CIE A-Level Historiography – Example Essay (June 2015 S32)

Written by Aaron




For this guide, we’ll go over an actual exam question (June 2015, Variant 32 for the Cold War question). Even if you don’t do Cold War Historiography, you may appreciate perspective on technique. Here’s the game plan:

  1. Before you go over the model answer, attempt the question first. Questions are a scarce commodity – take whatever practice you can get.
  2. Read through this post to see how to approach the question.
  3. Then take a look at the model answer I’ve provided.

Download the Model Answers here: http://tinyurl.com/history9389June2015S32 (this is free to download. No registration etc. required, just find the download button)

You can find the relevant past year paper here: Past Year Papers

It helps to read the Historiography Guide first: Ultimate Guide to the Historiography paper

Now I’m going to walk you through the paper and the flow of thought I use to answer the paper.

Step 1: Identify the Main Interpretation

This is one of the funkiest historiography papers I can find — this is good news, because it give you room to display your badass historiography skills.

In the first paragraph, I’m getting the impression that it’s post-revisionist. I see phrases like:

Each side felt compelled…

Each side believed with passion….

From this language alone, I can sense that the author is arguing a post-revisionist angle, even without delving into the details of their argument.

In the third paragraph, I sense a twist has happened! The first sentence “Up to this point” tells me that the historian has clearly ‘set-up’ the first two paragraphs merely to set the stage for a more powerful argument they are about to make.

I can sense the pivot happening at the end of the third paragraph — “But the fundamental explanation… lies precisely in the fact that the Soviet Union was not a traditional national state”. I can already see some apportioning of blame uniquely to the USSR.

The fourth paragraph nails it in: “Nothing the United States could have have done… would have abolished this mistrust”. From the language alone, this is a hardcore traditionalist/post-post-revisionist — it exonerates the USA and places blame squarely on the USSR.

But is it Traditionalist or Post-Post-Revisionist? This is the tricky part — either seems fine. I’m more inclined to say it’s Post-Post-Revisionist, given the focus on ideology and the mention of Stalin. [The mark scheme says either Traditionalist/Post-post is fine]

So it’s initially a post-revisionist stance, that pivots to a post-post-revisionist (or traditionalist) stance.

Takeaway: This is the train of thought you should have when reading through the paper. Simply thru analysing the language/tone of the extract, you can usually identify the interpretation. In a more confusing extract, you may need to analyse the actual arguments first to weigh it up.

Step 2: Identify Your Talking Points + Big Message

Now that we have the ‘flavour’ of the extract, it’s time to find the ‘3 Main Ideas’ that will be the chunk of our essay.

This extract is quite straightforward — the main ideas follow a neat chronology and are mostly partitioned by paragraphs.

Takeaway: You aren’t always going to get neatly packed ideas. Sometimes the extract transitions from one ‘main idea’ to another within a paragraph. Sometimes one main idea is stuck in two different parts and needs to be brought together. Be smart — draw your ‘partitions’ and group things together.

The first paragraph can give us our Main Idea 1. The historian is talking about how both sides were compelled by their own ideologies to pursue certain policies. But doing so provoked the other side. I summed this up as ‘reactionary policies’.

The second paragraph and part of the third paragraph can give us our Main Idea 2: misunderstanding. This argument is a bit harder to tease out, because it somewhat overlaps with the previous main idea. You could combine them, but I chose to separate them. So the second main idea will focus mainly on explaining failures in communication/misperceptions that aggravated how both sides perceived the policies I talk about in main idea 1.

Takeaway: Sometimes ideas overlap. You can make the choice to combine or partition them. As a general rule, try to partition things if they are distinct enough. This adds clarity and gives you another paragraph to build upon.

Main Idea 3 is where the action is at:  the author clearly pins blame on Stalin. Specifically, the ‘steady expansion’ that was driven by Marxist ideology.

Now that we have our three main ideas, we can see a ‘flow’ forming, and we can see the Big Message as well. The author explains that Main Idea 1 and Main Idea 2 are important, but don’t completely explain the reason the Cold War escalated so quickly and dramatically. To do this, we need Main Idea 3 (Marxist ideology).

Step 3: Identify Approaches

We have the interpretation. We have the Big Message and our three talking points. Now it’s time to explicitly do what CIE wants us to do — deal with the ‘approach’ of the historian.

The most efficient way to do this is go through our set list of characteristics (discussed in the Ultimate Guide):

  • Time period: Historian makes explicit reference to 1944-1945, but mostly talks about the immediate post-war period.
  • Which nation: Focuses on perspectives from both the USA and USSR, but towards the end shifts specifically to analysing the nature/beliefs of the USSR.
  • Tone: Balanced at first, then after the ‘pivot’, becomes very explicit and extreme in condemnation of the USSR / exoneration of the USA.
  • Model of behaviour: Quite clear in pointing out the USSR is not a ‘traditional national state’. Instead, models the USSR as intensely driven by ideology
  • Argument structure: Builds up a post-revisionist framework, then shows how it’s inadequate and hence pivots to a post-post-revisionist framework.

Of course, some aspects of approach are more important than others, given the extract. In this case, tone, model of behaviour, and argument structure are of particular importance.

Step 4: Add subject knowledge

You can plan a bit of this beforehand, but you may just end up adding it as you write. Some good opportunities for subject knowledge include:

  1. First Paragraph: Communist takeoever of Eastern Europe, Marshall Plan/maybe US intervention in Greece + Truman Doctrine, experiences in WW1/WW2 (reference to Russian survival).
  2. Second paragraph: NATO/Warsaw Pact (reference to division in Europe).
  3. Third paragraph: Ending of lend-lease aid / Marshall plan (reference to ominous motives), Truman as new leader/lack of Washington-Moscow hotline (failure of communication).
  4. Fourth paragraph: Russian Civil War (source of ideology + distrust of West and its intervention)

This isn’t definitive, but it’ll give you a good idea of how to milk parts of the extract for subject knowledge.

Step 5: Write the essay

Put together your results in Step 1-4, and you’re ready to write!

See more tips on the Historiography paper:

Historiography Cold War Interpretations
Ultimate Guide to Historiography (All modules)
Past Year Papers
Historiography Cold War Subject Knowledge Factsheet