Friedrich Meinecke was born in October 1862 in the Prussian
town of Salzwedel as the son of a post office worker. After
studying History and Philosophy in Berlin and Bonn, he obtained
his doctorate in 1886. He entered the Prussian archive service in
1887 and submitted his post-doctoral thesis in Berlin in
From 1893, he was editor, then from 1896 publisher of the
'Historische Zeitschrift' ('Historical Magazine'). In these times
he was developing his interest in the history of ideas. In 1901,
he was given a chair in Strasburg, and from 1906 he had a chair
Meinecke's two volume biography of the army reformer von
Boyen, appeared in 1896/99. His 'The Age of German Liberation', a
study of the Prussian response to the French Revolution, appeared
in 1906. The year 1907 saw the publication of one of Meinecke's
most notable works 'Weltbürgertum und Nationalstaat. Studien
zur Genesis das deutschen Nationalstaats,' ('The middle classes
of the world and the national state. Studies on the genesis of
the national state.'), which has appeared in english translations
as Cosmopolitanism and the National State.
Prior to the appointment of Count Bismarck of Chancellor of
Prussia in 1862 "the Germanies" had functioned, as a legacy of
history, as a loosely structured Confederation of largely
individually sovereign states under ancient aristocratic houses
with Austria and Prussia being the most prominent of the German
In his Cosmopolitanism and the National State Meinecke presents
the history of the emergent German state from the Prussian period
of reform to the formation of the Second German Empire by
Bismarck as a steady development in which he brought to life and
personified the concept of a national state.
Meinecke chronicles, and comments somewhat favourably on, the
emergence of a German national state. Meinecke recognised that
there had been a transition from (an eighteenth century) cultural
cosmopolitanism towards a (ninetenth century) pride in
nationality and a conception of the State as a natural expression
of nationality - this tendency was not seen by him as being
incompatible with an ideal international society. With this book
Meinecke became well known, and together with Wilhelm Dilthey and
Ernst Troeltsch became one of the founders of the political
In 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War,
which to start with was greeted by him with enthusiasm, Meinecke
was awarded a Professorial position at Berlin's Friedrich Wilhelm
University. As late as 1916, in an introduction to a new edition
of Ranke's Great Powers, Meinecke depicted a situation
where it was necessary that England's maritime supremacy be
broken in order to provide the conditions necessary to a new
equilibrium in world civilization that would feature equality,
competition, and exchange.
As the conflict continued Meinecke was one of a minority of
professors who supported a negotiated peace and internal reforms.
With this, he was continuing his activities which had started in
1910 as a historical-political commentator, together with
Friedrich Naumann, Max Weber and Ernst Troelsch, and which
supported a renewal of liberalism within a social state. Only in
this way could in his view the greater aim of internal unity
within the nation be achieved. This made him support the Weimar
democracy in 1918, despite the disgust of his own circle, 'not
out of initial love for the republic, but for common sense
reasons and a love of my fatherland'.
In 1924, he published his second important work on
intellectual history "Idee der Staatsrason" which explored the
concept of 'reasons of state' in modern history, through the
examination of the attempts made to reconcile the often competing
claims of ethics, power politics, values and causality from
Machiavelli up to the present. In this, he disputed the idea of
power politics which had been developed from 1848 by the
national-liberal political historians, and, coupled with an
appeal to 'reasons of state', a warning against rigorous power
Meinecke taught in Berlin until 1932 when he retired at the
age of 69. Something of an outsider, he was academically a
supporter of a political intellectual history and had been
politically a republican for practical reasons in the Weimar
In 1934, as a result of the Nazi take-over of power, he lost
his position as chair of the 'Historische Reichskommission', a
position he had held since 1928. In point of fact the entire
'Historische Reichskommission' was disbanded, despite its
previously prestigious place in German letters, by order of the
Nazi regime who sought to replace it with a Reichinstitut fur
Geshichte des neuen Deutshland that was intended to produce
historical data in line with the outlook of the new 'National
Socialist' Germany. In 1935 Meinecke's position as publisher of
the 'Historische Zeitschrift' came to an end.
