Developing Historical Argument

Argument is the essence of history. Knowledge of the past is produced by a process of questioning (enquiry) and reasoning (inference): historians interrogate the remains of the past (relics, reports, memories) in order to arrive at knowledge about the past through a process of argument.

Learning history involves understanding how historical argument works: (1) learning how to construct arguments about the past on the basis of source materials (evidence) and (2) learning how to evaluate arguments that historians have made.

A. Interpreting the Gestapo: An exercise to develop understanding of historical argument

The exercise below is aims to develop students’ ability to evaluate an historical argument by looking closely at how it has been constructed.

(1) Evaluating an argument

The following slide show is designed to help students interrogate and evaluate an historian’s argument:

The argument itself can be found in the BBC Documentary The Nazis: A warning from history (1997):

(2) Examples of responses to this task

Here is an example of an undergraduate students’ responses to this task:

It could be argued that the Nazis ruled Germany through terror. There were only 28 Gestapo in Wurzburg, but because they were secret police, it is possible that the people of Wurzburg didn’t actually know that there were only 28 Gestapo, they could have been led to believe that there were more officers than there actually were. This would create a sense of terror from the unknown, by not knowing how many secret police officers there actually were, the people of Wurzburg may have been too scared to step out of line in case there were hundreds of officers.

Also, the fact that people denounced each other could point towards fear and terrorisation, as people may have been denouncing others as an attempt to please the Gestapo and ‘get in their good books’, so as not to end up being punished by the Gestapo themselves.

(1) Further reading

The following article explores historical argument and teaching approaches to the evaluation of historical argument in more depth:

B. Resources on understanding argument

In the following video, Arthur Chapman discusses historical argument and suggests some questions to consider when developing and evaluating historical arguments:

Monty Python’s ‘Argument Clinic’ sketch is an excellent introduction to what argument is (and is not!):

The following series of Guardian articles from 2013 are also an excellent introduction to the mechanics and processes of arguing: