historical writing, original sources, history, Venice, biography
[Leopold von Ranke, historicism]
historiography, historicism, Barthold Niebuhr, science

Home > History & Historians > Famous Historian index > Leopold von Ranke

  Site Map  |  * Popular Pages *  |  Slide Shows  |  Guest Book  |  Links  |  About Us  |  Download Wisdoms  |  Support Us  | 

Leopold von Ranke
historicism

  "You have reckoned that history ought to judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future. The present attempt does not yield to that high office. It will merely tell how it really was."

  Leopold von Ranke


  The son of an attorney, and a scion of an old Luther theological family, Leopold von Ranke was born in Wiehe, Thuringia, in December 1795 and later became a famous German historian and educator. Thuringia was then part of the Kingdom of Saxony but was awarded to Prussia by the peace terms of 1815 at the close of the Napoleonic wars.

  Ranke attended the famous Pforta private school and, after further study at the Universities of Leipzig and Halle, he worked as a schoolmaster teaching Greek and Roman classics at the Gymnasium in Frankfort-on-the-oder; this post being one held within the Prussian system. It was only whilst employed as a schoolmaster at Frankfurt that he began to consider attempting to become seriously involved in historical studies initially with the view to improving his knowledge of the classical ages in order to be a better teacher.

  His first book, History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations, 1494-1514 (1824) written at Frankfort, included an appended section entitled Zur Kritik neuerer Geschictschreiber (critique of modern historical writing) that presented a convincing criticism of contemporary historiography condemning its reliance on tradition and proposed, instead, Ranke's own more objective method. Ranke's aim was to reconstruct the unique periods of the past as they actually were and to avoid injecting the history of former times with the spirit of the present; this approach to historiography is known as historicism.
  Ranke intended that his method would be applicable to modern history - Barthold Niebuhr had already pioneered a scientific method of historical investigation to be applied to ancient history. As a student Ranke had studied, and been greatly impressed by Niebuhr's Roman History - he acknowledged a debt to Niebuhr whose approach had been a source of backround inspiration.

  Ranke distrusted historical textbooks and turned, at every convenient opportunity, to the study of more original sources. This method Ranke later developed to feature a primarily reliance on the "narratives of eye-witnesses and the most genuine immediate documents." He considered that "the strict presentation of the facts, contingent and unattractive though they may be, is undoubtedly the supreme law."

  Ranke's Zur Kritik neuerer Geschictschreiber was favourably noticed by the Prussian minister of education and, in 1825, he was rewarded with a supernumerary professorship at the University of Berlin that initiated what were to become more than fifty years of association between Ranke and that University.
  This appointment brought with it opportunities of access to the Prussian royal library.

  Further studies resulted in Ranke's second book on the Ottomans and the Spanish monarchy and the quality of this work invited the continued favour of the Prussian authority which agreed to facilitate Ranke's studies being further undertaken in archives in Vienna. From these times (1827) Ranke was enabled, by the support of Gentz, to gain the protection of the powerful Austrian minister Metternich and this was to allow him very wide access to archived materials and thereby to gain very valuable information from Venetian and other sources located in Vienna.
  Between 1828-31 Ranke pursued his lonely, sincere, and path-breaking studies, in the Italian peninsula where Metternich's influence had the power to open every door except those in the Vatican.
  Most of these archived sources had not been seriously accessed by any historical scholar in the past and Ranke's researches in Vienna and the Italian peninsula provided the material for some of the most respected historical writing of the age.

  The Prussian authority sought to employ Ranke's talents, for a time, in the editorship of the Historische-Politische-Zeitschrift, a periodical that was intended to help to defend the Prussian Government against the rising tide of liberal and democratic opinion. In this role, which lasted some four years, Ranke produced some of the best political thought that had appeared in the Germanies for a long time. Two famous essays The Great Powers, which surveys great power rivalry, and A Political Conversation, which treats with the nature of the state and its relationship with the citizen, date from this period.
  A talent for historical and political scholarship proved, however, to be somewhat ill matched to the intended task of impairing the effectiveness of the expression of democratic aspirations.
  Ranke was thus able to return to historical study and authorship.

