Sequencing Short Assignments Throughout the Semester in a History Syllabus

Professor David McDonald, History 201

The July Crisis, 1914, and the Coming of the Great War

This course pursues two related objectives. First, as an introduction to “the historian’s craft” which offers Comm-B credit, it will acquaint students with the primary elements of historical research, writing, and exposition. The course does so through the pursuit of its second objective, a careful reconstruction of the events during the six-odd weeks spanning the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne in Austria-Hungary, and the outbreak of what contemporaries called “The Great War” during the summer of 1914. The instructors and the students will work toward both sets of objectives through twice-weekly lectures and weekly discussion/workshop meetings. Lectures will provide broad background and context, examining the germane aspects of European history from 1871 until 1914; students will conduct assigned readings in connection with this part of the course. As important, the weekly discussions/workshops will serve as forums in which participants will discuss assigned section readings, in addition to the techniques of research and historical writing that the course teaches. Attendance at the latter is mandatory.

As the semester progresses, students will research the development of the “July crisis” by using translated diplomatic correspondence from the Great Powers (Germany, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and the United Kingdom), as well as Serbia. In addition, you will contextualize these documents with other sorts of readings. These include newspaper and magazine accounts from the time, which provided information and perspectives absent from diplomatic reports. In the final three weeks of the course, you will also read limited auxiliary materials—memoirs and “secondary” literature. These activities should teach you how to weigh and use evidence in reconstructing “what really happened” in particular historical circumstances. Learning the difficulties of such reconstruction will also introduce you to what historians do: draw upon primary evidence to advance arguments about what they think happened and why.

This research will help you fulfill the other objectives that attach to this course as a Communications-B class. By the date set for the final examination, you will hand in a 12-15 page paper discussing the events that precipitated the Great War. This paper will represent the final distillation of several other shorter papers that you will write, and often revise, during the semester. Some of these papers you will share with your colleagues in the class; others you will give to the instructors for evaluation and editing. In addition, you will make one formal oral presentation to the class; you will also contribute to each week’s ongoing discussions.

All of these exercises seek, directly and indirectly, to deepen and strengthen your understanding of the interactions that brought Europe into a general war in August 1914. To lend further focus to this understanding, and to help orient your final paper, early in the semester you will draw, by lottery, the name of one of the participants in the diplomacy leading to the declarations of war in August. You will follow events from this character’s point of view, which you will incorporate into your final paper. In addition, you will keep a dossier composed of all your written assignments for this course. When you submit your final paper, you will also submit a brief (400-600 word) assessment of what you learned about historical writing.

Your grade from the course will reflect your performance in various phases of its activities. Your final paper will count for 25%, as will your participation in weekly discussions, combined with your final self-assessment. Your formal oral presentation will count for 15%. The balance of your grade comes from your briefer assignments. Your readings are located in several spots—the stacks of Memorial and College Libraries, Microforms, and the Reserve Desk at the College Library. Each week, you will receive a list of readings, offering several options, so as to ensure that all participants have access to relevant material. In the course of the semester, you should become well acquainted with the library.

Final Debates

The last meetings will see four debates of twenty-five minutes each. Each session will see a contest between two teams, each representing either the Entente powers or the Triple Alliance partners. Each side will present an argument demonstrating the opposite’s sides responsibility for the outbreak of the war—this could mean a whole alliance, or the actions of one or another member of that coalition. These actions could in turn refer to specific positions or actions taken during the crisis or a given power’s or group’s contributions to developments reflected in the July crisis itself. Each side will open proceedings with a five-minute presentation offering its argument, with order of play determined by a preliminary coin toss. Following these presentations, each side will have five minutes to rebut specific claims in their opponents’ presentation. These will occur in the same order as the original statements. Finally, each side will offer a brief concluding statement of five minutes: this statement can offer added rebuttal. In this concluding phase, teams will reverse the order of presentation. Following the conclusion of proceedings, the class will vote on which team carried the day. Presentations can use any and all supporting media. Teams should ensure that as many members speak as possible, or that individuals receive explicit acknowledgment for their contributions, if they do not speak.

Submission of Final Paper

Please submit the final copy of your paper, accompanied by your written self-assessment and the full portfolio of the semester’s written work, by 4:30 pm, December 20.

Short Assignments


Write a three-page account of what occurred on 28 June. Make use of TWO of the readings listed below. The British Documents and Outbreak are on reserve at the College Library Reserve room, on the first floor of Helen C. White Library; Collected Diplomatic Documents are held on microfilm in the Microforms collection on the fourth floor of Memorial Library. Since you have a maximum of three hours to use the reserved materials, you might consider photocopying the relevant pages. Alternatively, use the internet links I have provided below. In compiling your account, read only the correspondence for the dates from June 28 to July 2.

In formulating your account, and in preparing for classroom discussion, try to determine what your correspondents knew about the assassination, as opposed to what they think happened. Based only on the assigned materials, what do you know about who wrote your materials and those from whom they obtained their information? Since most of them wrote from their offices in Vienna, how did they know what they knew? Do you find evidence that they speculated about certain things that became clearer in later dispatches/letters? In addition, make sure to include footnotes at appropriate points in the paper.

As important, make sure to footnote properly and clearly every fact or interpretive claim that you derived from the source materials you read. Finally, as you prepare for class, try to distinguish among the different sorts of documents you find in your sources. What is the difference between telegrams, letters, dispatches, and other documents? Why do you see certain types of correspondence used in certain situations?

