Sample History Essay

What is historiography?

In a nutshell, historiography is the history of history. Rather than subjecting actual events - say, the Rape of Nanking - to historical analysis, the subject of historiography is the history of the history of the event: the way it has been written, the sometimes conflicting objectives pursued by those writing on it over time, and the way in which such factors shape our understanding of the actual event at stake, and of the nature of history itself.

A historiographic essay thus asks you to explore several sometimes contradictory sources on one event. An annotated bibliography might come in handy as you attempt to locate such sources; you should also consult the footnotes and bibliographies of any text you read on a certain event, as they will lead you to other texts on the same event; if your research is web-based, follow links - always bearing in mind the pitfalls of the Internet - and if you are researching in the library, check out the books on nearby shelves: you'll be surprised by how often this yields sources you may otherwise never have found.

For an example of an essay on multiple perspectives on the same event (for our purposes, the Rape of Nanking, an event also examined in the context of Book Reviews), click here.

The purpose of an historiographic essay is threefold: 1.) to allow you to view an historical event or issue from multiple perspectives by engaging multiple sources; 2.) to display your mastery over those sources and over the event or issue itself; and 3.) to develop your critical reading skills as you seek to answer why your sources disagree, and what their disagreement tells you about the event or issue and the very nature of history itself.

Specific skills honed by such an exercise include your ability to discern bias or prejudice and to evaluate contradictory data and claims. As you will have to quote from your sources in order to make your point, you will also have to display basic quoting skills. The very nature of an essay on multiple sources also requires a Works Cited page, of course, on which, see Bibliography.




Parts of a historiographic essay

You will begin a historiographic essay with a thesis that presents the issue or event at stake, then introduces your sources and articulates, in brief, their authors' perspectives and their main points of (dis)agreement. In the main body of your paper you will elaborate upon and develop this latter point, pulling out specific points of (dis)agreement, juxtaposing quotes (and/or paraphrasing arguments) and subjecting them to analysis as you go along. As you do so, ask (and answer) why you think the authors of your various sources disagree. Is their disagreement a product of personal or professional rivalry, ideological incompatibility, national affiliation? These questions go to the heart of historiography. In your conclusion, finally, you will briefly summarize your findings and, more importantly, assess the credibility of your various sources, and specify which one(s) you find to be most compelling, and why. In final conclusion you might articulate in brief the insights you have gained into the event or issue at stake, the sources you have used, and the nature of history itself.




A sample historiographic essay

Let us assume that the subject of your historiographic essay is the Rape of Nanking, an event discussed in some detail in the Book Reviews section. There, we examine the event as it is described and analyzed by Iris Chang in her bestselling book The Rape of Nanking. To this we now add several other sources, all of which are listed in the Works Cited section at the end of this page, and cited in the text immediately following, which exemplifies, in brief, some of the basic strategies of a historiographic essay.

