A brief biography of historian
The son of an attorney, and a scion of an old Lutheran
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.
Leopold von Ranke
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
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
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
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
Ranke was thus able to return to historical study and
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
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
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
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
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.
Leopold von Ranke quotes
"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."
"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."
Popular European History pages
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 pre-exist 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.