  • P. Gooch and H. Temperley, British Documents on the Origins of the War, pp. 12-18.
  • [also:]
  • German Diplomatic Documents, 1871-1914, vol. 4. [on reserve in College Library]
  • [on microfilm] Collected Diplomatic Documents Relating to the Outbreak of the European War: from the French Yellow Book, events from 28 June to 3 July (p. 144ff.); from the Austro-Hungarian Red Book, pp. 448-452.
  • The French Yellow Book:


Write a revision and expansion (to 6pp.) of the paper you submitted this week, incorporating materials from The Times of London (online) for the period from 28 June through 4 July. In addition, use accounts from one of the following, or a journal/newspaper of your choice from the same period. If you have any difficulty locating one or another publication, do not hesitate to ask library employees for their help. Make sure to correct or insert footnotes as indicated by your instructor on your last version. Strive to adhere to these conventions in this and future drafts.

  •       The Economist                                   The Illustrated London News (online or in hard copy)
  •       The Contemporary Review                    The New York Times (online)


For next week’s section you have two assignments, neither of them written. First, we ask you to follow events as they develop in the diplomatic correspondence between the dates of 4 and 22 July. Second, in taking notes, try to view the unfolding events from the perspective of the figure you were assigned by your section leader over the weekend.

Read from two of the following:

  • British Documents on the Origins of the War
  • [on microfilm and online] Collected Diplomatic Documents Relating to the Outbreak of the European War: the French Yellow Book, the Russian Orange Book, the German White Book, or the Austro-Hungarian Red Book.


Instructors will have addressed this assignment in last week’s section. Your education in historical techniques moves from emphasis on issues of mechanics and convention—e.g., responsible use of evidence, proper attribution of sources—to modes of presentation. The passive voice often muddies or begs questions of cause and effect, i.e., who did what to whom and why or how? While modern editors and teachers probably overemphasize recourse to the passive voice, you should find it challenging, and ideally useful, to write the next part of your evolving account with attention to avoiding this indulgence.


Over the next week, you should read diplomatic correspondence and press accounts covering the events of 23-26 July 1914. Use the same list of sources for press accounts that you have for earlier assignments, although we encourage you to try new sources, even if not listed previously (in which case, alert your instructor).

Over the next two weeks, you will make a ten-minute presentation on events from late June until 26 July as witnessed/experienced by your “character.” Given the likelihood of duplication and overlap, those of you dealing with the same character have the option of collaborating or presenting individually; collaborative presentations should take 15-20 minutes. These presentations should incorporate several elements. Introduce your character—his position, where he serves, what government he represents, etc. Then tell your audience when and how your character became involved in the crisis as it began to brew. When setting up this part of your presentation, ask yourself certain questions: what roles does your character play; does he change or deepen his view as events proceed; does he change his mind; if he becomes involved belatedly, how do you explain that fact; when he makes predictions about what to expect, do those predictions and their seriousness change over time; does he assign blame or credit in any way? In short, when does each of your characters begin to appreciate that a real crisis is under way? Participants will have a brief period to ask questions after each presentation, as well as after all presentations have been completed.


Through readings in ONE newspaper, ONE magazine, and at least TWO sets of published diplomatic correspondence, follow the diplomacy generated by the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum from 26 July, until the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia on 28 July. Using these materials, write a 4-6pp. paper narrating these events from the viewpoint of your character. In writing this narrative, you can adopt the persona of your character, if that helps. Above all, however, remember to write a clear story, giving your reader an understanding of how one event/response led to the next—try to keep the sequence as clear as possible. Also, remember to include a footnote each time you use your diplomatic and press sources. Hand your papers to the instructor at the beginning of class Thursday, or email them as a separate attachment.


Using ONLY the published diplomatic correspondence, write a 4-6pp. paper narrating developments from the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia until midnight on July 30. When possible, place your assigned character in the heart of your narrative, whether taking his point of view or looking at what he says and knows during these days. In putting your story together, pay close attention to the chronology of events: all your documents will contain some sort of indication as to the timing of the encounters or actions they describe. Submit your papers at the beginning of class on November 17.


Enjoy the break according to your or your family’s traditions, as circumstances permit. For the following week, the instructors ask you to revise and expand by 1-2 pp. your previous paper. This time, incorporate journalistic interpretations for events from the ultimatum through the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia, using the newspapers and magazines you have consulted throughout the semester, while incorporating corrections suggested by your instructor for the previous assignment. Submit the revised and expanded paper at the beginning of class, on December 1.


Find and read the relevant parts of a memoir or historical account dealing with the July crisis, ideally a work that focuses on your character. Many of our protagonists left memoirs to explain their part in events or to explain the reasons for the war. In discussion, we will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of memoirs as a source for historical insight. When reading the account you have chosen, try to compare the narrator’s account with the viewpoint you have developed in consulting the primary and press sources. How do you explain any discrepancies? Does the memoir reflect any biases on the author’s part? If so, why, do you think? Alternatively, does this new source make you able to discern biases in the primary and press sources? How might you explain these? While reading the memoir, start to ready a preliminary draft of your final paper, which will give your character’s account for the reasons the Great War took place.


While we will no longer meet in section, you will have work to do as you prepare the final work for this class. First, you should take part in preparation for the final debates, which will occupy the last week of class meetings. As important, or more so, you should be working on the final version of your paper. By now, you will have assembled substantial primary and press materials on the course of the July crisis. These papers will provide the backbone for your final paper. This last work should incorporate a memoir source, as well as at least one secondary source, i.e., a historian’s account of the July crisis. These exist in abundance, since the reasons for the Great War have fueled one of the widest ranging scholarly debates in the history of, well, history writing. If you have doubts about what to choose or you need advice, talk to or email one of the instructors. You have until 4:30 on the afternoon of December 20 to submit your final written work. This packet should include your final paper, your statement of self-assessment on what you learned in this course, and the full portfolio of your written work to date for this course. Be sure to inform your instructors in good time should unforeseen circumstances prevent your punctual submission of the work. You will not receive a penalty for early submission.