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Leopold von Ranke

Leopold von Ranke
Portrait of Leopold von Ranke, by Adolf Jebens, 1875
Born (1795-12-21)21 December 1795
Died 23 May 1886(1886-05-23)
Nationality German
Alma mater University of Leipzig

Leopold von Ranke (;[1] German: ; 21 December 1795 – 23 May 1886) was a German historian[2][3] and a founder of modern source-based history.[4][5] According to Caroline Hoefferle, "Ranke was probably the most important historian to shape [the] historical profession as it emerged in Europe and the United States in the late 19th century."[6] He was able to implement the seminar teaching method in his classroom and focused on archival research and analysis of historical documents. Ranke set the standards for much of later historical writing, introducing such ideas as reliance on primary sources (empiricism), an emphasis on narrative history and especially international politics (Außenpolitik).


  • Overview 1
  • Methodology and criticism 2
  • Selected works 3
    • Works in English translation 3.1
  • See also 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


Ranke was born in Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and Friedrich Schlegel. Ranke showed little interest in the work of modern history because of his dissatisfaction with what he regarded as history books that were merely a collection of facts lumped together by modern historians.

Between 1817–1825 Ranke worked as a schoolmaster teaching classics at the Friedrichs Gymnasium in Frankfurt an der Oder. During this time, he became interested in history, in part because of his desire to be involved in the developing field of a more professionalized history, and in part because of his desire to find the hand of God in the workings of history.

In 1824 he launched his career with his book Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1514 (History of the Latin and Teutonic Peoples from 1494 to 1514), in which he used an unusually wide variety of sources for a historian of the age, including "memoirs, diaries, personal and formal missives, government documents, diplomatic dispatches and first-hand accounts of eye-witnesses". In this sense he leaned on the traditions of philology but emphasized mundane documents instead of old and exotic literature.[8]

Ranke began his book with the statement in the introduction that he would show the unity of the experiences of the "Teutonic" nations of [10] Ranke went on to write that the historian must seek the "Holy hieroglyph" that is God's hand in history, keeping an "eye for the universal" whilst taking "pleasure in the particular".[11]

In 1825 after the minister of education was impressed with the work of a historian who didn't have access to the nation's great public libraries, Ranke was given a position in the Berlin, Ranke became the first historian to utilize the forty-seven volumes that comprised the diplomatic archives of Venice from the 16th century and 17th centuries. Since many archives opened up during this time he sent out his students to these places to recruit information. In his classrooms he would discuss the sources that his students would find and would emphasize that history should be told "the way it happened." Because of this he is often seen as "the pioneer of a critical historical science."[12] Ranke came to prefer dealing with primary sources as opposed to secondary sources during this time. Ranke later wrote "I see the time approaching when we shall base modern history, no longer on the reports even of contemporary historians, except in-so-far as they were in the possession of personal and immediate knowledge of facts; and still less on work yet more remote from the source; but rather on the narratives of eyewitnesses, and on genuine and original documents."[13]

It was in Vienna where the friendship of Frederich von Gentz and the protection of Klemens von Metternich opened to him the Venetian Archives, a virgin source, the value of which he first discovered, and which is still not exhausted. He found time to write a short book on Die Serbische Revolution (1829) from material supplied to him by Vuk Karadžić, a Serb who had himself been witness of the scenes he related during the First Serbian Uprising in 1804. This was afterwards expanded into Serbien und die Turkei im 19 Jahrhundert (1879).

In 1832–36, at the behest of the Prussian government, Ranke founded and edited the Historische-Politische Zeitschrift journal. Ranke, who was a conservative, used the journal to attack the ideas of Liberalism. In his 1833 article "The Great Powers" and his 1836 article "Dialogue on Politics", Ranke claimed that every state is given a special moral character from God and individuals should strive to best fulfill the "idea" of their state. Thus, in this way, Ranke urged his readers to stay loyal to the Prussian state and reject the ideas of the French Revolution, which Ranke claimed were meant for France only.

