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Leopold Ranke was born in Wiehe an der Unstrut in Thuringia on the December 20, 1795 as the son of the lawyer Gottlob Israel Ranke. His family had long served as evangelical pastors in the area of Saxony between the rivers Saale and Unstrut. From 1809 to 1814 he attended the renowned Pforta school at Naumburg in Saxony, and from the spring of 1814 to the summer of 1818 he studied theology and classical literature in Leipzig. He completed his doctorate in 1817 with a (lost) dissertation on Thukydides. In 1818 Ranke started teaching history at the Fridericianum Gymnasium in Frankfurt an der Oder. In 1825 he was appointed associate professor of history at the University of Berlin, and in 1834 he was promoted to a full professor. In 1841 he was appointed oﬃcial historian to the Prussian state by Friedrich Wilhelm IV, and in 1854 to the renewed parliament. Ranke was ennobled in 1865, becoming Leopold von Ranke, and in 1867 he was named chancellor of the order pour le merite. He rejected countless oﬀers to teach at other universities, at Munich among others, and remained in Berlin, where he died on the May 23, 1886. From 1880 onwards he was almost blind, and was forced to dictate his later works to assistants.
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Ranke’s career as a historian was inﬂuenced less by the historical science of the time, but rather by his interest in classical literature. His earliest existing studies are on the subject of translation and interpretation of classical Greek texts. Recent research has shown that the German literature of his time, Goethe, Schiller, and Friedrich Schlegel, also had an important inﬂuence on his conception of historical writing. It is also known that Ranke admired the literary form of contemporary British and French historiography. Ranke’s early years were during the era of French hegemony over Germany and Europe, and the time of the rising German nationalist movement from 1806 onwards. These experiences of contemporary history left lasting impressions on Ranke’s thinking. His political sympathies lay with Prussian state conservatism. On behalf of the Prussian government, but with independent control, Ranke published the Historisch-politische Zeitschrift from 1832 to 1836, through which the government aimed to exert a moderate conservative inﬂuence on the public. Ranke had to give up the journal after a short time because of lack of success; however, he did use the opportunity to publish a number of historical-political essays, in which he developed important methodological principles, and also began to sketch out his later, larger works. The most important of these articles are for example Uber die Zeit Ferdinands I. und Maximilians II. (On the Time of Ferdinand I. and Maximilian II.), Frankreich und Deutschland (France and Germany), Vom Einﬂuß der Theorie (On the Inﬂuence of Theory) (all 1832), Rom 1815–1823 (Rome from 1815 to 1823), Die großen Ma.chte (The Great Powers) (both 1833), and Das politische Gesprach (The Political Conversation) (1836). Ranke placed importance on his good relations with the Prussian court, but was also held in high esteem by the Bavarian King Maximilian II, who had attended his lectures as a student at the University of Berlin, and for whom Ranke held a series of free lectures in Berchtesgaden in the September and October 1854 which were taken down in shorthand. The king had wished for ‘a short and condensed overview of the motivating ideas of the various centuries of history from the Christian era on,’ and Ranke developed basic characteristics of his historical perception in eight lectures which were then published in 1888 under the title Uber die Epochen der neueren Geschichte (On the Epochs of Recent History).
Ranke’s works total 63 volumes, including nine volumes of a world history which he dictated late in his life but was unable to complete. His ﬁrst work Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Vo.lker on 1494–1514 (History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations from 1494 to 1514) (1824) was a great success. It already showed some of the basic characteristics of his conception of Europe, and was of historiographical importance particularly because Ranke made an exemplary critical analysis of his sources in a separate volume, Zur Kritik neuerer Geschichtsschreiber (On the Critical Methods of Recent Historians). In this work he raised the method of textual criticism used in the late eighteenth century, particularly in classical philology to the standard method of scientiﬁc historical writing. In 1827 he visited the archives of Vienna, Venice, Rome, and Florence and various German libraries with a stipend of the Prussian government and discovered the since famous Venetian relations, legation reports from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which became an important basic source for the series of his great historical works beginning in 1832. The experiences of the July Revolution in France in 1830 led him to interpret the modern history of the European states more strongly in perspective of the relation between the present and the past. From 1832 to 1836 he published the three volumes of Die romischen Papste, ihre Kirche und ihr Staat im 16 und 17. Jahrhundert (Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes during the 16th and 17th Centuries), and from 1839 to 1847 the six volumes of Die deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation (History of the Reformation in Germany). These two works were developed in a single process and complement one another. Further main works followed in 1847–1848, Preußische Geschichte (History of Prussia), 1852–1861, Franzosische Geschichte (History of France), and 1859–1868, Englische Geschichte (His- tory of England), as well as the incompleted world history of 1881–1888. After the foundation of the German Reich in 1870 and 1871, Ranke partly revised his Preußische Geschichte by emphasizing the ‘German’ role of Prussia in the old Reich more strongly in a second edition. Numerous studies concentrating for the most part on Prussian and Austrian history complete his work. It must be noted that the focal point of these works, with editions and investigations on the Prussian state chancellor von Hardenberg and on Friedrich Wilhelm IV, was in the area of con- temporary history.
