Origins of WW1 & WW2 - Compared/Contrasted

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This unit forms part of the World War One materials at ActiveHistory:

Causes of World War One

Life in the Trenches in World War One

Causes for Germany's Defeat in World War One

Remembrance Day: Activities for all Year Groups

Battlefields Trip: itinerary, workpack and follow-up activities

Origins of WW1 and WW2: Comparisons and Contrasts

In this unit, students will have the opportunity to research the origins of both World War One, and World War Two, in considerable depth. The unit is structured so that the factor to be researched are directly comparable. One group of students will focus on the First World War, and one on the Second World War. They will present their findings to each other, and then conduct follow-up activities based around some of the big historiographical debates (e.g. the Fischer Controversy, the Structuralist/Intentionalist debate, the Taylor/Trevor-Roper clash - pictured - about whether Hitler was a 'Gambler' or a 'Planner'). Finally, they will be in a position to compare and contrast the origins of both wars and produce a detailed and sophisticated essay.

This unit is best followed by the "Origins of War Historiography Project" that can also be found on ActiveHistory.

Stage 1: Researching each war in depth

Historiographical Overview: This information sheet outlines the essential historiographical debate - namely, the Fischer Thesis, which suggested that both World Wars were essentially caused by the same consistent factor - namely, German aggression. The task of students will be to decide how far they agree with this idea.

Research Template: Students are then presented with a research template which has NINE key causes of each World War listed within it. "Divide these causes between the members of the group.Research your allocated factor(s) with relation to your particular war. Produce a one-slide presentation which will summarise your findings for the rest of the class".

Additional resources for students researching the Origins of World War One

Additional resources for students researching the Origins of World War Two

Stage 2: Presentations

Overview of the procedure: This handout explains how the group working on World War One will present their findings first, and that this will be followed by a whole-class exercise linking the factors together and some historiography work (below). The same format is repeated with relation to World War Two.

Historiography of World War One: Follow-up work after the presentations and linkage of factors

Historiography of World War Two: Follow-up work after the presentations and linkage of factors

Stage 3: Comparing and contrasting both wars

Introductory video clip: AJP Taylor outlines the "Fischer Controversy"
With both wars now considered separately, we are in a position to judge whether the "Fischer Thesis" (that both wars can primarily be explained through reference to a consistently aggressive German foreign policy) is accurate.

Main Task: Was Hitler's foreign policy traditional, or unprecedented?
In this activity students use extracts from the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, an Interview with Hitler, Mein Kampf and the September Programme to decide where they stand in regard to the Fischer controversy.

Model Essay by RJ Tarr (note: teacher password required)
At this point, students should return to their original research template to complete the final column, which asks them to make some observations about whether the various factors for each war are areas of comparison and contrast. This can then be used as the basis for an essay on the causes of either war, or an essay comparing them both. The model essay provided here was written by the author of this website in timed conditions and could be given to students for extra stimulus after they have finished their own work.


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