Otto Hintze Research Paper

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The Berlin historian Otto Hintze continues to fascinate those engaged in international historical research. In Germany, there was a particularly noticeable increase of interest in Hintze in the 1960s, in conjunction with an enduring resurgence of social historical schools. The rare combination of detailed investigation through decades of sources on the one hand and the elaborated approach of history’s systematic contiguous disciplines on the other brought to light results which are still of great interest in modern research.

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This is especially true for the comparative approach to political structural history, particularly that of the European states from the height of the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. From an early stage, Hintze was at pains to incorporate the categories of political science and economics, constitutional law, and sociology into historiographical analysis, thus broadening the scope of the discipline. Despite modernization theory and more recent concepts of the comparative analysis of nation building, Hintze’s advocacy of the comparative approach to constitutional and governmental history and the methodological initiatives taken in his works are still of great significance. Indeed, Hintze’s approach remains indispensable to the investigation of the processes of state making.

Otto Hintze was born in the small Pomeranian town of Pyritz on August 27, 1861, as the son of a middle-ranking civil servant. After studying for two years at the University of Greifswald, Hintze transferred to the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitat of Berlin in 1880–1. There he studied, for example, under Johann Gustav Droysen, who was still in his final years of life. Hintze completed his doctoral studies in the spring of 1884 with a dissertation on medieval history (Konig Wilhelm der Hollander. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des deutschen Interregnums), supervised by the historian Julius von Weizsacker. Gustav Schmoller, the economic and political scientist who was soon to have a considerable impact on Hintze, was not yet named as one of his academic teachers. Hintze followed his first rather narrow course of study in history with a second in legal and constitutional history (sciences of state). According to the records, this was a formative stage for Hintze, during which Schmoller introduced him to archival research on the Prussian administrative files. Even this, his very first research on unpublished source materials, was carried out in connection with early comparative projects. At the same time, it was Hintze’s first practical preparation for his work on the Acta Borussica, Gustav Schmoller’s editing and research project on Prussian history in the eighteenth century in particular.

Hintze was engaged in this exhaustive project, which was based at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, in various functions over a period of decades. He was initially contracted in 1888 as a research fellow. In this capacity, he acquired an unparalleled command of the published and unpublished source material on the Brandenburg-Prussian state, its regions and provinces, classes and estates, before expanding the scope of his research to include the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. He completed his postdoctoral thesis, a monograph on the history of the Prussian state economy (The Prussian silk industry in the 18th century), in 1895. In 1899 he was appointed professor at the University of Berlin, where—turning down several offers of chairs at other universities—he advanced to the status of full professor from 1900 to 1902–7, and continued to teach until prematurely given emeritus status in 1920. Besides his broad research, which had long since extended beyond the boundaries of Prussia, he owed this distinguished academic career to Gustav Schmoller’s excellent contacts in political and administrative circles which is of vital importance in the view of the various animosities among contemporary historians.

The initial focus of Hintze’s extensive writings was on constitutional and economic issues of Prussian history, culminating in 1901 in a lengthy monograph on the organization of the Prussian state administrative authorities around 1740. In this volume Hintze analyzed the making of the Prussian state, its development from a territorial state to a ‘grand state.’ He then reluctantly accepted an official commission to compile a comprehensive survey of the history of Brandenburg-Prussia. Several editions of this work were published in 1915–16, leading to heated (interdenominational) controversies during World War I.

In the course of archival research spanning two decades, Hintze acquired an excellent grasp of the source material, establishing an empirical basis that enabled him, even in further-reaching investigations, to take concrete historical life into consideration, particularly that of more recent centuries. For Hintze, the exploration of Prussian history was never a limited end in itself, but a paradigm for the historical process per se. This does not mean to say that he took this historical example as a yardstick by which the development of other states was to be measured, however. By his own account, it was at a early stage of his career—during his studies of legal and constitutional history under Schmoller—that Hintze had identified a much broader area as his future field of research: general constitutional and administrative history, from the comparative perspective. Furthermore, in choosing his Prussian topics of inquiry, he had always considered their usefulness for the ‘entirety of my academic plans and studies’ (1892).

