Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course


Download this course

Share this free course

Teaching the First World War
Teaching the First World War

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

3 Document analysis

The second part of this session offers examples of document analysis skills. Primary sources are at the heart of this long debate. Historians have long sought evidence in the archives that conclusively ‘proves’ their interpretation. Where they differ in their views, they often also argue over how to interpret documents; sometimes, the same piece of evidence might be used to support opposing interpretations. This topic is rich in sources for historians to analyse and debate. It is ideal for teaching students document analysis skills.

Students’ skills development: Analysing primary sources

To help students with source analysis, they could apply a number of questions. It is of course not always possible to address all of these questions but, after a classroom discussion and perhaps with further research online, it should be possible to answer many of them. Here are some of the questions they could ask:

What type of document is it?

  • It would be useful to discuss with students why it is important to reflect on the type of document (was it written for private or public consumption, for example, and what could be inferred from this?)
  • Was it a document written at the time, or later?
  • Was the document produced for publication, or a secret account?
  • What was its purpose?

Who is the author?

  • What do we know about them already?
  • Can we find out more?
  • How informed or reliable is the author?

What is the document about?

  • Read the details of the events described.
  • Who or what is mentioned?
  • What do we already know about the event or people described?
  • Use short citations of important points in the document.

What is the historical context?

  • What do we already know about the context, such as key political or military events?
  • Are there other documents we know about that relate to this?
  • This is a chance to relate the document to your wider knowledge.

How might historians use this document?

  • Has there been any debate about the interpretation of this document, or about its authenticity?
  • Does the document relate to others we know about and either confirm or contradict other sources?

What are the uses and limitations of this source for historians?

  • How useful is this source and what can it tell us more broadly about the history of the First World War?
  • How does this document relate to others, how does it inform debate, etc.

In the next activity, you can apply this list of questions to an example which would also work well in the classroom.

Activity 6 Analysing the ‘blank cheque’

Timing: Allow around 10-15 minutes

Download the ‘blank cheque’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] document and identify the parts of the document that address these questions.

You could also ask students to discuss why this document is known as the ‘blank cheque’ and how useful it is in supporting Fritz Fischer’s interpretation of the origins of the war.


Below is an image of the document, annotated to provide an example of a model answer.

Described image
Figure 9 A typed copy of the so-called ‘blank cheque’ with annotations to illustrate how the document can be analysed

In the next section you can find a sample discussion of this document.