  His subsequent works cover the histories of the major European countries and include the History of the Popes During the 16th and 17th Centuries (1834-36), History of the Reformation in Germany (1839-47), Civil Wars and Monarchy in France in the 16th and 17th Centuries (1852).

  He was awarded the security, and much enhanced salary, of a full professorship in Berlin in 1837 and was appointed as Prussian historiographer by King Frederick William IV in 1841.

  He died in May, 1886 at the age of 91; the last ten years of his life having been given over to a Weltgeschichte (universal history) that Ranke had been able to bring, over nine volumes, to the end of the 15th century at the time of his death.

  As a historian, Ranke attempted to put aside prevailing theories and prejudices and by the scrupulous use of primary sources to present an unvarnished picture of the facts. Nevertheless, because he viewed political power as the principal agent in history he tended to emphasize political history, dwelling upon the deeds of kings and leaders and ignoring economic and social forces.
  A famous educator, he introduced the seminar as a method of teaching history and trained a generation of influential scholars. Since Ranke's time the seminar method of teaching history has become very widely adopted.
  At the time of his death Ranke was regarded as the foremost historian in the world. Ranke's method of historicism has largely pioneered the modern insistence on rigorously analyzing firsthand documentation. He has variously been described as "The greatest German historian", "The father of the objective writing of history", and "The founder of the science of history."

  Ranke does occasionally adopt a literary approach in his writing of history that tends to build up to a presentation of historical climaxes and also to build up certain historical figures whose contributions are deemed to be particularly significant. This adds to the readability and the drama of Ranke's works but it may not be strictly true that such literary effectiveness is fully in line with history "as it had really been."

  Ranke aimed at an universal or world view of history, but his basic mood was nationalistic and conservative, accepting of monarchy and sincerely religious, the massive changes after the French Revolution are hardly discussed. Ranke seems to have seen the role of liberalism as being perhaps confined to the calling of the attention of statesmen to wrongs that needed correction.

  His books on Prussian history contained, with no intention for it to be used for propaganda purposes, the seeds for a Prussian national German picture of history. This legacy compels one to critical reflection, but at the same time it points to a flourishing time in historical research at the Berlin University, started by Ranke, which above all Max Lenz and Friedrich Meinecke were able to continue.

  "From the particular, one can carefully and boldly move up to the general; from general theories, there is no way of looking at the particular."

  Leopold von Ranke

Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage


The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essay "History"
Italian Unification - Cavour, Garibaldi and
the Unification of Risorgimento Italy
Otto von Bismarck &
The wars of German unification
Italian unification map
Risorgimento Italy
Map of German unification
1 The European Revolution of 1848 begins
A broad outline of the background to the onset of the turmoils and a consideration of some of the early events.

2 The French Revolution of 1848
A particular focus on France - as the influential Austrian minister Prince Metternich, who sought to encourage the re-establishment of "Order" in the wake of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic turmoils of 1789-1815, said:-"When France sneezes Europe catches a cold".

3 The Revolution of 1848 in the German Lands and central Europe
"Germany" had a movement for a single parliament in 1848 and many central European would-be "nations" attempted to assert a distinct existence separate from the dynastic sovereignties they had been living under.

4 The "Italian" Revolution of 1848
A "liberal" Papacy after 1846 helps allow the embers of an "Italian" national aspiration to rekindle across the Italian Peninsula.

5 The Monarchs recover power 1848-1849
Some instances of social and political extremism allow previously pro-reform conservative elements to support the return of traditional authority. Louis Napoleon, (who later became the Emperor Napoleon III), attains to power in France offering social stability at home but ultimately follows policies productive of dramatic change in the wider European structure of states and their sovereignty.
Emerson's "Transcendental" approach to History
.
Spirituality & the wider world
.
Some Social Theory and insights
.
The Unfolding of History
.
The Vienna Declaration
.
Framework Convention on National minorities


Return to start of
Leopold von Ranke
historicism