Establishing a broader context is an important task for the historian. Doing so shows that events do not occur in a historical vacuum: just as any event is subject to the immediate dynamic of cause and effect, so too, by stepping back, the historian recognizes larger relationships between events and issues as they unfold over time.

In order to establish a broader context for your topic, ask yourself what events (both past and contemporaneous) may have had an impact on the subject on which you are writing. What was the impact of these related events on your topic, and why?

To answer such questions, you need to widen the scope of your investigation: if you are working with a textbook (and/or if it is the only source assigned for your paper) look for ways in which the authors connect the topic on which you are writing to past and contemporaneous events. If yours is a research papers, try entering key words of some of the related events into a search engine on the web and/or seek out alternative types of sources in print. Explore links, footnotes, bibliographies, and the library stacks: you'll be surprised by how much related information they can yield.

In the context of the imagined writing assignment in our Narrative History section, on Hitler's foreign policy prior to World War II:

Events fifteen years prior to Hitler's assumption of power as well as then-current events in Europe and in the world all contributed to the short-sightedness with which the League of Nations and the United States responded to Hitler's policies. Events and issues of significance in the broader context of Hitler's pre-World War II foreign policy include the following:

  • The measures imposed upon Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, following World War I;
  • the reluctance of France and England to become involved in a confrontation with Germany so soon after World War I;
  • a worldwide economic depression that made the United States reluctant to become involved in European affairs and, because of its negative repercussions on the German economy, increased Hitler's support among the German populace.

Past events that figure into the broader context of Hitler's foreign policy:

Consider that Germany after World War I had been severely punished politically and economically. As per the Treaty of Versailles (1919), Germany was forced to give up its colonies, to reduce its armed forces, make territorial concessions, and left with war reparation debts of $33 billion (see Cause and Effect on this). These factors contributed to a sense of resentment and hopelessness among Germans, and to an economic crisis that contributed to the political rise of Hitler. Once in power, as of 1933, Hitler systematically set about rebuilding the German armed forces and reclaiming Germany's ceded territories. Retroactively acknowledging the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles, England, France and the United States hoped to avoid a major confrontation by acquiescing to Hitler's increasingly aggressive policies.

Contemporaneous events that figure into the broader context:

Now factor in current issues and events of the 1930s: at this time France and England were still feeling the after-effects of World War I. When Hitler came to power, in 1933, World War I (which had ended in 1918, fifteen years earlier) was still a vivid memory to all of Europe, especially in those countries that had been directly involved: landscapes were still battle-scarred and casualties ran extremely high among all principal belligerents. Therefore, France and England (whose combined casualties were approximately 2.3 million, with many more seriously wounded among their populations) were willing to go to great lengths to avoid another major war, especially given the fact that neither had sufficiently re-armed since World War I to be in any position to confront the growing threat of Germany.
Finally, consider the impact of the Great Depression, which originated in the United States in October 1929 and had worldwide repercussions. Germany, whose economy had been precarious ever since World War I, was hit particularly hard. The resulting economic chaos increased Adolf Hitler's appeal to Germans, as he promised to rebuild the country's economy. Once Hitler came to power in 1933 (at which time the depression was still ongoing) alternative sources of national income for Germany, such as reclaiming the Rhineland, appeared legitimate in the eyes of many Germans (and, if to a lesser extent, in the eyes of the English and the French, too, who acquiesced to Germany's re-militarization of the Rhineland without much protest). The depression also made the United States, consumed by its own economic hardship, back away from any leading role in international affairs, and thus weakened America's potential to take a stand against Hitler that may have caused him to modify his foreign policy.

Taking such factors of the broader context of Hitler's foreign policy into account (there are many more) heightens your awareness of the interconnectedness of historical issues and events. You may choose to establish some or all of (indeed, perhaps even more than) the above-explored broader context in a paper of narrative history , depending on its scope and length and the nature of the assignment. For a longer, research paper , you will almost certainly want to take some of the broader context of your topic into consideration.

While our example is specific to the "Hitler's foreign policy"-assignment imagined in our section on Narrative History , the basic approach to establishing a broader context, explained in the opening paragraphs of this section, can be applied to any topic in history.