  • THESIS: The so-called Rape of Nanking of 1937, a six-week massacre of Chinese civilians in the city of Nanking perpetrated by the invading Japanese army, was presented to a largely uninitiated American mass audience by Iris Chang in her best-selling book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (1997). Chang's vivid book spawned international interest and a number of responses from fellow historians worldwide. Western historians generally agreed with Chang's insistence that the event - long a mere footnote in the popular historiography of World War II - deserved larger notice, but some criticized her for displaying personal bias as well as historical inaccuracies and methodological weaknesses of various sorts. The response from a number of Japanese scholars was overwhelmingly negative. They denied her account of a post-war Japanese "cover up," yet at the same time also, to varying degrees, denied that the event had even occurred.
  • EXAMPLE (1): Tanaka Masaaki, for example, author of the website "What Really Happened at Nanking: The Refutation of a Common Myth," refers to Chang's work as one of "lies, hyperbole, propaganda." Chang's "mountains of dead bodies," according to Matsaaki, were mountains "that no one saw." Her "Reports of mass murders of prisoners of War [were] fabricated," he claims, offering as evidence that there was "no mention of the 'Nanking Massacre'" - a term he pointedly places in quotation marks - "in Chinese Communist Party Records"; and that "No protests against the 'Nanking Massacre' [was] submitted to the League of Nations [or] ... by the United States, Great Britian, or France." The event, he concludes - if there even was one - was "a massacre with no witnesses" (Masaaki).
  • ANALYSIS: Much of Masaaki's criticism smacks of precisely the kind of revisionism Chang critiques in her book, and is easily exposed as such. The fact that Chinese communist party records make no mention of the event, for example, is hardly surprising, as the Chinese communists were at this time in disarray, operating largely underground in the Nanking area. Not until 1949 did the communists begin their rule over China and begin keeping official records: why then should we expect there to exist records dating back to 1937? Nor should the silence of the League of Nations, the United States, Great Britain and France come as any surprise. In the same year that France and Britain stood by as Nazi Germany re-militarized the Rhineland in violation of the Treaty of Versailles; and that the United States and the League of Nation stood by as Franco and Mussolini continued in their campaigns against the rightful governments of Spain and Ethiopia, why would we expect the United States or the League of Nations to have registered any protest over events halfway around the world?
  • EXAMPLE (2): Other arguments by Masaaki are more compelling. For example, he notes of one of the many disturbing photographs in Chang's book - a famous one, apparently showing a Chinese prisoner of war about to be beheaded by a Japanese officer brandishing a sword - that its "fakery is easy to detect if you look at the shadow cast by the man at the center [the officer] and that cast by [a lower-ranking] soldier to his right. [The shadows] are facing in different directions" (Masaaki). The photograph does indeed seem to be a composite, and while stopping short of supporting Masaaki's claim that "not a single one of [Chang's photographs] bears witness to a 'Nanking Massacre'," even American historian Robert Entenmann concedes that several of the photos in Chang's book are indeed "fakes, forgeries and composites," including one (also singled out by Masaaki) "of a row of severed heads," which, according to Entenmann, in fact depicts "bandits executed by Chinese police in 1930 rather than victims of the Nanking Massacre" (Masaaki, Entenmann).
  • COUNTER-ARGUMENT: Faked though some of Chang's twelve pages of photos might be - perhaps even all of them, as Masaaki suggests - the fact that there exist literally hundreds of photographs of the Nanking Massacre, many of them "souvenir photos" taken by Japanese soldiers themselves, strains the credibility of his larger point and even more so the point made by his stridently anti-Chang colleagues Takemoto Tadao and Ohara Yasuo. In their The Alleged 'Nanking Massacre': Japan's Rebuttal to China's Forged Claims, these writers state that "none of these photos are dated, and the names of places and photographers are not stated. In other words, there exist [no] photos that are rigidly authentic, and definitely, these photos can not be used as evidence of [the] 'Nanking Massacre'" (Tadao and Yasuo 101). In fact, several hundred photographs have been published in one volume - The Rape of Nanking: An Undeniable History in Photographs, by Shi Young and James Yin, many of them showing female rape victims with legs spread and genitalia exposed - graphic photographs it is hard to conceive of as staged. Such pictures, while not settling the matter beyond dispute, offer powerful testimony that speaks for itself.
  • EXAMPLE (3): Notwithstanding the many graphic photographs that exist, it is precisely the accusation of widespread rape - most likely because of its abhorrent nature - that Chang's Japanese critics wish to deny. "The number of 'cases of rape' [the Chinese] claim is from 20,000 to 80,000 cases," Tadao and Yasuo note. "Suppose we took this number, there should have been from 500 to 2,000 cases of rapes...daily [during the six week period of the Massacre]. This number is absolutely not trustworthy," they conclude, citing instead the number of only 361 official complaints of rape actually registered during this period (130). Of course, they are parsing numbers here. The fact is, whether there were three hundred rapes, thirty thousand, more, or less, rape perpetrated by an occupying force against a civilian population (and that such was the case is amply documented in Chang and virtually all extant sources on Nanking, including the Japanese sources, although they, of course, acknowledge only 361) is a crime of war. But that it is an individual crime of war, rather than a collective, government-sponsored crime against humanity (such as the Holocaust) is precisely the point for the Japanese historians: "[Holocaust] killings were indeed ... 'crimes against humanity', [but] those crimes are fundamentally different from the 'war crimes' which the Japanese troops are said to have committed. ... Those acts of crimes [were] the responsibility of each individual soldier" (136, 130). Following this line of reasoning, the Japanese government is absolved of any blame for the rapes that did occur in Nanking, the exact number of which remains unknown. (On this issue, see Evaluating Contradictory Data and Claims).
  • EXAMPLE (4): More trenchant criticism of Chang than that offered by Japanese historians comes from the American academy. Robert Entenmann, for example, a China expert and senior faculty member in the History department at St. Olaf College, faults Chang on the very premise of her book. He denies that there is a conspiracy of silence surrounding Nanking in Japan; maintains (in contradiction to Chang's claims) that Japanese textbooks do address the event (it is rather quaintly referred to as an "incident" in Japanese historiography, if at all, rather than a massacre, far less a rape); states that those textbooks that do mention it offer fatality rates listed between 150,000 to 300,000 (the Western consensus is around 250,000; Chang claims 300,000); and that 80% of respondents to a 1994 opinion poll in Japan found "that their government had not adequately compensated victimized peoples in countries Japan had colonized or invaded" (Entenmann). On this last count, it is worth noting that the specific wording of the question does not appear to address Nanking explicitly, and that the opinion poll's finding thus bears little relevance to the question at hand. We might also be skeptical of Entenmann's generous appraisal of Japanese textbooks: on its role in World War II, Japan's high school textbooks in particular are subject to constant revision, much of it aimed at mitigating the government's role in wartime atrocities, as a 2007 New York Times article reminds us (Onishi 12).
  • EXAMPLE (5): Entenmann's more fundamental criticism of Chang's work and perspective, however, goes deeper. As the granddaughter of former Nanking residents who barely escaped the city, she is guilty, he writes, of having fallen victim to "her own ethnic prejudice. ... Her explanations are, to a large extent, based on unexamined [anti-Japanese] ethnic stereotypes." Furthermore, she engages in "implausible speculations," according to Entenmann, for example, her claim that Emperor Hirohito himself exulted in the news of the Rape of Nanking (see Chang 179). In fact, Entenmann points out, Hirohito's response is unknown, and Chang may be guilty here of "confus[ing] Japanese leaders' delight in the fall of the Chinese capital with exulting in the massacre that occurred afterward" (Entenmann).
  • ANALYSIS: Such sleights of hand (which Entenmann himself indulges in, as his opinion poll example above shows) are perhaps conscious on Chang's part, or perhaps a function of her not being a professional historian and therefore applying a less-than-rigorous methodology in her efforts to tell a good story. She is after all, a popular (rather than an academic) historian, whom another bestselling historian, Stephen Ambrose, whose scholarship has also been faulted on several counts, once called "the best young historian we've got because she understands that to communicate history, you've got to tell the story in an interesting way" (Ambrose qtd. in Sullivan B6).
  • CONCLUSION: It is this zeal to tell a good story and back it up with sensational evidence (even if - like some of her photographs - it is faked), as well as her occasionally emotional prose, sometimes bordering on hyperbole, that remains Chang's greatest liability. In an effort to place the Rape of Nanking into historical context, for example, she states that "[u]sing numbers killed alone" it "surpasses much of the worst barbarism of the ages." Its casualties exceeded those of the Carthaginians at the hands of the Romans, the victims of the Spanish Inquisition, and those of the Mongolian leader Timur Lenk, she writes in a series of specious comparisons that culminate with the observation that "the deaths at Nanking far exceeded the deaths from the American raids on Tokyo ... and even the combined death toll of the two atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki" (Chang 6). In The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography, an anthology generally sympathetic to Chang's project (if not to her methodology), George Washington University history and international affairs professor Daqing Yang, himself a native of Nanking, notes that "such a comparison [as Chang's] is methodologically sterile" and "morally misguided" (Yang 161). Indeed, it is precisely the sort of parsing of numbers for which Chang herself would most likely challenge the above-mentioned Japanese historians in their effort to deny the extent to which rape occurred at Nanking.
    Despite these failings, Chang's book ultimately emerges as a more persuasive argument of what did in fact happen at Nanking than those offered by her Japanese detractors. The enduring controversy surrounding the event, however, and the specific criticism against Chang from even those who support her premise, point both to the endlessly debatable nature of history, and to the need for a more rigorous, analytical approach in its telling. As Joshua Fogel notes in his introduction to The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography, "The Massacre and related events must be lifted beyond the popular level ... to be studied with greater nuance and with a wider range of sources" (Fogel 1). In such a project, the contradictory data and claims of Chang and her critics need not necessarily be mutually exclusive but, instead, might help establish a broader context within which the event can be understood more fully, from all sides.