In 1834–36 Ranke published Die römischen Päpste, ihre kirche und ihr Staat im sechzehnten und siebzehnten Jahrhundert (The Popes of Rome, Their Church and State in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries) (3 vols.). As a Protestant, Ranke was barred from viewing the Vatican archives in Rome, but on the basis of private papers in Rome and Venice, he was able to explain the history of the papacy in the 16th century. In this book, Ranke coined the term the Counter Reformation, and offered colorful portrayals of Pope Paul IV, Ignatius of Loyola, and Pope Pius V. It contains the sentence: "I see the time coming when we will base modern history no longer on secondhand reports, or even on contemporary historians, save where they had direct knowledge, and still less on works yet more distant from the period; but rather on eyewitness accounts and on the most genuine, the most immediate, sources." The papacy denounced Ranke's book as anti-Catholic, while many Protestants denounced it as not anti-Catholic enough,, but he has been generally praised by historians for placing the situation of the Roman Catholic Church in the context of the 16th century and for his fair treatment of the complex interaction of the political and religious issues in that century. British Roman Catholic historian Lord Acton defended Ranke's book as the most fair-minded, balanced, and objective study ever written on the papacy of the 16th century.

In 1841, his fame in acendancy, Ranke was appointed Royal Historiographer to the Prussian court. In 1845 he became member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.[14]

In 1847–48 he published Neun Bücher preussicher Geschichte (translated as Memoirs of the House of Brandenburg and History of Prussia, during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries), in which he examined the fortunes of the Hohenzollern family and state from the Middle Ages to the reign of Frederick the Great. Many Prussian nationalists were offended by Ranke's portrayal of Prussia as a typical medium-sized German state rather than as a great power.

In 1852–61 he published French History Mainly in the 16th and 17th Centuries (5 vols.), covering Francis I to Louis XIV, gaining him more praise for his impartiality despite being German.

In 1854 in a series of lectures[15] given before future King Maximilian II of Bavaria, Ranke argued that "every age is next to God", by which he meant that every period of history is unique and must be understood in its own context. He argued that God gazes over history in its totality and finds all periods equal. Ranke rejected the teleological approach to history, by which each period is considered inferior to the period which follows. Thus, the Middle Ages were not inferior to the Renaissance, simply different. In Ranke's view, the historian had to understand a period on its own terms, and seek to find only the general ideas which animated every period of history. For Ranke, then, history was not to be an account of man's "progress" because, "After Plato, there can be no more Plato." For Ranke, Christianity was morally most superior and could not be improved upon. Ultimately, "History is no criminal court."

In 1854–57 Ranke published History of the Reformation in Germany (Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation), using the 96 volumes of correspondence from ambassadors to the Imperial Diet he found in Frankfurt to explain the Reformation in Germany as the result of both politics and religion.

In 1859–67 he published the 6-volume History of England Principally in the Seventeenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Englische Geschichte vornehmlich im XVI and XVII Jahrhundert), followed by an expanded 9-volume edition in 1870-4, extending his huge reach even farther. At this point he was eighty years old, and had shot his bolt, devoting the rest of his career to shorter treatises on German history that supplement his earlier writings.

Ranke in 1877

The honors poured in. In 1865 Ranke was ennobled, in 1882 appointed a Prussian Privy Councillor, and in 1885 given an honorary citizenship of Berlin. In 1884 he was appointed the first honorary member of the American Historical Association. After his retirement in 1871, Ranke continued to write on a variety of subjects relating to German history such as the French Revolutionary Wars, Albrecht von Wallenstein, Karl August von Hardenberg,[16] and King Frederick William IV of Prussia. Starting in 1880 Ranke began a huge 6-volume work on World History, which began with ancient Egypt and the Israelites. By the time of Ranke's death in Berlin in 1886, at the age of 90, he had reached only the 12th century, though his assistants later used his notes to take the series up to 1453.

After his wife died in 1871, Ranke became half-blind, depending on assistants to read to him. A diary entry from January 1877 contains his mature thoughts about being a historian:[17]

The proverb tells us that poets are born. Not only in the arts, but even in some scholarly fields, young men develop into full bloom, or at least display their originality. Musicians and mathematicians have the expectation of attaining eminence in early years. But a historian must be old, not only because of the immeasurable extent of his field of study, but because of the insight into the historical process which a long life confers, especially under changing conditions. It would hardly be bearable for him to have only a short span of experience. For his personal development requires that great events complete their course before his eyes, that others collapse, that new forms be attempted.