Long before the World War I, which marked a turning point in Hintze’s life, he became engaged in other, broader fields of research. In the course of his dispute with the protagonist of the older German historical school of economics, Wilhelm Roscher, Hintze had presented his conception of a comparative approach to the analysis of world history as early as 1897. In contrast to Roscher, whom he accused of neglecting the fundamental social aspects of state structures, Hintze devised a procedure that integrated both social conditions and the effects of foreign policy and power politics into the analysis of the formation of political structures. Hintze’s main concern was to identify the recurring patterns in the development of states by means of a typological and comparative procedure. ‘In the social region, there is a tendency towards regulated organic development: the making of states follows this developmental trend to a certain extent, simultaneously regulating it, but is by no means dependent on it alone.’ Hintze maintained that the implications of ‘power interests’ were not to be underestimated, that the establishment of a state was ‘at least as dependent on its external position of power as on the preconditions of the particular social structure for domestic governmental activity,’ and that the ‘external conditions cannot fail to influence social development.’ It was this ‘political side’ of the formation of political structures which Hintze felt was neglected in any typological theory of states which, following the Aristotelian example, merely tried to identify analogous sequences of state systems. Hintze considered the process of state making to be largely dependent on the ‘interrelations of the states, on the forces prevailing amongst them, on the rise and fall of the neighbouring states,’ i.e., on what Leopold von Ranke had called the ‘great world relationships.’ Hintze considered power as a given category, which—like the phenomenon of state rivalries—he did not attempt to deduce in any further detail. For him, the central aim was to define and register ‘types conditioned by world history’: phenomena observed in groups of states that had maintained close political relations. In this sense, he explained afterwards, he understood state making to be a ‘general, regulative principle,’ thus implying that he did not intend strict rules to be postulated. It seems that in his early writings, Hintze still assumed a cautious primacy of foreign policy factors in the process of state making, but that—remarkable in the history of science—he turned away from this explanatory model over the course of his further research and analysis.

In a whole series of individual studies, whose scope was gradually to broaden, reaching the dimensions of world history in about 1930, Hintze applied and tested his typologically-based comparative approach. He developed what could be termed a spatial-typological procedure, which makes (European) historical development appear to be that of a bonded unit of regions. Above all, Hintze was keenly interested in the differentiation of a ‘core Europe’ (with a close genetic and spatial relationship to the Carolingian Empire) and a ring of ‘peripheral’ countries. He tested this spatial typological and structural historical differentiation at various junctures in his comparative studies of constitutional history—in his works on the history of the European estates, for example. It also becomes apparent in the comparison of continental western and central European absolutism on the one hand and the insular parliamentarianism of England on the other, a differentiation which has admittedly been called into question in recent Anglo-Saxon research. The ‘peripheral’ states of England, Sweden, Poland, and Hungary were of great interest to Hintze on account of their numerous structural parallels, especially where the ‘parliamentarian’ tradition was concerned.

Hintze set himself the aim of writing a comprehensive ‘general comparative constitutional and administrative history of the modern states, namely the Latin and Germanic peoples,’ but the manuscript was no longer published from around 1930 onwards. Central parts of this work were lost after Hintze’s death; the fragments that survived are currently being edited by an international team. New sources reveal that Hintze remained keenly interested in the ‘individuality’ of states and political processes. Of course, the historical legacy of Hintze’s work should not be allowed to conceal his innovative potential.

Otto Hintze sought to establish contact with the systematic contiguous disciplines at an early stage of his career, and not merely in reaction to the traumatic upheaval of political cultures subsequent to the 1914 1918 war. On the contrary, he had already begun to lose interest in the Prussian paradigm in the years preceding the war. His openness to the more modern approaches taken by social history, psychology, and sociology became evident as early as 1900, in the mediating statement he made during the so-called Lamprecht dispute about the relationship of ‘the individualistic and the collectivist conception of history’ (1897). Hintze pointed to the significant contribution made to historiography by Comte and Spencer, both of whom he referred to in his lectures. For Hintze, individuality and collectivity constituted the two poles of historical insight, and he maintained that the methods of social psychology afforded great opportunities to go beyond Ranke. Admittedly, Hintze’s growing interest in the concepts of sociology characterizes him as an outsider among the historians of his time. Hintze’s great 1920s discussions on the theory and philosophy of history, not only with Weber, but also with Oppenheimer, Sombart, and Troeltsch, as well as with the jurists Kelsen and Smend, merely marked the culmination of a continuous development in his work. This is demonstrated, for example, by Hintze’s discussion of Sombart’s Modern Capitalism, in which the Berlin historian also referred to Marx. The extent to which Hintze started from the assumption of a primary, autonomous concept of society is a matter of debate. While he regarded the state as the dominant factor, his later studies and the surviving fragments of manuscripts written prior to 1933 reveal marked changes and a broadening of approach—he now tended towards a concept of society which was not derived from the state alone. For Hintze, social and socioeconomic factors began to gain in causalanalytic significance; the same applies to the concept of class, though Hintze never approached Marxist conceptions with anything but a distant interest. It is thus also a matter of contention whether Hintze’s typological procedure, along with the principle of ‘clear abstraction’ (anschauliche Abstraction), ipso facto neglected the element of dynamics. Hintze’s procedure was related (or rather contiguous) to Weber’s conception of the ideal type (Idealtypus), though always referring to the central question of the individualities of historical developments. It should be noted that Georg Jellinek had made pertinent suggestions for a typological methodology as early as 1900 in his Allgemeine Staatslehre (General Theory of State), and that Hintze was able to develop these ideas in his search for phenomena of ‘relative comparability’ (Kocka). In any case, Hintze saw his work as a necessary supplement to both the legacy of Ranke and modern sociology.