From 1830 onwards Ranke’s thought centers on the history of the European states of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, based on his experiences of the time. However, depending on his estimation of the problems and their continuations, he did look back into the late and even the early middle ages, and on the other hand pursued the conﬁgurations of the European states not only up to 1789–1795, but also into the beginning of the nineteenth century. We can see from the focal point of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the age of the secularized Renaissance papacy, the reformation and religious wars, the modern process of building states and the crystallization of the European powers system and its functioning between repeated hegemonic claims and equilibrium, that Ranke viewed the European historical process as essentially grounded in the tension between state and religion. The state and the church are buttresses of the system, at the same time however also buttresses of change, as they tend to broaden and reinforce their power so widely that they cause opposition and opposite tendencies, just as do the acting personalities themselves. In Ranke’s historical perception however, each state and church, as well as their representatives, have a speciﬁc ‘task,’ with which they contribute to the overall human task of cultural development. The task of historians is to recognise this ‘task’ and the ‘leading ideas,’ and to portray at which points the protagonists deviate from them, causing turbulences and even historical catastrophes, and where they return to realizing these leading ideas and thereby to a harmonious equilibrium of the forces. Multiplicity is essential for the workings of this self-regulating system of states and religion, or churches. ‘States are ‘‘Thoughts of God’’’ (Politisches Gespra.ch, ed. U. Muhlack, p. 95), and historical research pursues their development over the centuries. Ranke’s great historical writings begin at the point when the medieval universalism of the church and the ‘Sacrum Imperium’ of the Germans started to break down and the speciﬁc European culture developed, in which the pretention of religious or state universality repeatedly appeared, but was crushed by the resistance of the state and national individualities. Multiplicity and unity are connected in this history of the great European nations and their summing together in the European powers system in such a way as to enable human energies to be realized more productively than ever before.
The recognition of this historical process has for Ranke, a value in itself. Ranke formulated this thought, which is a plea against liberal progressive thinking, repeatedly; most markedly in the sentence from the lectures ‘Uber die Epochen der neueren Geschichte’: ‘Each age is immediate to God, and its value is not based on that which it brings forth, but in its own existence, in its own self, which however does not rule out that something else emerged from it’ (von Ranke et al. 1971, p. 60). Ranke hereby opposes every functionalization of historical events and situations for contemporary interests, yet makes it clear that the present cannot be understood without the historical process and that contemporary action may not ignore the way things have come to pass. For example one can learn from the past that is not possible to re-establish the absolute monarchy or the old importance of the church in the ‘Age of Revolution.’ Therefore Ranke did not limit himself to a purely contemplative ideal of historical insight beyond all practical applications. In his inaugural lecture in Berlin in 1836, Uber die Verwandtschaft und den Unterschied der Historie und der Politik (On the Relation and the Diﬀerence of History and Politics), he declared that an insight into the past as free from prejudice as possible, was a condition for the possibility of reasonable politics in the present. Historical insight explains the conditions under which contemporaries act. However, these must be drawn into the leading ideas of their predecessors, and may not criticize them from the standpoint of their contemporary interests. Ranke also described this concept of historical objectivity in various works, the most well-known of which being the formulation: ‘We have given history the task of judging the past, of teaching the world for the use of future years: the present attempt does not forbid itself such high tasks: it merely aims to show how it really was’ (SW 33, VII).
Ranke founded his ideal of objectivity for the most part on historical theology, not on logical insights. The basis of historical insight was for him a certain knowledge of God: ‘History is religion’ … ‘At least there is the closest connection between them’ (letter to Georg Waitz, December 30, 1841, Briefwerk 313). As Ranke saw God as manifested in all historical appearances, and especially in their inner relations to one another, historical insight represented for him the speciﬁc modern and up to date search for the recognition of God. The religious conviction that all historical action is carried by providence meant on one hand a limitation of the possibilities of insight, because the historian can at best guess at God’s will. On the other hand this conviction lends Ranke’s historical perception a harmonistical character, which has earned sharp criticism in the past decades of historismcritical historical science. His ideal of objectivism was rejected by his Berlin colleague and methodological opponent Johann Gustav Droysen but also by his pupil Heinrich von Sybel and by Heinrich von Treitschke, the protagonist of the politically active, Prussia-oriented liberal-conservative historiography in late nineteenth century Germany.