Methodology and criticism

At the core of his method, Ranke did not believe that general theories could cut across time and space. Instead, he made statements about the time using quotations from primary sources. He said, "My understanding of 'leading ideas' is simply that they are the dominant tendencies in each century. These tendencies, however, can only be described; they can not, in the last resort, be summed up in a concept." Ranke objected to philosophy of history, particularly as practiced by Hegel, claiming that Hegel ignored the role of human agency in history, which was too essential to be "characterized through only one idea or one word" or "circumscribed by a concept."[18] This lack of emphasis on unifying theories or themes led some to denigrate his "mindless empiricism." In the 19th century, Ranke's work was very popular and his ideas about historical practice gradually became dominant in western historiography. However, he had critics among his contemporaries, including Karl Marx, a former Hegelian, who suggested that Ranke engaged in some of the practices he criticized in other historians.

While Ranke's methods remain influential in the practice of history, his broader ideas of historiography and empiricism are now regarded by some as outdated and no longer credible. It held sway among historians until the mid-20th century, when it was challenged by E. H. Carr and Fernand Braudel. Carr opposed Ranke's ideas of empiricism as naive, boring and outmoded, saying that historians did not merely report facts, they choose which facts they use. Braudel's approach was based on the histoire problème. Remarking on the legacy of Ranke's dictum that historians should represent the past "wie es eigentlich gewesen" (as it actually happened),[19] Walter Benjamin scathingly wrote that it represented "the strongest narcotic of the [nineteenth] century".[20]

Selected works

  • Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1514 ("History of the Romanic and Germanic Peoples from 1494 to 1514", 1824)
  • Serbische Revolution ("Serbian Revolution", 1829)
  • Fürsten und Völker von Süd-Europa im sechzehnten und siebzehnten Jahrhundert ("Princes and Peoples of Southern Europe in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries")[21]
  • Die römischen Päpste in den letzen vier Jahrhunderten ("The Roman Popes in the Last Four Centuries", 1834–1836)
  • Neun Bücher preussischer Geschichte (Memoirs of the House of Brandenburg and History of Prussia, during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, 1847–1848)
  • Französische Geschichte, vornehmlich im sechzehnten und siebzehnten Jahrhundert (Civil Wars and Monarchy in France, in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: A History of France Principally During That Period, 1852–1861)
  • Die deutschen Mächte und der Fürstenbund ("The German Powers and the Princes' League", 1871–1872)
  • Ursprung und Beginn der Revolutionskriege 1791 und 1792 (Origin and Beginning of the Revolutionary Wars 1791 and 1792, 1875)
  • Hardenberg und die Geschichte des preussischen Staates von 1793 bis 1813 (Hardenberg and the History of the Prussian State from 1793 to 1813, 1877)
  • Weltgeschichte - Die Römische Republik und ihre Weltherrschaft (World history: The Roman Republic and Its World Rule, 2 volumes, 1886)

Works in English translation

  • The Ottoman and the Spanish Empires, in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Whittaker & Co., 1943.
  • Memoirs of the House of Brandenburg and History of Prussia During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, John Murray, 1849.
  • Civil Wars and Monarchy in France, in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Richard Bentley, 1852.
  • The History of Servia and the Servian Revolution, Henry G. Bohn, 1853.
  • History of England Principally in the Seventeenth Century, Volume Two, Volume Three, Volume Four, Volume Five, Volume Six, Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1875.[22]
  • Universal History: The Oldest Historical Group of Nations and the Greeks, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1884.
  • History of the Popes: Their Church and State, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, P. F. Collier & Son, 1901.
  • History of the Reformation in Germany, George Routledge & Sons, 1905.
  • History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations, 1494-1514, George Bell & Sons, 1909.
  • The Secret of World History: Selected Writings on the Art and Science of History, Roger Wines, ed., Fordham University Press, 1981.

