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The 2019 NHD Theme is "Triumph and Tragedy in History" 


National History Day Theme Resources


Theme Resources



Remember, to create a competitive history day project, keep these important factors in mind:

  • Unique topic that clearly fits the theme “Triumph and Tragedy in History
  • If possible, relate the topic to your family or your family heritage (is there a family story that can fit with a larger topic? Perhaps your family member immigrated or fought in a war? Family members can be great primary sources).
  • Well researched with a variety of sources and especially primary sources such as documents or newspaper article and personal interviews with experts on the topic. (Use Google or Wikipedia to get ideas but don’t list it as a source listed for your project).
  • Continue to learn about your topic in a variety of ways – movies, conversations with others, your school librarian, your teacher, library databases, etc.
  • Can you visit a place that has to do with your topic? Interview the people who work there. Are there archives with primary source documents you can visit? 
  • Take ongoing notes and write down all of your resources, especially people you talk to (and ask for their phone numbers as well!). Your parents can help keep this list if you’d like. 
  • As you do a lot of research, think about which history day category your topic fits best (not all topics work well with documentaries and not all topics work well with exhibits, etc.)





    “Triumph and Tragedy Ideas”


    To understand the historical importance of their topics students need to ask questions about time, place and context; cause and effect; change over time; and impact and significance. Students must consider not only when and where events happened, but also why they occurred and what factors contributed to their development. Description of the topic must also include an analysis of information and conclusions about how the topic influenced and was influenced by people, ideas or events and the significance of the person, idea or even in history should be discussed and related to present day. 


    For National History Day (www.nhd.org) , students are encouraged to select an individual, idea or event and demonstrate how and why their topic was a triumph and/or a tragedy in history. The challenge for students engaged in a National History Day project with the theme of “Triumph & Tragedy in History” is to capture that specific moment in time in which change occurred that changed the course of events and forever altered history.


    Students should keep in mind, however, that often the same topic can be viewed as both triumph and tragedy depending on the experience of the participants, the perspective of historians and the passage of time. One person's triumph was often another person's tragedy. For example, the American Civil War was a great triumph of the North over the South, of unionism over sectionalism, of freedom over slavery. But the war also took a terrible toll in human lives, caused widespread destruction and left a legacy of bitterness. In all wars and military encounters there are social disruptions and material costs-winners triumph and losers experience tragedy. In present day movements like the #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter, what are the past triumphs and tragedies that lead to these movements? 


    In explaining this paradox, think of a balance scale that is heavy on one side would be a visual image that would represent Triumph & Tragedy in the research. A topic will not be balanced equally with triumphant moments or tragic moments but one will weigh in heavier than the other. Uncovering both sides of any event helps build historical perspective and constructs a stronger historical argument.


    Securing the peace can be as difficult as winning the war. The Marshall Plan resulted in the United States sending billions of dollars in food and equipment to Western Europe as its nations struggled to overcome the economic devastation and tragedy of World War II. Was the Marshall Plan a triumph for the western European nations that participated? Was the Marshall Plan an economic triumph for the United States? Was it a political triumph? Why or why not? How did the Marshall Plan differ from the reconstruction plans of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe? While military topics to be obvious choices because of the generally clear line between winners and losers, Triumph & Tragedy may be explored in a wide variety of historical contexts. Students who are interested in ancient history might create a project that examines the architectural triumph in the building of the Parthenon in Athens and the tragedy of its use as a military arsenal and fortress in the centuries that followed. A performance might be developed that examines the life of Julius Caesar and his triumphant rise to power as well as his role in undermining the Roman Republic. Was his assassination considered a triumph or a tragedy by his contemporaries? By historians? Or students might produce a documentary, which interprets the partition of India and its impact in history. 


    Students interested in historic places might explore places in their own communities that possess tragic and triumphant associations. Whitman Mission National Historic Site, for example, tells the story of Marcus and Narcissi Whitman, their Methodist mission in southwestern Washington, and their massacre in 1847 by Cayuse Indians. Whether an event is considered a tragedy or a triumph depends on one's perspective.


    Other National Park Service sites that reflect these opposing themes are Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, which chronicles Dr. King's triumphant rise to national prominence and his tragic death in Memphis; Little Big Horn National Monument in Montana where Lakota and Northern Cheyenne led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse defeated George A. Custer in 1876; Booker T. Washington National Monument in southern Virginia which illustrates Washington's rise from slavery to become founder of the Tuskegee Institute; the Cesar Chavez National Monument shares the story of one of the most important Latino people in history, while the recently established Stonewall National Monument in New York highlights the LGBT rights movement.  


    An individual can affect a historic development that is both a triumph and a tragedy. Gandhi led India to independence with his strategy of passive resistance triumphing over violent protest. But the victory of anti-colonialism was accompanied by the tragedy of Moslem-Hindu conflict. An individual also can experience public triumph and personal tragedy. Frederick Douglass, a slave, experienced the triumph of escape and freedom, becoming a distinguished lecturer on abolition and equal rights for blacks. But in his daily life Douglass continued to suffer from the tragic legacy of racism. Sylvia Rivera was one of the people who stood up for LGBT rights during the Stonewall Riots in New York but was challenged with enough income to live. 


    In migration and immigration there were those who triumphed over the odds and others who met tragic fates. In the settlement of the American West, for example, pioneers struggled against elements, the land, and sometimes each other to carve new homes and communities out of the wilderness Conversely, Native Americans fought the pioneers' encroachment onto the land and the changes in their livelihoods and culture brought by the advance of white settlement.


    Students who are interested in sports might develop a performance, which dramatizes Wilma Rudolph's struggle to overcome personal tragedy and historical circumstances to triumph as an Olympic athlete. Or a student who is interested in civil rights issues might write a paper that analyzes the efforts of the Freedom Riders to register African-American voters in the early 1960s and the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Students who are interested in inventions might consider investigating the development and impact of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell or the light bulb by Thomas Edison. What makes one inventor triumph while another fails?


    The theme is a broad one, so topics should be carefully selected and developed in ways that best use student's talents and abilities. Whether a topic is a well-known event of world history or focuses on a little-known individual from a small community, students should place their topics into historical perspective, examine the significance of their topics in history, and show development over time.  As with any NHD theme, this topic presents students with many fascinating opportunities to explore history and to learn to use a wide range of primary and secondary sources. 




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