Works cited

  • Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (New York: BasicBooks, 1997).
  • Entenmann, Robert. "Review of Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II." October 29, 1998. H-Net List for Asian History and Culture, 1998. Accessed July 1, 2007. http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/55/481.html.
  • Yang, Daqin. "The Challenges of the Nanjing Massacre: Refections on Historical Inquiry." The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography. Ed. Joshua Fogel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, 133 - 180.
  • Masaaki, Tanaka. "What Really Happened in Nanking: The Refutation of a Common Myth." N.d. Accessed July 1, 2007. http://www.ne.jp/asahi/unko/tamezou/nankin/whatreally/index.html.
  • Onishi, Norimitsu. "Japan's Textbooks Reflect Revised History." The New York Times, April 1, 2007, A12.
  • Sullivan, Patricia. "'Rape of Nanking' Author Irish Chang Dies." November 12, 2004, B6. Washington Post, November 12, 2004, B6. Accessed July 1, 2007. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A44139-2004Nov11.html.
  • Takemoto, Tadao and Ohara Yasuo. The Alleged 'Nanking Massacre': Japan's Rebuttal to China's Forged Claims. Tokyo: Meisei-sha, Inc., 2000.
  • Young, Shi and James Ying. The Rape of Nanking: An Undeniable History in Photographs, expanded 2nd edition. Chicago, Innovative Publishing Group, Inc., 1997.