See also


  1. ^ "Ranke". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
  2. ^ Frederick C. Beiser (2011) The German Historicist Tradition, p.254
  3. ^ Janelle G. Reinelt, Joseph Roach (2007), Critical Theory and Performance, p. 193
  4. ^ Stern (ed.), The Varieties of History, p. 54: "Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) is the father as well as the master of modern historical scholarship."
  5. ^ Green and Troup (eds.), The Houses of History, p. 2: "Leopold von Ranke was instrumental in establishing professional standards for historical training at the University of Berlin between 1824 and 1871."
  6. ^ Caroline Hoefferle, Essential Historiography Reader (Boston: Pearson, 2011).68.
  7. ^
  8. ^ Ranke, "Preface to the First Edition of Histories of the Latin and German Nations" in "The Modern Historiography Reader, Western Sources", pp172
  9. ^ Ranke, "Preface: Histories of the Latin and Germanic Nations from 1494-1514", in Stern, The Varieties of History, p.57.
  10. ^ Novick, That Noble Dream, pp. 21-31; Iggers, "Introduction" to Ranke, Theory and Practice, pp. xix-xx; Evans, In Defence of History, p. 17: "The German phrase which Ranke used- 'Wie es eigentlich gewesen'-is better translated as 'how it essentially was', for Ranke meant not that he just wanted to collect facts, but that he sought to understand the inner being of the past."
  11. ^ Ranke, "A Fragment from the 1830s", in Stern, The Varieties of History, p. 59: "Two qualities, I think, are required for the making of the true historian: first he must feel a participation and pleasure in the particular for itself ... Still, this does not suffice; the historian must keep his eye on the universal aspect of things."
  12. ^ Ernst Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, Third Edition (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2007).233.
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Prince Hardenberg's Memoirs," The Edinburgh Review, Vol. CXLVI, July/October 1877.
  17. ^
  18. ^ Von Ranke (1973), p.27.
  19. ^ Stephen Houlgate, Michael Baur (2011), A Companion to Hegel, p. 334
  20. ^
  21. ^ "Turkey," The North American Review, Vol. XXXI, 1830.
  22. ^ "Von Ranke, Pattison, Spedding, Gardiner," The Quarterly Review, Vol. CXXXIX, July/October 1875.
  23. ^


  • Bourne, Edward Gaylord (1896). "Leopold Von Ranke." The Sewanee Review, Vol. 4, No. 4, pp. 385–401.
  • Bourne, Edward Gaylord (1901). "Ranke and the Beginning of the Seminary Method in Teaching History." In: Essays in Historical Criticism. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, pp. 265–274.
  • Dalberg-Acton, John Emerich Edward (1907). "German Schools of History." In: Historical Essays and Studies. London: Macmillan & Co.
  • Farrenkopf, John (1991). "The Challenge of Spenglerian Pessimism to Ranke and Political Realism," Review of International Studies, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 267–284.
  • Fitzsimons, M. A. (1980). "Ranke: History as Worship," The Review of Politics, Vol. 42, No. 4, pp. 533–555.
  • Gilbert, Felix (1986). "Leopold von Ranke and the American Philosophical Society," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 130, No. 3, pp. 362–366.
  • Gilbert, Felix (1987). "Historiography: What Ranke Meant," The American Scholar, Vol. 56, No. 3, pp. 393–397.
  • Guilland, Antoine (1915). "Leopold von Ranke." In: Modern Germany and her Historians. New York: McBride, Nast & Company, pp. 68–119.
  • Iggers, Georg (1962). "The Image of Ranke in American and German Historical Thought," History and Theory, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 17–40.
  • Krieger, Leonard (1975). "Elements of Early Historicism: Experience, Theory, and History in Ranke," History and Theory, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 1–14.
  • Lincoln, John Larkin (1894). "The Historian Leopold von Ranke," In Memorian: John Larkin Lincoln. Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Company, pp. 568–584.
  • Price, William (1897). "A Contribution toward a Bibliography of Leopold von Ranke," Annual Report of the American Historical Association, Vol. I, pp. 1265–1274.
  • Rüsen, Jörn (1990). "Rhetoric and Aesthetics of History: Leopold von Ranke," History and Theory, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 190–204.
  • Schevill, Ferdinand (1952). "Ranke: Rise, Decline, and Persistence of a Reputation," The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 219–234.

External links

  • Leopold von Ranke, from Humboldt University of Berlin website
  • Leopold von Ranke historicism, from "Age of the Sage" website.
  • Leopold von Ranke's papers at Syracuse University; Ranke's personal library, containing many works by lesser known writers on historical, political and literary subjects of the 16th to 19th centuries, was also donated to the University's Rare Books department.
  • Williams, H. S. (1907). The historians' history of the world. Volume XV. (ed., this volume covers Leopold von Ranke on Page 633.)
  • Works by Leopold von Ranke at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Leopold von Ranke at Internet Archive
  • Works by Leopold von Ranke at Hathi Trust
  • Works by Leopold von Ranke at Europeana
  • Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1514 by Leopold von Ranke at the Internet Archive
  • Biography of Ranke, 1901 by William Robinson Clark
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