Historiography: Interpretations

Written by Aaron




This is part of a series: Acing the Historiography Paper. See also.

  1. Historiography: Interpretations
  2. Historiography: Subject Knowledge Cheat Sheet
  3. Historiography: Essay Structure and Tips

Get past year papers + mark schemes for Cambridge A-Level History 9389 here.

A Quick FAQ

Disclaimer: These are not authoritative views on the exam. They are merely my opinions and observations, mostly stemming from logic, reasoning, and experience.

Must I identify the interpretation?

Stating the specific interpretation (or school of taught) isn’t compulsory, but it helps. It’s just a label, but a very useful one.

If you are very unsure, it may be wise to state it at the end rather than at the start. Most people prefer to put it at the start for clarity, however.

What if I get the interpretation wrong?

The historiography paper is all about understanding what the historian in question is trying to say.

Sometimes, getting the interpretation wrong means that you really just don’t understand what the historian is saying — this is bad.

Sometimes, the passage can be interpreted with multiple schools of thought (e.g. traditionalist AND post-post-revisionist). In this case, the label matters less — what matters is the chunk of your reasoning and explanation.

I believe it’s a legitimate strategy to point out that an interpretation has multiple strains of thought (but only if this is actually true!). When doing so, however, I try to identify what I believe to be the main interpretation. This is what the Cambridge A-Level History mark scheme says:

What counts is how appropriate the use of this kind of terminology is in relation to the extract, and how effectively the extract can be used to support it.

So it’s not a multiple-choice exam — it comes down to your reasoning and writing.

The 4 Main Schools of Thought

Traditionalist

How to Spot Them (Simplified)

  • They really hate the USSR
  • They really like the USA

Historical Context

This interpretation popped up after World War 2 at the very start of the Cold War. McCarthyism was in vogue and Stalin was being a huge jerk, taking over Eastern Europe and stuff. Naturally, this created the environment where anti-USSR rhetoric could flourish.

Meaning

This interpretation is quite simple at its core: the Cold War started because of the USSR. Blame is put squarely on the Soviet Union, and some strains of this interpretation may even go as far as to exonerate the USA from blame.

Be careful — the historian may not directly say “the USSR is to blame; they suck”, but they may choose to be more subtle and instead show how the USSR was pretty much the main reason for why the Cold War started.

Different Strains

Note: These strains are not official terminology. Within each school of thought are smaller, more nuanced interpretations. Having a good grip of the various angles to an interpretation will help you write an essay with an eye for detail.

The Neurotic Bear: After suffering immense losses in WW2 and failing to consolidate their security after their revolution in 1917, the USSR was paranoid and very cautious. This led them to be extra-safe and seek out territory in Eastern Europe as a buffer to protect themselves. These actions sparked the Cold War. (Relevant Historian/Figure: George Kennan)

Communist Ideology & World Revolution: The Soviets expansion was motivated mainly by ideology — a desire to destroy capitalism and seek world communist revolution. (Relevant Historian: William Hardy McNeill)

The Traditional Great Power: It wasn’t insecurity/paranoia or ideology that drove the Soviets to expand. It was simply the behaviour of any normal ‘Traditional Great Power’. Historically, superpowers in the world behave the same — they expand and exert their influence everywhere. The Soviets were no exception — after WW2, they saw Eastern Europe as their ‘spoils of war’. (Relevant Historian: Martin F. Herz)

Revisionist

How to Spot Them (Simplified)

  • They think America sucks
  • The USSR might not have been a saint, but they were just responding to the Americans!

Historical Context

This interpretation started gaining traction in the 60s. American involvement in Vietnam was a rude awakening — not everything the USA did was morally right… what if the USA is to blame for all of this?

Meaning

This interpretation is also quite simple at its core: the USA started it. If the USSR did anything bad, it was only because they were reacting to the problems the USA started.

Again be careful. Some historians may not explicitly say the USA is to blame, but their explanations may quite clearly show that the USA was responsible for the start of the Cold War.

Different Strains

Economic Imperialism: The Americans wanted to create a world friendly to capitalism. The Marshall Plan was merely a front for the USA to promote capitalism abroad. The Technical Assistance Program, aid to Asia (at least $1 billion to China/Taiwan alone), and insistence on an “Open Door” policy were all driven by ulterior motives. The Soviets were more conciliatory, but the Americans made any compromise untenable and drove both powers into conflict. (Relevant Historian: William Appleman Williams)

The Atom Bomb: The Americans dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for one main reason: as a threat to the Soviets to deter their expansion. This action triggered the Cold War and drove an arms race. (Relevant Historian: Gar Alperovitz)

The USA Was an Untrustworthy Ally: By failing to open a second front during WW2 fast, the USA made it clear that they could not be trusted. They wanted the USSR weak, and hence let them bear the brunt of the war before a front on the West could be opened. This action drove tensions between the USA and USSR.

Post-Revisionist

How to Spot Them (Simplified)

  • Either both sides are to blame, or neither side is to blame
  • The causes of the Cold War are complex and multi-causal

Historical Context

This appeared in the 70s, possibly steeped in an atmosphere driven by detente.

Meaning

This is where things get a bit complex. Post-revisionists are like the balance between the traditionalist and revisionist. They try to balance the blame placed on both sides — either both sides caused it, or neither side actually did.

Sometimes they will say things like “the Cold War was inevitable” and will imply that it was just going to happen, regardless of what either side tried to do. They usually take a more complex view of things: an important keyword here is multi-causal. There were arguably multiple factors that sparked the Cold War.

Different Strains

There aren’t any particular ‘distinct’ strains here, but you should be familiar with John Lewis Gaddis. He’s the person best associated with post-revisionism (but he later changed his views to post-post revisionism).

The main crux of his post-revisionist interpretation is that misperception drove conflict. The USA was incapable of assessing Stalin’s motives and goals, assuming cooperation would continue as usual. However, Soviet behaviour during the war was based on survival.  Similarly, the USSR mistakenly perceived a change in foreign policy when a more abrasive Truman replaced FDR.

So in the end, discrete events and individual mistakes drove history — not the grand designs of policy-makers.

Post-Post-Revisionist (Or Post-1991 Revisionism)

How to Spot Them (Simplified)

  • Kinda like a traditionalist interpretation, but focuses more on Stalin’s role in creating the conflict.
  • May place greater focus on ideology.
  • May refer to the ‘opening of Soviet archives’ — more on this next.

Historical Context

These interpretations appeared upon the opening of Soviet archives in 1991 (hint: the USSR crumbled in 1991). This gave historians a true picture of Soviet leadership in the course of the Cold War.

Meaning

This is another tough one. It’s extremely easy to mix this up with Traditionalist interpretations. Both place blame squarely on the USSR, but Post-post Revisionism is more likely to pinpoint blame specifically on the character/actions of Stalin e.g. grabbing territory. As CIE puts it:

Since the opening of the Soviet archives post-1990, there has been a shift to attributing prime responsibility to Stalin – a post-post-revisionist stance which often seems very close to the traditional view.

Other clues include references to Soviet archives or engaging with / arguing against post-revisionism. Don’t worry if you label this as Traditionalist — you’re probably not too far off and shouldn’t be too affected. But be wary nevertheless.

Read next: Historiography: Structuring Your Essay