Historical studies came into their own following the immense political and social upheavals associated with the French Revolution (1789-1815). The French Revolution represented a massive break with the past and, paradoxically, made people much more “history-conscious” than ever before. Thus, it was in the nineteenth century that history became the “Queen of the Sciences” and earned a permanent place in the academy. The man responsible for elevating the study of history to a new plateau was the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886). Ranke’s contribution were threefold: (1) he played a leading role in establishing history as a respected discipline in the universities, (2) he firmly established the notion that all sound history must be based on primary sources and a rigorous methodology, and (3) he reflected the broader nineteenth-century attempt to define the concept of “historical-mindedness”.
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This essay seeks to analyse Leopold von Ranke’s contribution to the study of history. Syracuse University has long nourished a special memory of the great nineteenth century German historian, Leopold von Ranke, the father of modem history. Ranke is to historians what Darwin is to biologists and Freud to psychologists, the revered author of the discipline’s methods and the presiding personality from an age when science promised so much for the betterment of humanity. During the last century earnest American students who hoped to elevate American intellectual life to European standards flocked in particular to Germany so that they might come into contact with the most advanced learning. The German influence, in fact, decidedly altered American education from garten fur kinder (kinder-garten) to post graduate professional training
The German historian Leopold von Ranke was born in Germany in 1795. His first major work, History of the Latin and Teutonic nations, 1494-1535, was published late in 1824. This was based on archival research, viewed by Ranke as the foundation of all historical work, and it established his reputation as a historian. The most influential part of the work was its appendix in which he assessed previous literature on the basis of the critical analysis of sources. For him, this was scholarly
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history. It was in the preface to his work that he stated his often quoted dictum, that he was writing history as it had actually occurred,’wie es eigentlich gewesen’. He argued that historians should disregard sources such as personal memoirs and texts written after the event they focus on, and base their findings solely on contemporary, or primary sources. These, he advocated, should be scrutinized and criticized so historians are in the best possible position to reconstruct historical events.
Due to the success of his work, Ranke was appointed Professor of History at the University of Berlin. Ranke went abroad late in 1827 and remained away for over three years, researching in Vienna, Florence, Rome and Venice. He had personal connections that he put to good use to secure access to previously closed archives. The following years were marked with publications mainly on the history of the Mediterranean countries and Germany. Particularly noteworthy are the conspiracy against Venice (1831), History of the popes (1834-36), History of Germany during the Reformation (1839-47) and the History of Prussia (1847-8). Furthermore, Ranke trained the first generation of ‘modern professional historians’ at Berlin, including Georg Waitz and Jakob Burckhardt. King Maximilian II of Bavaria was inspired by him to establish a Historical Commission within the Bavarian academy of Sciences to which Ranke was appointed as chairman in 1815.
During his later years Ranke wrote national histories for each of the major states of Europe, including his History of France (1852-61), History of England (1859-68) and The German powers and the Princes ‘league (1871). As Ranke’s reputation continued to grow, he was awarded many honours: he was granted entry to the hereditary nobility, adding ‘von’ to his surname in 1865 and he was made an honorary citizen of Berlin in 1885. Ranke’s university career concluded in 1871 when he retired from his chair at Berlin. Nonetheless by the time of his death in Berlin in 1886, he had completed nine volumes of his Universal history . Leopold von Ranke endeavored to understand political order within its own historical context.
To understand the nature of historical phenomena, such as institution or an idea, one had to consider its historical development and the changes it underwent over a period of time. Historical epochs, Ranke argued, should not be judged according to predetermined contemporary values or ideas. Rather, they had to be understood on their own terms by empirically establishing history ‘as things really were’. Ranke emphasized both ‘individuality’ and ‘development’ in history. Each historical phenomenon, epoch and event had its own individuality and it was the task of the historian to establish its essence.
According to Ranke, one should not make moral judgment on past individuals and past cultures but try to understand them on their own terms. To do this, historians had to immense themselves in the epoch and assess it in a manner appropriate for that time. They had, in Ranke’s words, ‘to extinguish’ their own personality . Furthermore, Ranke was convinced in all his work that there was meaning and coherence in history and that the established political institutions embodied moral forces, yet he rejected the reduction of history to a grand scheme .
In Ranke’s opinion, the historian had to proceed from the particular or the individual to the general, not the reverse, and it was the particular that opened the path to an understanding of the great moral forces manifest in history. With his seminar program at the University of Berlin, Ranke set a model for training historians in systematic, critical research methods, which was copied throughout the world as history became a professional discipline.
Ranke made important contributions to the emergence of modern history and is generally recognized as the father of the ‘scientific’ historical school of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Due to him, methodical principles of archival research and source criticism became commonplace in academic institutions. Despite being described by many scholars of the twentieth century as a historian only dealing with political history and history of great powers, Ranke actually dealt with cultural history as well. In many of his works cultural history may be only mentioned briefly, but in some cases Ranke dedicated a full chapter to the history of literature.