In the ﬁeld of German history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, Ranke was very highly respected. His rather too uncritical successors unfortunately produced a perception of history which did not take suﬃcient account of the speciﬁc forces of the modern age. As mentioned previously, Ranke himself had always related history to the present and had included the French Revolution as well as the reestablishment of the European system of powers at the Congress of Vienna in his continuity-oriented thinking. He saw in the French Revolution in particular, a dynamic element which gave the stagnating European powers system new energies and ability to integrate, so that European state system could regenerate and reinforce itself through increased nationalization. There was no longer room for industrialization, the modern competitive economy and capitalism, liberalism, even socialism and communism in this historical perception.
Leopold Ranke is counted along with Johann Gustav Droysen (1808–1884), Barthold Georg Neibuhr (1776–1831), and Theodor Mommsen (1817–1903) as one of the most important founders of modern history in Germany and as the most inﬂuential international representative of classical German historism. His own research work and his teaching at the University of Berlin made an essential contribution to the circulation and ﬁnal establishment of modern source of criticism. He pushed ahead the autonomization of history as a science, by distancing himself both from the rhetorical tradition of history as an ‘art,’ and also from the contemporary historical philosophy, particularly that of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. With his systematic work from sources he emphasized the importance of empiricism, and simultaneously made it repeatedly clear in theoretical comments and in his historical practice than the individual event or fact can only be interpreted in its surrounding context. His art of portrayal was essential to his success and to his, at times, world recognition in the developing modern international ﬁeld of history, with which style he has gone down in history as one of the founders of modern historiography. Ranke expressly aimed to make history into a ‘pleasure.’ His mastery of speciﬁcally narrative forms contributed to bridging the gap between the empirical and specialized historian and the bourgeois readership of the nineteenth century. As mentioned previously, one consequences of this esthetization could also be a harmonizing view of events and situations. However, Ranke’s narrative mastership did allow him to lead from the apparently coincidental individual event on to the contemplation of the most general insights, in a way that is very plausible for the historical-political consciousness of the nineteenth century. His stories deal with the responsibility of individuals for their fate, without suggesting that they could control this fate. That is the meaning of the sentence, that the historian is to deal with humanity, ‘as it is, explainable or unexplainable: the life of the individual, the generations, the peoples, at times the hand of God above them’ (SW 33 34, VIII).
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- Fulda D 1996 Wissenschaft aus Kunst. Die Entstehung der modernen deutschen Geschichtsschreibung 1760–1860. Berlin, pp. 296 –410
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- Hardtwig W 1997 Historismus als asthetische Geschichtsschreibung. Geschichte und Gesellschaft 23: 99–114
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- Krieger L 1977 Ranke. The Meaning of History. Chicago, London
- Metz K-H 1979 Grundformen historiographischen Denkens. Wissenschaftsgeschichte als Methodologie. Dargestellt an Ranke, Treitschke und Lamprecht, Munich
- Muhlack U 1988 Leopold von Ranke. In: Hammerstein N (ed.) Deutsche Geschichtswissenschaft um 1900. Stuttgart, pp. 11–36
- Vierhaus R 1957 Ranke und die soziale Welt. Munster von Ranke L 1897–1890 Samtliche Werke, 54 vols. [Ed. Dove A] Leipzig, Germany
- von Ranke L 1926 Werke Gesamtausgabe der Deutschen Akademie [ed. Joachimsen P] Munich
- von Ranke L 1949 Das Briefwerk [ed. Fuchs W P] Hamburg
- von Ranke L 1953 Die romischen Papste in den letzten vier Jahrhunderten, with an introduction by V. Friedrich. Baethgen, Stuttgart
- von Ranke L 1957 12 Bucher preußischer Geschichte [ed. Andreas W] Hamburg, 4 vols.
- von Ranke L 1963 Die großen Machte, politisches Gesprach. Gottingen
- von Ranke L 1964–75 Aus Werk und Nachlaß [eds. Fuchs W P and Schieder T]. Munich Vienna, 4 vols.
- von Ranke L 1988 Und die moderne Geschichtswissenschaft. Stuttgart
- von Ranke L 1989 Uber die Epochen der neueren Geschichte. Darmstadt
- von Ranke L 1995 Die großen Machte, politisches Gesprach. Frankfurt Main/Leipzig