answer: history 650: the holocaust s2003 prof. jeremy popkin
hints for writing a historiographical essay
a historiographical essay is an essay which analyzes the way a single historical topic or issue is treated by a number of authors. a historiographical essay is usually problem-centered, unlike a book review, which is centered on a single publication (even though a book review does normally make some reference to other works related to the book being discussed). for example, a historiographical essay on jewish resistance during the holocaust might look at the differing definitions of resistance offered by hilberg, bauer, gutman and paulsson, their differing conclusions about the extent of such resistance, and their opinions about its impact. in addition to pointing out areas of agreement and disagreement in the work on this subject, a good historiographical essay should discuss the reasons for these differences and their implications for the understanding of the subject. whereas book reviews usually deal with full-length books, historiographical essays are more flexible and often discuss articles as well as books.
there is no single formula for organizing a historiographical essay. like all interpretive and argumentative essays, a historiographical essay should have an introduction defining its subject and offering a preview of the following argument, and it should end with a conclusion in which you look back over what you have said, summarize your most important findings, and leave the reader with a significant thought to carry away from the piece. the introduction and conclusion should be separate paragraphs or sequences of paragraphs; if you combine them with paragraphs that are really part of the body of your paper, you have probably not devoted enough time and effort to them. in between, however, there are several different ways to organize your material. the best approach will depend on the nature of the issue discussed in your readings and the nature of the readings themselves. some of the various approaches that are possible are:
(1) the “historiographical-evolution” approach: this usually works best if you are comparing a series of more or less comparable secondary works that deal with closely related questions and that show a clear evolution of viewpoints over time. such essays usually begin by discussing a fundamental book that set forth important theses on a historical topic and then looking at subsequent publications that challenged those theses, perhaps substituting a new general interpretation that was subsequently revised in its turn. thus, if you were reviewing the historiographical literature on what holocaust historians call the “intentionalist-functionalist debate” (did hitler and the nazis have a clear plan for dealing with the jews when they came to power in 1933, or did their measures evolve as they encountered new aspects of the you might begin with hilberg’s thesis that they knew what they wanted to do from the start, proceed through the works of historians like schleunes, mommsen and broszat who claimed that there was no initial plan, turn to fleming’s counterargument that hitler knew all along what he wanted to do, and perhaps conclude with s. friedlaender’s and ian kershaw’s attempts to find a kind of middle ground on the issue. in an essay of this sort, you tend to treat each successive publication as a response to the earlier ones; your job as historiographical analyst is to show how this conversation among historians proceeded and what ending point it finally reached. in such an essay, you would usually discuss each book in turn, normally in chronological order.
(2) the “rival-schools” approach: you may find that your readings reflect differing approaches to a subject, but that they do not fall into the pattern of assertion—challenge—synthesis—new challenge that is characteristic of the “historiographical evolution” essay. in this case, it may make more sense to present the major interpretations of a problem as examples of competing historiographical or ideological approaches. in this case, the chronological order in which works appeared may be less important, since you may be suggesting that different interpretations have co-existed with each other over time, rather than one replacing the other. one might, for example, contrast the “german national character” approach to perpetrator mentality, found in goldhagen’s work, with the “conformity/pressure of circumstances” interpretation in browning and the “working-toward-the-fuehrer” explanation offered in kershaw. here your emphasis would be on explaining the logic of each explanation and its strengths and weaknesses.
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