Hintze’s reception of Weber’s writings also predates 1914. Both the strength of his systematic interests and the positioning of methodological boundaries are evident in Hintze’s second unpublished magnum opus, which can only be reconstructed to some extent from lecture notes. After 1920, Hintze had intended to publish this work as a ‘general theory of state and society on a historical basis,’ a continuation of and supplement to his general constitutional history. He had intended to paint a ‘typical picture of the modern state in terms of its shared properties and developmental trends, its various historical stages and individual forms.’ In this ‘policy’ of Hintze, which he evolved in his middle period, the primacy of the state and of the law was (still) very apparent. ‘The state must be considered from the legal, the philosophical, and the historical perspective’—in this order. Social factors were suited and subordinated to this conception. In contrast to his classical studies of comparative constitutional history, in which industry and workers (or the labor movement) played at most a marginal role, Hintze integrated the social developments of the nineteenth century into his ‘policy’ by means of critical discussion of Marx and Lassalle. In so doing, Hintze was able to identify developments in the middle classes and nonmanual occupations that were to be examined in greater detail by later social historians.

All this makes Hintze still of interest to present-day historians. Of course, not all of his works are relevant today, as a brief glance at his political writings will show. However, his openness to the contributions of the social and political sciences—highly unusual among his contemporaries in the field—and the scope of his view, which finally extended beyond eurocentrism, mean that he remains an important, innovative figure in modern political structural history. Admittedly, the reconstruction of his oeuvre is essential to apply his approach in practical research also for further developing his theories, yet this is forever hindered by the fact that central works were never published and can only be substituted and inferred. After 1933 Otto Hintze, who had married the Jewish historian Hedwig Guggenhamer, became a persona non grata in Germany. He ordered that his personal papers should be destroyed after his death, which for the most part they were. Hintze died in his Berlin apartment on April 25, 1940, long since isolated from academic life.


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  2. Hintze O 1908 Historische und politische Aufsatze [Historical and Political Essays]. Verlag Deutsche Bucherei, Berlin, 4 Vols. Hintze O 1962–1967 In: Oestreich G (eds.) Gesammelte Abhandlungen [selected works], 2nd and 3rd edns. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Gottingen, 3 Vols.
  3. Hintze O 1998 Di Costanzo G, Erbe M, Neugebauer W (eds.) Allgemeine Verfassungs und Verwaltungsgeschichte der neueren Staaten. Fragmente [General Constitutional and Administrative History of the Newer States. Fragments]. Palmar, Naples, Italy, Vol. 1
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  5. Kocka J 1981 Otto Hintze, Max Weber und das Problem der Burokratie [Otto Hintze, Max Weber and the problem of bureaucracy]. Historische Zeitschrift 233: 65–105
  6. Neugebauer W 1993 Otto Hintze und seine Konzeption der ‘Allgemeinen Verfassungsgeschichte der Neueren Staaten’ [Otto Hintze and his conception of the ‘General consitutional history of the newer states’]. Zeitschrift fur historische Forschung 20: 65–96
  7. Neugebauer W 1998 Die wissenschaftlichen Anfange Otto Hintzes [The academic origins of Otto Hintze]. Zeitschrift der Sa igny-Stiftung fur Rechtsgeschichte, Germanistische Abteilung 115: 540–51
  8. Neugebauer W 1999 Zum schwierigen Verhaltnis von Geschichts, Staats und Wirtschaftswissenschaften [On the difficult relationship between history, political science and economics]. In:
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  10. Neugebauer W 2000 Zur Quellenlage der Hintze-Forschung [On source material in research on Hintze]. Jahrbuch fur die Geschichte Mittel und Ostdeutschlands 45: 323–38
  11. Oestreich B 1989 Otto Hintze. In: Erbe M (ed.) Berlinische Lebensbilder. Geisteswissenschaftler [Berlin Lives. Arts Scholars]. Colloquim Verlag, Berlin, pp. 287–309
  12. Smith L S 1967 Otto Hintze’s comparative constitutional history of the West. Doctoral dissertation, Saint Louis, MI
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