Some history courses assign fiction, poetry, even art alongside their more conventional readings. In like manner, you should consider including references to such "cultural texts" in your writing. A well-chosen text of this sort opens up additional perspectives on the topic you are engaging. Indeed, sometimes the human drama, the emotion, and/or the moral complexity of an event or issue get lost in its telling. Names and dates, analyses of broader contexts and cause and effect: all this makes for dry reading. You can reinvigorate a history paper by citing a poem or a work of art or fiction that touches upon a related issue. If these works were produced during the same time period as the events they comment upon, think of them as primary sources in their own right. Their use can energize a paper, giving the reader an "in" that operates on a more visceral level than mere historical data. Where appropriate and available, the use of such sources is recommended.
For our sample research paper topic on the Austrian Catholic Church and the Anschluss, we included a poem by the poet Stefan George among our various sources, and incorporated it into our outline (the poem and its translation are reproduced in the Archives). Here's why:
In charting the broader context of Nazi Germany's 1938 annexation of Austria, and seeking to answer why Austrians should have so willingly agreed to their absorption into the Nazi empire, our research paper sought to establish that, among other factors, there existed among Austrians and Germans alike an element of late nineteenth-century romantic nationalism combined with resentment over the Treaty of Versailles, which had dismembered their once-mighty empires. While we could try to phrase this in prose of our own (as we just did) we could practically feel, even in the act of writing, our reader's attention slipping away.
A far better way to make our point, we realized, or at least a way to complement and illustrate our point, would be to cite Stefan George's poem "The New Reich," written just two years after the Treaty of Versailles, in 1921. Even though the poem's composition long pre-dates the Anschluss or even the rise of Hitler, who was still largely unknown in 1921, its sentiments seem to anticipate Hitler, the Anschluss, and - most importantly - give expression to the shared Austrian-German yearning for renewed greatness in the wake of Versailles - the very point we were trying to make. Judge for yourself:
He breaks the chains, to the ruins brings
order, drives the lost home
to the eternal law where great is anew great
Lord again lord,
discipline redoubled discipline, he affixes
the true symbol to the people's banner
he leads through the storm and eerie signals
of the dawn his loyal followers to the work
of the bright day and plants the New Reich.
[original reproduced in Archive]
Honestly now - does George's poem not more effectively make the point than our own prose efforts ever could, that both Germans and Austrians yearned for renewed greatness under strong leadership? On the other hand, combined with the poem, our effort too becomes more compelling. No longer merely making a claim, our words are now backed up by a concrete example that elegantly articulates the case we are trying to make. You too can and should avail yourself of the illustrative power of fiction, art, and poetry in this manner.
Just as such cultural texts help us establish a broader context for a particular event or issue, however, so the texts themselves need to be placed into context in their own right. Is it relevant, do you think, that George - a German strongly associated with early twentieth-century Austrian modernism - was a nationalist and an arch conservative (although not a Nazi)? Would that make the sentiments expressed in his poem more readily comprehensible? The answer of course is yes, but the mere fact that George was biased does not disqualify his work: just as works of poetry, art, and fiction on the Spanish Civil War, for example, by such left-leaning artists as Pablo Picasso (his famous painting Guernica), George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia) or the poet Pablo Neruda ("Spain in Our Hearts") are best understood as an expression of their creators' politics, so too any reference to George's poetry must acknowledge his conservative and nationalist bent.
Once you have established the broader context of a cultural text (even if only in a few words) and have identified any bias or particular slant it may display, you are free to mine it for all its potential to shed additional light on your topic. Doing so is sure to improve the quality of your paper.