Taking High Schoolers to Primary School

Well, not that kind of primary school. I am talking about primary sources here. I am a history teacher after all.

I just started a new semester at my high school, and with new semester comes a new beginning for our World History classes. Last semester we used a recurring current events assignment to both keep the students up to date on world affairs, and also assess their ability to draw conclusions from primary source documents.

This semester, though, I decided to try a different tack. We are studying World War II at the moment, and although that conflict was brutal, and awful, I love it for the sake of the huge deposits of Primary sources available for learning. I made the choice to switch (at least temporarily) the current events assignment for a primary document analysis.

Here is the basic idea (stop me if you have heard this before): Students read a variety of primary sources on a particular subject, then respond to a few key questions that require them to cite evidence in their response. Yes, I know, it sounds an awful lot like the infamous DBQ from the AP History tests, but I made a few modifications to the design. I want my students to look at several documents and see what things connect them. What makes them the same? What makes them different? Why are they important?

The next step was finding the actual documents. Since this is World History, I really wanted to get a multi-cultural perspective on the war: documents from both the axis and the allied camps. Imagine my joy when I found a journal from a german soldier at the battle of Stalingrad, a William Hoffman.


The diary makes for depressing reading, but I was pleased that it shows the decline of German Morale over the course of the battle. Check this out:

August 12, 1942. We are advancing towards Stalingrad along the railway line. Yesterday Russian “katyushi” [small rocket launchers] and then tanks halted our regiment. “The Russians are throwing in their last forces,” Captain Werner explained to me. Large-scale help is coming up for us, and the Russians will be beaten. This morning outstanding soldiers were presented with decorations. . . . Will I really go back to Elsa without a decoration? I believe that for Stalingrad the Fuhrer will decorate even me. . .

He goes from this level confidence in August, to this, in September:

September 26. Our regiment is involved in constant heavy fighting. After the elevator was taken the Russians continued to defend themselves just as stubbornly. You don’t see them at all, they have established themselves in houses and cellars and are firing on all sides, including from our rear-barbarians, they use gangster methods. In the blocks captured two days ago Russian soldiers appeared from somewhere or other and fighting has flared up with fresh vigour. Our men are being killed not only in the firing line, but in the rear, in buildings we have already occupied. The Russians have stopped surrendering at all. If we take any prisoners it’s because they are hopelessly wounded, and can’t, move by themselves. Stalingrad is hell. Those who are merely wounded are lucky; they will doubtless be at home and celebrate victory with their families. . . .

In November, he was struck by the incongruence of how his loved ones in Germany though the war was going, to his every day reality:

November 10. A letter from Elsa today. Everyone expects us home for Christmas. In Germany everyone believes we already hold Stalingrad. How wrong they are. If they could only see what Stalingrad has done to our army.

By December, he is more concerned with eating than defeating the Russians. Notice how he is starting to question Hitler, but more like a child wishing for the help of their parent than a soldier dying of starvation:

December 11. Three questions are obsessing every soldier and officer: When will the Russians stop firing and let us sleep in peace, if only for one night? How and with what are we going to fill our empty stomachs, which, apart from 3%-7 ozs of bread, receive virtually nothing at all? And when will Hitler take any decisive steps to free our armies from encirclement?

By the end, his perspective has drastically changed from the previous August:

December 26. The horses have already been eaten. I would eat a cat; they say its meat is also tasty. The soldiers look like corpses or lunatics, looking for something to put in their mouths. They no longer take cover from Russian shells; they haven’t the strength to walk, run away and hide. A curse on this war! . . .

This is one of the documents I will be using to help show my students the realities of war. It is pretty brutal, to be sure, but important.

I think I we will probably still do current events in World History, but this kind of primary document analysis is fantastic. Using eyewitness accounts to help students understand historical events is part of what made me want to be a teacher in the first place. For me, at least, reading this kind of source helps me empathize with people throughout history. That is what I hope to show to my students: History is made of people!


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