For example in his History of England, one can find a full chapter on the literature during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. it covers nearly 20 pages. In an eighty-five page article from 1835 Ranke dealt only with the history of Italian literature. Ranke wrote not only on German history, but the history of a number of states in the nineteenth-century Europe. His historical writing created an awareness of their own history in a number of states, like in Ireland, Serbia and Germany, and an international network of historians developed. The network consisted on many European scholars, societies and associations and included personal connections, presentations and exchange off journals. This network is also evidence for the exchange of information amongst scholars within Europe.
As long as the sources were indicated, Ranke preferred the free exchange of information because it was only in that way that history could continue to develop. Rankean exercises, which during the nineteenth century were institutionalized in historical seminars, offered an alternative venue for the training of students. As the discipline globalized, such seminars were established across the world. If history students seldom were working in archives, they acquired their disciplinary identity as archival researchers, including the philological preference for written texts, through these seminars. The “function” of the modern history professor, Jameson explained in 1902, was “in writing or causing young men to write, or in showing them how others have written, and how they themselves might write”.
When Frederick Jackson Turner started teaching historical seminars in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1890s, he adopted the motto that “all history is comment on atext.” In France, Charles-Victor Langlois and Charles Seignobos opened their 1898 methodological textbook, intended for students in historical seminars, with this declaration: “History is done with documents”. Lacking documents, the history of immense periods of the past of humankind is forever unknowable. For nothing can replace documents: no documents, no history.
Ranke believed that there is no place or room for the historian’s own opinion in historical writing. If we want to establish, ‘how things really were’, we have to view and analyse the time period and how issues were viewed at that time. It is and continues to be true that ‘history will always be rewritten,’ as Ranke wrote into his diary in the 1840s . History should never be viewed from one-side. In his Epochs about the Modern History Ranke noted: ‘The truth lies possibly in the middle. Baur analysed how critics from the left and right dealt with Ranke and he came to the conclusion that ‘whoever misuses history to satisfy ideological needs can never accept Ranke’s histories, critical source- based science, and its autonomous movements’. As much as possible, we should try not to let ourselves get carried away with today’s views or ideological ideas. After all, if we believe what Ranke said, we are indeed a product of the historical moment in which we live.
Although he made a huge impact on nineteenth and twentieth-century
historiography and many of his books became and remained standard works, Ranke’s methods and theories have proved to be controversial. For instance, in 1980 A.G Dickens investigated Ranke as a Reformation historian. He analyzed Ranke’s personal connection with religion before discussing Ranke’s History of the Reformation in Germany and the Peasant’s Revolt of 1524-25. Dickens compared Ranke with a number of other historians and pointed out that Ranke simply copied earlier works on the reformation.
On Ranke’s career, Dickens wrote that ‘the general direction of his early progress was from the airy-fairy to the nitty-gritty’. Dickens concluded that ‘a good deal has been written concerning Ranke’s philosophy of history, but personally I cannot see that he possessed any mental contraption which deserved so grandiose a title’. Many scholars have written on Ranke and analyzed his understanding of history. The meaning of Ranke’s aim to study the past “from what actually happened” has been the subject of much debate among historians. Historians, Ranke claimed, should stick to the facts and there should be no evidence of their views and commitments in their writing. It is only when they remove all trace of themselves that they can revive the past.
More recent commentators such as Iggers have argued that such a translation is not accurate because it does not reveal Ranke’s ‘idealistic’ conception of history. He pointed out that the term ‘eigntlich’ does not only mean ‘actually’ but also ‘essentially’ or ‘characteristically’. The translation of Ranke’s quotation into English has its problems. One thing is certain, however, Ranke’s famous sentence is a conscious formula that contains a very complex meaning. The word ‘blob’ shows Ranke’s modesty while the word ‘eigentlich’ touches on issues like ‘truth’ and ‘the greatest good’. The translation ‘happened’ describes an event or condition; it does not describe a development. The usual translation ‘how it really was’ is too short and does not describe what Ranke intended to say. As a more correct translation, I would suggest ‘how things really were’.
Finally, it is clear that Ranke’s historical approach differed widely from his contemporaries. He did not follow the Romantic Movement, nor did he compose providential history, or become friendly with the ideas of Social Darwinism. He followed the Continental tradition of rationalism and realism. This is probably the reason why Ranke on one hand is highly respected, on the other hand highly criticized. I personally fully agree with his research methods and embrace the enormous contribution he made in the development of historiography and history as a discipline. Certainly his methods are still valid today and widely used, no matter what kind of history we study.See More on Historiography