'A' LEVEL HISTORY: STRATEGY FOR WRITING HISTORY ESSAYS

Introduction.

The following plan for writing history essays, and an example of such an essay, was produced by Andrew William Panton, M.A. Dip. Ed., as guidance for 'A' Level students at Eton College, Windsor, Berkshire, in 1975.

A.  STRATEGY FOR WRITING HISTORY ESSAYS

1.  Look at question very carefully: What type of answer does it require? What sections from notes need to be included in the answer? As the essay question seeks to examine depth of knowledge on a particular subject, as much as possible of the information learned should be made relevant to the answer. 
 
2.  Plan structure of the essay in following sequence:
 
a.  Mainstream of the essay (2-6 paragraphs)     
 
(1)  Contains main factual content of the essay. These details should include as many dates, names, and figures as possible.

          
(2)   These facts back up the central theme of the essay.

(3)   Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence which introduces the facts andrelates them directly to the question.
        
(4)   Paragraphs should be linked, if possible, and should follow one another naturally, i.e. in the most natural order.

b.  Introduction

(1)  Should not answer the question but outline in general terms the scope or direction of the answer.

(2)  Should cover any important preliminary details, which cannot be conveniently fitted in elsewhere.

(3)  Should be brief, and not include many facts.

(4)  Should be stimulating.

c.  Conclusion

(1)  Should tie the threads of the essay together, either by summarizing the topics discussed earlier and /or by a general statement. A clinching detail in support of this general statement is often useful.

(2)  Should cover any important concluding details, which cannot be conveniently fitted in elsewhere.

(3)  Should be clear, concise and stimulating.

The minimum details that a plan should include are the paragraph numbers and their topic headings. The general statements and other details required for the introduction and conclusion should also be noted, but only after the content of the mainstream paragraphs has been noted.

                    
Introduction   ................(General scope etc)...........................                             

1.   ................................(Topic heading).................................

2.   ................................(Topic heading).................................

3.   ................................(Topic heading)..................................

4.   ................................(Topic heading)..................................

Conclusion   ..................(Final statement etc)............................

If notes have been thoroughly learned, most of the detailed information will be triggered off by the topic heading.

3.   Write the essay, following the plan.

N.B. If this strategy is followed, every word in the essay should be relevanti.e. related to the question. Each mainstream paragraph in the essay should elicit the information contained in the note sections that have been made and learned. The topic sentences should then relate this information to answering the question set. Thus, while much of the factual material exhibited in the paragraphs of essay answers will be the same, whatever the specific question that may be asked on a particular subject or area of study, the topic sentences will ensure that this information is related to the question. Thus the section headings in the notes on each subject must be converted into a topic sentence in an essay.


B.  EXAMPLE OF A HISTORY ESSAY

Question: "The accidental by-product of defeat in war, rather than the planned outcome of theory." Discuss this as a comment on the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Plan:

Intro.  Both factors important. 2 revolutions in 1917. Background factors also significant.

1.  Effects of economic modernisation.

2.  Symptoms of political modernisation.

3.  Need for a shock if rev. was to occcur.

4.  Consequences of WW1.

5.  Collapse of Tsarist govt. > March Rev.

6.  Effect of Bolsheviks > Nov Rev.

Conclusion.  Bolshevik plans important in Nov. but dependent on March rev. which was due to War.

Essay: (N.B. Topic sentences are highlighted in italic script.)

"The accidental by-product of defeat in war, rather than the planned outcome of theory." Discuss this as a comment on the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Both the consequences of the First World War and the carefully laid plans of the Bolsheviks were decisive factors in determining the course of events in Russia in 1917. These two factors were of prime importance at different times in a year which saw two distinct revolutions, but neither can be placed in is proper context without a prior consideration of the social and political environment of Russia in 1914, for therein lay the seeds of a potential revolution. 
 
The changes that Russia underwent between the end of the Crimean War in 1856 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 involved her in a deep, if belated, process of modernisation, which, according to the determinist view, was leading her inexorably towards revolution. The abolition of serfdom in 1861 succeeded in raising the expectations, but not the living standards of the vast mass of Russian peasants. Former serfs found themselves farming less land than before, and at the same time paying redemption dues to pay for their land, while their subjection to the landowners had merely been exchanged for the control of the 'mir', or village commune, which allocated the land and the redemption dues. These factors, and the catastrophic rise in the peasant population from 50 to 100 million between 1861 and 1917, led to acute agrarian problems which manifested themselves in a number of sporadic uprisings around the turn of the century. While the social situation in the countryside was changing, the towns were being radically altered by the industrial revolution that was at last taking hold of Russia. The output of coal and iron increased enormously between 1870 and 1914, and the 1,000 miles of railway track in existence in 1860 had grown to 44,000 miles in 1914, thanks largely to the energetic efforts of Count Witte, Alexander III's Minister of Communications. Foreigh investment, particularly French, flooded into the country, and a massive increase in the size of the the town population was attended by the social evils usually associated with rapid industrialisation. Economic growth was particularly marked between 1900 and 1914, in which period it is estimated that the urban population of Russia increased by as much as a third. The numbers of the urban population, the raw material of social revolution, had thus increased to a level where its collective resistance might endanger the security of the state and the social order.  

 

Modernisation was also affecting the Russian political scene before 1914, even if the Tsar still preserved his absolute authority, and signs of opposition were emerging as possible threats to the old regime. The lasr decades of the Nineteenth Century saw the emergence in Russia of various utopian revolutionary parties, drawing their inspiration from Western Europe. The Social Revolutonaries, offshoots of the international anarchist movement, attempted to stir up the peasantry, while a Marxist party, the Social Democrats, led by Georgi Plekhanov, was pledged to prepare for a proletarian uprising in the big cities. Meanwhile, the Tsarist government, its prestige damaged by the disasters of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and its credibility shaken by the abortive 1905 Revolution, was forced to concede to the demands of the liberal bourgeois classes for a representative political institution, and, if the Duma that emerged in 1906 was little more than a 'talking shop', it was at least a milestone on the road towards more political changes. 
 