Although he may have appeared to be a retired academic with
little influence, he continued tirelessly to publish his works,
for example in 1936 'Die Entstehung des Historismus' ('The
origins of historicism') in which he questioned the fundamental
rules and principles of the writings of history and of historical
thinking. In 1946, at the age of 84, he finally produced his
widely acknowledged book 'Die deutsche Katastrophe' ('The German
catastrophe'). In this, he tries to explain the events of recent
history with the help of the collective intellectual history of
Germany since the 19th century. He saw German National Socialism
as being an anomaly, ('the greatest disaster the German people
have suffered but also their greatest shame'), that was not part
of the pattern demonstrated in the past by Germany
Meinecke re - examined the relation of National Socialism to
German history and revised his earlier advocacy of power
politics, concluding that such realpolitik represented 'the
breakthrough of a Satanic principle into world - history'. The
struggle between the two souls within Prussianism - the civilized
and the militarist - had been perverted by the Nazis into a
degrading worship of the omnipotent State, Meinecke even revised
his earlier admiration for Bismarck and the cult of success, as
well as his estimate of the function of the historian, calling
for a renewed consciousness of the humanistic currents in German
history. Above all, this return he demanded in his book to the
idealism of the age of Goethe later came in for criticism and at
times also for mockery. Meinecke was seen as having glossed over
the death factories, the mass murder of the Jews, slave labor and
other Nazi atrocities, and as arguing that Hitler derived his
power from his "demonic personality," all of this was seen
partially as a symptom of the inability of the middle-class
intellectuals to take part in an appropriate discussion on the
In 1948, he was appointed Rector of the newly founded Free
University in Dahlem (West Berlin) by the Allied occupation
authorities and in 1948, as a symbol of the 'other Germany', was
voted in as the first (honorary) rector of the Free University of
Berlin, in 1951 the history department of this university was
given his name. A reason for this was the fact that before 1945
he was rather an outsider in his profession.
A large number of pupils he taught later became important and
well known in academic circles in both Europe and America. The
prominence and influence of his pupils enhanced the reputation of
Meinecke as a teacher. His career and political outlook have been
frequently discussed as an example of the role of historians in
German society from the period of Empire into the Nazi times.
This has much to do with the fact that he was, from his
generation, the only historian who experienced the changes in
German history from 1914 to 1945 and 1948/49 and discussed them
As well as one approach towards him which distinguishes
Meinecke in his ability to change his opinions, a trait not
usually seen in his fellow historians, which led him from being a
monarchist from the heart to becoming a rational republican,
there is another approach which is characterised by the
continuity of this liberal ways of thinking.
He continued to exercise considerable intellectual influence
on the historians of post - war Germany after his death in
February 1954 in West Berlin.
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 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.
We strongly recommend:
Europe in 1848 : A seed-plot of History?
In relation to the European Revolutions of 1848 the historian Eric Hobsbawm has written:
"There have been plenty of greater revolutions in the history of the modern world, and certainly plenty of more successful ones.
Yet there has been none which spread more rapidly and widely, running like a bushfire across frontiers, countries and even oceans."
In 1806 the Habsburg Emperor, who held the "Holy Roman" Imperial title and exercised direct dynastic authority over many lands stretching from Poland to the Mediterranean,
was hard-pressed by the activities of Napoleon Bonaparte, and accepted the termination of the Holy Roman Empire (due to sweeping reforms instituted by Napoleon in western
parts of Germanic Europe), and adopted the title of Emperor of Austria.
By late spring 1848, the Habsburg Empire looked like a hopeless case: the monarchy's northern Italian possessions in revolt, invaded by a Piedmontese army
and largely cleared of Austrian troops; three different "national" governments in Vienna, Budapest and Zagreb each claiming sovereign authority; Polish, Romanian,
Slovenian, Serb, Czech, and Slovak national movements aspiring to a similar sovereign status; a mentally incompetent monarch and his court in flight from the
capital to the provinces; a state treasury completely bare.
