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Big Era Eight: Landscape Unit 8.3

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The Great Depression
1929 - 1939 CE

Why This Unit?

In the late 1920s, a deep economic depression engulfed much of the world. Its scope and severity were unprecedented. Although commonly associated with the United States, countries as different as Indonesia and Canada, Peru and Japan, Great Britain and the Belgian Congo reeled from devastating losses. Few experienced a full recovery until the onset of World War II ten years later. This “Great Depression,” as it came to be known, had profound repercussions for world history. The increasingly interdependent global economy of the early twentieth century splintered as governments raced to erect tariff walls and devalue currencies. In the face of high unemployment rates and declining revenues, economic nationalism prevailed over international cooperation. The catastrophe also produced a significant shift in political allegiances, both to the left and to the right of the ideological continuum. With large numbers of people enduring misery and hardship, populist politicians and movement leaders rallied support by targeting scapegoats, promising improved conditions, and promoting government intervention in every aspect of life. Although outwardly incongruous, national welfare programs, fascism, labor strikes, and anti-colonial protests all resulted from the depression.

This unit on the global impact of the Great Depression works on two levels. First it provides students with a comprehensive overview of what happened. They learn not only about the causes and consequences of this event but also about national similarities and differences. In addition, students will discover how governments turned inwards or undermined each other in the midst of the crisis, gain some appreciation for what it meant to live during the 1930s, and realize how the Great Depression fractured the modern world system and contributed to the outbreak of World War II. Third, this unit challenges the historical thinking of students. By utilizing a comparative framework, it underscores how United States history is intricately connected to the history of the rest of the world. The American experience did not unfold in isolation. The unit uses primary materials and online research to reveal the interplay of economic, political, and social history, for example, how global events influenced and reflected the actions of Vietnamese rice farmers or Canadian autoworkers. Finally, through discussion and debate, the unit reveals the complexities of history—that patterns of development are not straightforward, predictable, or uni-causal.

Unit Objectives

Upon completing this unit, students will be able to:

1. Describe and analyze the Great Depression as a global experience.

2. Define and graph GDP figures.

3. Identify and assess different causes for the Great Depression.

4. Analyze primary documents like photos, political cartoons, and speeches.

5. Define and explain the rise of populism.

6. Compare the development of welfare states in Mexico and the United States.

7. Analyze connections between the Great Depression and both industrial unionism and colonial freedom movements.


Time and Materials

This unit contains four comprehensive lesson plans. To complete them in their entirety teachers will need seven to eight class periods. Each lesson plan, however, breaks down into sections, which may be taught independently. In addition to rulers and colored pencils, the teacher should photocopy several handouts. Internet access is also required for the students.

Table of Contents

Why this unit?


Unit objectives


Time and materials




The historical context


This unit in the Big Era time line


Lesson 1: A global experience


Lesson 2: Causes of the Great Depression


Lesson 3: Populism and politics


Lesson 4: Populism and protest


This unit and the Three Essential Questions


This unit and the Seven Key Themes


This unit and the Standards in Historical Thinking




Correlations to National and State Standards


Conceptual links to other lessons


Complete Teaching Unit in PDF Format


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