It is thus apparent that many of the necessary ingredients for a revolution had appeared on the scene by 1914, but the control of the Tsar's government was still too strong, the opposition too divided, and the peasants and urban workers too apathetic for revolution to be within sight. Some profound shock was required if the elements of revolution were to be fused together to produce a dynamic change. 
 
Such a shock was provided by the First World War (1914-18), the consequences of which were to shatter forever the Tsarist autocracy and to unite for a time all its opponents in a programme of common action. The War was disastrous for Russia both from the military and economic viewpoint. In terms of territory, Russia had done moderately well up to the beginning of 1917, but in human terms her losses had been appalling. The unprecedented slaughter of the Great War was visited upon the Russians most severely of all, some 8 million casualties being sustained between 1914 and 1917. In addition, the armies and the individual soldiers were atrociously equipped, while their generals were usually incompetent and often corrupt. Sukhomlinov, the notorious War Minister, who was dismissed in 1915, had lined his pockets with money designated for military supplies. After the end of the Brusilov offensive in 1916, the Russians had fought to a standstill, and the growing number of desertions from the front testified to the declining morale and the acute war-weariness of the Russian people, as well to as their increasing indignation with a government that was leading them to total disaster. This indignation was accentuated by the economic chaos into which the country was plunged as a result of war. The removal of 15 million men for the army involved the economy in a loss to its labour force that it was unable to make up. The attempt to mobilise the economy on a war footing brought about an economic collapse: factories, mills and blast-furnaces closed down all over Russia. Goods were stockpiled at railway stations, and the inadequate railway system, unable to handle the volume of freight which was necessary to sustain the war effort, slipped from disorganisation into paralysis.The consequences of economic disintegration and the breakdown of communications were massive inflation and a growing shortage of food in the cities. By the end of 1916 prices were 500% higher than in 1914, and bread riots had broken out in Moscow. As a result of these crippling conditions, the masses were provoked out of their usual apathy, and the wave of strikes that hit the country in 1916-17 testify to the success of the revolutionaries' propaganda. 

 

Meanwhile, the inadequacies of the autocracy were being shown up in stark relief. The Government, composed of aged bunglers and nominees of the hated Rasputin, was quite unable to cope with  the conditions brought on by the War, and pursued a policy of mindless repression that did nothing to tackle the pit of problems into which the country was falling. Tsar Nicholas II, increasingly dominated by his hysterical wife and he 'mentor', Rasputin, failed to respond to the plight of his people or to purge his government of the unworthy elements which the baleful influence of Rasputin had imported into it, and the Tsar's failure led to a growing hatred of him and a contempt for the governmental system which he embodied. Even the aristocracy was contemplating his enforced abdication, and Rasputin was murdered by Prince Usupov, the husband of the Tsar's niece, Princess Irina. Thus were made possible the conditions in which the liberal bourgeois politicians of the Duma would agree to cooperate with Marxist revolutionaries in the spring of 1917. But the outbreak of the Revolution in St. Petersburg in March 1917 was an elemental phenomenon; it was a spontaneous and unplanned protest against the weight of accumulated grievances which the Russian people no longer found bearable. Indeed, the success of the uprising took the revolutionaries so much by surprise that Lenin, the most able of them, was telling an audience in Switzerland in January 1917 that he did not expect that he would live to see the Revolution. Thus it was the cataclysmic circumstances produced by Russia's involvement in the First War, and not the successful action of revolutionary agitators that was responsible for igniting the fuse of revolution in March 1917.

However, if revolutionary planning had little to do with the success of the March Revolution, the success of the Bolsheviks in seizing control of the country in the second revolution of November 1917 was certainly due to the 'planned outcome of theory'. Ever since his return from exile in April, Vladimir Lenin had set about about preparing for a Bolshevik takeover. Differing with the Menshevik, or moderate,  wing of the Social Democratic Party, Lenin argued that the bourgeois revolution must be followed almost immediately by the revolution of the proletariat, and he was quick to realise that in the circumstances of 1917 soldiers and peasants might also be induced to join the forces of the revolution. The combination of Lenin's call for continuous revolution and his policies of 'land for the peasants and peace for all' was to prove irresistible in the land-hungry and war-weary Russia of 1917. In the confusion and the power vacuum of that year, any closely knit political group with a cogent programme of action stood a good chance of success, and the discipline of the elite Bolshevik faction, under the inspiring leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, gave it a striking force out of all proportion to its numbers. The further disintegration of the army, due to Kerensky's decision to renew the War, and the inability of the small bourgeois class to provide a government with 'grass roots' support facilitated the success of the brilliantly planned Bolshevik coup of November 8th. It was a triumph of opportunism based on a clear grasp of political realities.

In conclusion, it can be seen that the superior planning and ideas of the Bolsheviks enabled them to play a vital part in the outcome of the events of 1917; what is equally clear is that that they could never have succeeded had it not been for the downfall of Tsardom in March due to the consequences of the War. The revolution of March expressed in an acute and perhaps uniquely Russian form an almost universal sense of frustration and hopelessness. Under the effects of industrialisation, Russia would no doubt have had to undergo profound social and political changes during the course of the Twentieth Century, but these changes were greatly accelerated by the consequences of the First World War, that 'great locomotive of history'. Under the excruciating strains of that murderous conflict, the sinews of Tsarist Russia cracked, and its structure crumbled away. 
Last modified onThursday, 01 January 2015 17:38
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