Jonathan Sperber, The European Revolutions, 1848-1851, p. 203
In February 1948, the British historian Lewis Namier delivered a lecture commemorating the centennial of the
European Revolutions of 1848.
In this lecture Namier presented facts about the historical developments, themes, and events evident in 1848 and reached the
"1848 remains a seed-plot of history. It crystallized ideas and projected the pattern of things to come; it determined the course of the following century."
We are pleased to make available a series of informative pages about the highly significant and, we would venture to suggest,
the prodigiously historically instructive European Revolutions of 1848:
The events of 1848-1849 arose from the strong emergence into the Socio-Politico-Economic History of nineteenth-century Europe of populist forces such as Liberalism,
Constitutionalism, Nationalism and Socialism.
- 1 The European Revolutions of 1848 begin
- A broad outline of the background to the onset of the turmoils and a consideration of some of the early events in
Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest and Prague.
- 2 The French Revolution of 1848
- A particular focus on France - as an Austrian foreign minister said "When France sneezes Europe catches a cold".
- 3 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.
- 4 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 promote a distinct existence for their "nationality".
- 5 The European Revolutions - reactionary aftermath 1848-1849
- Some instances of social and political extremism allow
previously pro-reform liberal elements to join conservative elements in
supporting the return of traditional authority. Such nationalities living within
the Habsburg Empire as the Czechs, Croats, Slovaks, Serbs and Roumanians,
find it more credible to look to the Emperor,
rather than to the democratised assemblies recently established in
Vienna and in Budapest as a result of populist aspiration, for the future
protection of their nationality.
The Austrian Emperor and many Kings and Dukes regain political powers.
Louis Napoleon, (who was a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), was elected as
President in France offering social stability at home but ultimately followed
policies which resulted in dramatic changes to the wider European structure of states and their sovereignty.
These populist forces were promoted by various interest groups within and between the pre-existing dynastic Empires and Kingdoms of Europe, often challenging the
continuance of dynastic authority and governance and proving to be competitive, in that popular aspirations expressed by some interest groups often proved unpalatable
to other interest groups within and between the pre-existing dynastic states of Europe.
Radical socialist reformers sought justice for the "disinherited" classes, the peasants and the factory workers, while more moderate political reformers were concerned
with protecting and increasing the influence of the middle classes, the bourgeoisie and the professional groups. The radicals in general favoured a republican
form of government while many moderates were prepared to accept constitutional monarchy as a satisfactory substitute …
… Many of the revolutionaries, especially in the German Confederation and Italy, wanted to transform their homeland into a strong and united country, but
their aims contradicted the nationalist aspirations of minority groups.
From the opening chapter to "Revolution and Reaction 1848-1852" by Geoffrey Brunn
Middle class liberals, who had favoured constitutional rather than dynastic governance, were amongst the first of the previously pro-reform aspirational groups to
return to supporting dynastic authority when it became plain that other populist interest groups favoured wider extensions of democracy than they themselves wished
to see adopted.
Rural dwellers were often largely satisfied with reforms to systems of land tenure and the reduction of obligations to provide assistance, through labour-services, to their
landlords. Once such reforms were put in place in the Austrian Empire, country dwellers, although often relatively materially poor, tended accept the suppression of
urban radicalism and the re-establishment of dynastic authorities.
All in all a "united front" failed to become established amongst those seeking reform and gradually proved possible for dynastic authorities to re-assert themselves
often with the aid of their pre-revolutionary military forces.
The historian A. J. P. Taylor later referred to the events of 1848 as being "a turning-point when history failed to turn" nevertheless "The Future" was put on notice that
such populist-aspirational forces were capable of making pressing claims in relation to Socio-Politico-Economic developments.