The interested reader will find another brief exercise in historiographical inquiry - this one on the disputed relationship between the Catholic Church and fascism during the 1930s - in the Research Paper section of this site, under "Conducting Research for 'The Austrian Catholic Church and the Anschluss': Catholicism and fascism."

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An essay is a piece of sustained writing in response to a question, topic or issue. Essays are commonly used for assessing and evaluating student progress in history. History essays test a range of skills including historical understanding, interpretation and analysis, planning, research and writing. To write an effective essay, students must examine the question, understand its focus and requirements, acquire information and evidence through research, then construct a clear and well organised response. Writing a good history essay should be rigorous and challenging, even for stronger students. As with other skills, essay writing develops and improves over time. Each essay you complete helps you become more competent and confident. The drop down links on this page contain some general advice for writing a successful history essay. You may also find our page on writing for history to be useful.

Study the question

An obvious tip but one that is sadly neglected by some students. The first step to writing a good essay, whatever the subject or topic, is to give plenty of thought to the question. An essay question will set some kind of task or challenge. It might ask you to explain the causes and/or effects of a particular event or situation. It might ask if you agree or disagree with a statement. It might ask you to describe and analyse the causes and/or effects of a particular action or event. Or it might ask you to evaluate the relative significance of a person, group or event. You should begin by reading the essay question several times. Underline, highlight or annotate key words or terms in the text of the question. Think about what it requires you to do. Who or what does it want you to concentrate on? Does it state or imply a particular timeframe? What problem or issue does it want you to address?

Begin with a plan

Every essay should begin with a written plan. Start constructing a plan as soon as you have received your essay question and given it some thought. Prepare for research by brainstorming and jotting down your thoughts and ideas. What are your initial responses or thoughts about the question? What topics, events, people or issues are connected with the question? Do any additional questions or issues flow from the question? What topics or events do you need to learn more about? What historians or sources might be useful? If during this process you encounter a mental ‘brick wall’, or are uncertain about how to approach the question, don’t hesitate to discuss it with someone else. Consult your teacher, a capable classmate or someone you trust. Bear in mind too that once you start researching, your plan may change as you locate new information.

Start researching

After studying the question and developing an initial plan, start to gather information and evidence. Most will start by reading an overview of the topic or issue, usually in some reliable secondary sources. This will refresh or build your existing understanding of the topic and provide a basis for further questions or investigation. Your research should take shape from here, guided by the essay question and your own planning. Identify terms or concepts you do not know and find out what they mean. As you locate information, ask yourself if it is relevant or useful for addressing the question. Be creative with your research, looking in a variety of places. If you have difficulty locating information, seek advice from your teacher or someone you trust.

Develop a contention

All good history essays have a clear and strong contention. A contention is the main idea or argument of your essay. It serves both as an answer to the question and the focal point of your writing. Ideally, you should be able to express your contention as a single sentence. For example, the following contention might form the basis of an essay question on the rise of the Nazis:

Q. Why did the Nazi Party win 37 per cent of the vote in July 1932?

A. The Nazi Party’s electoral success of 1932 was a result of economic suffering caused by the Great Depression, public dissatisfaction with the Weimar Republic’s democratic political system and mainstream parties, and Nazi propaganda that promised a return to traditional social, political and economic values.

An essay using this contention would go on to explain these statements in greater detail and justify them with evidence. At some point in your research you should begin thinking about a contention for your essay. Remember, you should be able to express it briefly, as if addressing the essay question in a single sentence, or summing up in a debate. Try to frame your contention so that is strong, authoritative and convincing. It should sound like the voice of someone well informed about the subject and confident about their answer.

Plan an essay structure

Once most of your research is complete and you have a strong contention, start jotting down a possible essay structure. This need not be complicated, a few lines or dot points is ample. Every essay must have an introduction, a body of several paragraphs and a conclusion. Your paragraphs should be well organised and follow a logical sequence. You can organise paragraphs in two ways: chronologically (covering events or topics in the order they occurred) or thematically (covering events or topics based on their relevance to a). Every paragraph should be clearly signposted in the topic sentence. Once you have a plan, start drafting your essay.

