15th September 2000 at 01:00
A-level. WEIMAR amp; NAZI GERMANY. By John Hite and Chris Hinton. John Murray pound;15.50.

GERMANY 1919-45. By Martin Collier and Philip Pedley. Heinemann Advanced History pound;9.50.

LENIN AND THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION AND STALINIST RUSSIA. By Steve Phillips. Heinemann Advanced History pound;7.50.

Sixth-form history teachers have spent the summer tidying their subject into tardily approved "specifications", "modules" and "key themes". But many worry that the new AS and A2 courses may provide "history with the history left out", to quote AJP Taylor's wry characterisation of sociology. These textbooks, designed "to provide everything you need for exam success", will allay that concern only in part.

I must admit to an initialprejudice against Weimar and Nazi Germany, for its pages abound with exercises, boxes, charts, spider-diagrams and strip cartoons at the expense of good old continuous prose. But the high quality text soon changed my mind.

The authors' direct and personal style will engage pupils' interest: an excellent chapter on culture is entitled "Was the Weimar Republic undermined by jazz, art and dancing-girls?". The serious treatment of important issues is aided by a rich variety of sources, ranging from Grosz cartoons to extracts from Ian Kershaw's biography of Hitler. I even came round to the strip cartoon when I saw how effectively it illuminated the complex story of the Night of the Long Knives - even the quotations in the speech bubbles are authentic.

My remaining reservation is that this is a long (450 pages) and expensive book to devote to one topic. More might have been left to the initiative of teachers, who are quite capable of thinking up ideas for class debates or clearing up "learning trouble spots" like the difference between economic and economical.

A cheaper option is Germany 1919-45, which gives equally thoughtful consideration to this controversial priod. Dealing with cultural, social and economic as well as political themes, the text is clear and straightforward with relatively little interruption from boxes and bubbles. Indeed, I concluded that this Heinemann Advanced History series has opted for too plain a text, for it omits source material almost entirely. A few contemporary photographs and posters enliven the pages, but written sources appear only in the assessment exercises at the end of the separate AS and A2 sections.

This division into two levels of learning is designed to ease the jump from GCSE to AS history. But the duplication of subject matter leads to oversimplification of the issues in Part 1 and repetition of material in Part 2. Both faults occur in Lenin and the Russian Revolution and Stalinist Russia. AS students hardly need to have the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk explained in the text, in an annotated map and in a summary box. The space could have been used to provide more vivid detail of these troubled times. After all, this is not conveyed effectively in the illustrations: the people in "A food queue in Russia in 1917" seem to be wearing 1930s clothes, while "Victims of famine during 1932-33" do not appear to be starving.

At the same time, A2 students may tire of the categorisation of historians as Liberals, pre-glasnost Soviets, Libertarians, Revisionists and post-glasnost Russians.

I wonder which pigeonhole Orlando Figes' A People's Tragedy would fit into, but Phillips does not refer to this exciting volume. Perhaps it contains too much of the "redundant material" ruled out in the publisher's leaflet advertising the series. And perhaps real history is too unruly to be confined by the requirements of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Vyvyen Brendon

Vyvyen Brendon is head of history at St Mary's School, Cambridge. Her latest book, The First World War, is published by Hodder

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