4. Prussian reform and Leopold von Ranke

In the early nineteenth century, the opposition between cosmopolitan and particular visions of history sharpened as they were equated with the political distinction between France and the German lands. In 1806, Prussia faced military defeat by the hands of Napoleon’s army. Because the cosmopolitan ideals of the Enlightenment had motivated French expansion into Germany and the eradication of German institutions, the Germans felt instigated to develop their “German” alternative to “French” Enlightenment philosophy. French rule of Europe was based on principles of uniformity and universal rationalism. Tradition and diversity were considered obstacles that had to be cleared in the rational reordering of European institutions. In the philosophy of the French Grande Empire, the past and present equally had to be judged by the same set of rationalist norms and principles, without discriminating by place. The German countermovement emphasized a German identity in contrast to a French one, based on the particularity of German history. The study of history became the tool of intellectual resistance to French rule. This movement did not lead to an independent historical discipline right away, but rather found its expression in a broad range of German humanities.

Prussia’s downfall also motivated the Prussian state to reinforce its national backbone in order to avoid future defeats by foreign powers. It aimed to do so by creating a society of informed and dedicated citizens.[1] To achieve this goal, the educational system was subjected to drastic reform. Concerned with the execution of this task was scholar and state official Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). In 1810, as part of the large-scale reform operation, Von Humboldt founded the University of Berlin (the current Humboldt University). This institution can be regarded as the cradle of the academic historical scholarship as it still exists today.

Scholarship at the University of Berlin parted with the ways of the foregoing century. In eighteenth-century Europe, historical writing had expanded beyond the aristocratic circle of whose financial support the historian heretofore was dependent and found a broad readership in society. Historians began to choose their topics accordingly. Cultural history thrived because it was the most popular historical genre among the masses. The century also saw an expansion of historical instruction in the university, but academic history in the eighteenth century equally had a public and popular function. University lectures were freely accessible, and the audience expected to be entertained by a well-presented panoramic overview of the past. Academic instruction had the form of public performances of which the subject matter was speculative grand-scale history. That changed in Berlin. Von Humboldt envisioned an academic institution based on the principles of Wissenschaft and Bildung. The University of Berlin would be dedicated to empirical research of which the results would form the foundation of the curriculum. Research and teaching were brought together under the same roof.

Von Humboldt’s dedication to empirical research did not mean that there no longer was a place for speculation in historical scholarship. Von Humboldt considered a historical event to be only partially visible in the world of the senses. The rest of it had to be revealed by intuition, inference, and guesswork.[2] Hence, in Von Humboldt’s eyes, the task of the historian was twofold.[3] Initially the historian had to sort out the historical facts by empirical investigation. Thereafter he had to construct the inner-causal nexus between the facts that could not be perceived by the senses. The disjoined fragments of direct observation had to be connected by use of the historian’s imagination. Von Humboldt insisted that without making this step beyond direct observation, the historian could be sure that his account would not contain truth. Using its imagination did not mean that the historian could just make something up. According to Von Humboldt, the historian differed from the poet because the historian let his imagination steer by his awareness of the laws of necessity.

In 1824, Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) wrote the Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1514. In the preface of that work, Ranke pleaded that historical accounts should be firmly rooted in empirical research of primary sources. Ranke opposed the perception of Hegel (who he would later join at the University of Berlin) that deductive reasoning was the method to gain knowledge of the past. Historical truth needed to be built from the ground up. This, however, did not mean that Ranke opposed all speculation. His advocacy for primary research should be seen against the background of German idealism. Ranke stressed that history was always concerned with the particular and unique. To discover the unique nature of a historical person, state or institution, empirical research was essential, but not sufficient. Eventually, the character of all individual historical subjects was determined by its spirit, which the historian could only reconstruct by conjecturing.

Ranke’s historical philosophy resembled that of Von Humboldt. In 1825, Ranke, who at the time was teaching at the gymnasium of Frankfurt an der Oder, was offered a professorship at the University of Berlin. Here Ranke made his mark by introducing the seminar. This was a private class where the professor introduced a select number of students into the art of critical and meticulous examination of primary sources. The seminar stood in sharp contrast with the grand-scale public orations that hitherto had characterized academic historical instruction. Participation was restricted. Sometimes even some (weaker) students were not allowed to attend, let alone the general public. There was no strict separation between orator and audience. Students were encouraged to discuss the class’s subject with the professor and their peers. The professor acted as a primus inter pares among his students, with whom he often developed a personal relationship. The seminars did not only inform students about past events, but taught the skill of critical primary research in order to make students capable of examining those events themselves. Becoming a professional historian came to mean being initiated in the art of original source study. The seminar helped to form a closed and specialized community of academic historians.

Ranke’s approach to history was not only a product of German Romantic philosophy favouring the small and the particular. It also had roots in Enlightenment scholarship, going back to the work of the German philologist Friedrich August Wolf (1759-1824). In his Prolegomena to Homer (1795), Wolf presented an analysis of language and style to demonstrate that the contemporary versions of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were not the original work of one poet, but over time had undergone multiple adjustments by several authors.[4] Wolf was an important inspiration for the classical historian Georg Barthold Niebuhr (1776-1831). The Danish-born Niebuhr identified the entire period of (Roman) antiquity as his object of study; which he submitted to critical examination by means of Wolf’s philological approach. He rejected earlier accounts on Roman history for too heavily relying on secondary source-material.

Niebuhr’s holistic notion of period (requiring the study of a period in its entirety) was elaborated by law student Friedrich Carl von Savigny (1779-1861). Von Savigny was a staunch opponent of the French concept of universal law. He stressed that laws had to be understood in relation to the particular societies in which they were created. From this it followed that societies and civilizations were essentially different from each other, and needed to be studied as mutually independent, organic entities. Both Niebuhr and Von Savigny were appointed at the University of Berlin in 1810, the years of its foundation.

Ranke was influenced by both Niebuhr and Von Savigny. The notion of unique and independent periods corresponded to the philosophy of German romanticism, and went against the Enlightenment concept of universality. Yet the means by which these periods had to be studied were inherited from the critical approach that had been developed in the rationalist spirit of the Enlightenment. Ranke’s double rationalist-romantic inheritance paved the way for wide Rankean influence. Because Ranke’s ideas of history could be approached from both the ‘rationalist’ and the ‘idealist’ side, different intellectual trends and schools could adopt the German historian; emphasizing the aspects of his historical philosophy that best fitted their own agenda or philosophy.

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[1] Iggers and Wang, A Global History of Modern Historiography, 23.

[2] Georg G. Iggers and Konrad von Moltke, Leopold von Ranke: the Theory and Practice of History (Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1973) xliv.

[3] Wilhelm von Humboldt, ‘On the Historian’s Task’ (1822), translated by Louis O. Mink, History and Theory 6 (1967). Republished in: Adam Budd (ed.), The Modern Historiography Reader, Western Sources (New York: Routledge, 2009) 167-171.

[4] Woolf, A Global History of History, 334; Iggers and Wang, A Global History of Modern Historiography, 24.