Write a compelling introduction

Many consider the introduction to be the most important part of an essay. The introduction is important for several reasons. It is the reader’s first experience of your essay. It is where you first address the question and express your contention. It is where you begin to signpost the direction your essay will take. Aim for an introduction that is clear, confident and punchy. Get straight to the point – do not waste time with a rambling or storytelling introduction. Start by providing a little context, then address the question, articulate your contention and indicate what direction your essay will take.

Create fully formed paragraphs

Many history students fall into the trap of writing short paragraphs, sometimes containing as little as one or two sentences. A good history essay contains paragraphs that are themselves ‘mini essays’, usually between 100-200 words each. A paragraph should focus on one topic or issue only – but it should contain a thorough exploration of that topic or issue. A good paragraph will begin with an effective opening sentence, sometimes called a topic sentence or signposting sentence. This sentence introduces the paragraph topic and briefly explains its significance to the question and your contention. Good paragraphs also contain thorough explanations, some analysis and evidence, perhaps a quotation or two.

Finish with an effective conclusion

The conclusion is the final paragraph of your essay. A good conclusion should do two things. First, it should reiterate or restate the contention of your essay. Second, it should close off your essay, ideally with a polished ending that is not abrupt or awkward. One effective way to do this is with a brief summary of ‘what happened next’. For example, an essay discussing Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 might close with a couple of sentences about how he consolidated and strengthened his power in 1934-35. Your conclusion need not be as long or as developed as your body paragraphs. You should always avoid introducing new information or evidence in a conclusion.

Reference and cite your sources

A history essay is only likely to succeed if it is appropriately referenced. Your essay should support its information, ideas and arguments with citations or references to reliable sources. Referencing not only acknowledges the work of others, it also gives authority to your writing and provides the teacher or assessor with an insight into your research. More information on referencing a piece of history writing can be found here.

Proof, edit and seek feedback

Every essay should be proofed, edited and, if necessary, re-drafted before being submitted for assessment. Essays should ideally be completed a few days before their due date, then put aside for a day or two before proof reading. Look first for spelling and grammatical errors, typographical mistakes, incorrect dates or other errors of fact. Think then about how you can improve the clarity, tone and structure of your essay. Does your essay follow a logical structure or sequence? Is the signposting in your essay clear and effective? Are some sentences too long or ‘rambling’? Do you repeat yourself? Do paragraphs need to be expanded, fine tuned or strengthened with more evidence? Read your essay aloud, either to yourself or another person. Seek feedback and advice from a good writer or someone you trust (they need not have expertise in history, only in effective writing).

Some general tips on writing

  • Always write in the third person. Never refer to yourself personally, using phrases like “I think…” or “It is my contention…”. Good history essays should adopt the perspective of an informed and objective third party. They should sound rational and factual – not like an individual expressing their opinion.
  • Always write in the past tense. An obvious tip for a history essay is to write in the past tense. Always be careful about your use of tense. Watch out for mixed tenses when proof reading your work. One exception to the rule about past tense is when writing about the work of modern historians (for example, “Kershaw writes…” sounds better than “Kershaw wrote…” or “Kershaw has written…”).
  • Avoid generalisations. Generalisation is a problem in all essays but it is particularly common in history essays. Generalisation occurs when you form general conclusions from one or more specific examples. In history this most commonly occurs when students study the experiences of a particular group, then assume their experiences applied to a much larger group – for example, “All the peasants were outraged”, “Women rallied to oppose conscription” or “Germans supported the Nazi Party”. Both history and human society, however, are never this clear cut or simple. Always be conscious about avoiding generalisation – and be on the lookout for generalised statements when proof reading.
  • Write short, sharp and punchy. Good writers always vary their sentence length – but as a rule of thumb, most of your sentences should be short and punchy. The longer a sentence becomes, the greater the risk to its effectiveness. Long sentences can easily become disjointed, confused or rambling. Try not to overuse long sentences and pay close attention to sentence length when proof reading.
  • Write in an active voice. The active voice is preferable to the passive voice in history writing. In the active voice, the subject completes the action (e.g. “Hitler [the subject] initiated the Beer Hall putsch [the action] to seize control of the Bavarian government”). In the passive voice, the action is completed by the subject (“The Beer Hall putsch [the action] was initiated by Hitler [the subject] to seize control of the Bavarian government”). The active voice helps prevent sentences from becoming long, wordy and unclear.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “Writing a history essay” at Alpha History, http://alphahistory.com/writing-a-history-essay/, 2017, accessed [date of last access].

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