.
  2. Next, you have to work out where each writer is coming from - what their "take" on the issue is. What is their argument? What kind of evidence are they drawing on? In coming to grips with Writer A's account, you need to be thinking about how it differs from Writer B's. This requires very close and careful reading of the texts.
  3. The next part is probably the hardest. This is where you need to start making your own judgments about each interpretation - in this case, which interpretation of the Holocaust seems to you the most persuasive?

    How does one go about making these judgments? Well, a bit like a juror in a criminal trial, you need to look at the evidence each writer is drawing on:

    • What kind of evidence is it? Quotations from documents? Statistics? Description of events?
    • Does it seem reliable evidence? Who, where does it come from? Can it be trusted?
    • Does there seem to be sufficient evidence?
    • Does the writer's interpretation of the evidence presented seem well-founded?
    • Do you know of any counter-evidence?

    Next, you need to start planning out the structure of your essay. Broadly speaking, the structure of a historiographical essay will be based on the individual discussion of each of the historical accounts you are considering. Thus a conventional structure would be:

    • Introduction
    • Discussion of Account 1
    • Discussion of Account 2
    • Discussion of Account 3 etc
    • Conclusion

    Give some thought to the order in which you discuss these accounts. For example, you might like to begin with what is, for you, the weaker account and then move on to others that are more convincing.

    Alternatively, the sequence might be based on a grouping of accounts that seem similar to you. What you should avoid is a structure that has no underlying coherence: e.g. one that merely reflects the order in which you read the articles.

    Your discussion of each account should contain your summary of the writer's position in the debate, including the type of evidence they have drawn on and your evaluation of this position. The notetaking you do for each article should reflect this distinction.

  4. When you have done enough reading, structuring, and argument formulation, you can begin drafting the essay. In the process of writing, you might need to go back to some of the things you did in Stages 1-4.
  5. When you have completed your draft, leave it for a day or two, then re-read and edit it.

When editing, always think about your reader. Frame your writing so that the essay will make sense to someone who is not necessarily familiar with the articles you are describing.

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