5. The nationalization of history

Ranke was no opponent of macro-scale history. As early as 1830, he stated that it was his life task to write a universal history that would embrace both cultural and political subjects.[1] Only in 1880 did he start to work on this project, of which only some volumes were published in 1886; the year of his death. In the heydays of his career, Ranke’s research was characterized by a more national orientation. Ranke was interested in national history for what it said about the history of the world. He regarded universal history to be the account of interaction between different nations. For that reason, the faith of nation-states needed to be studied by examining state documents that provided first-hand insights into international politics. The seminar that trained students to examine primary sources of state politics served as a gateway to understanding universal history.

However, in the political climate of nineteenth-century Prussia, Ranke’s conception of the nation as a unique and autonomous historical entity was isolated and emphasized on its own right. German nationalism, which strived to unify the German lands, dominated the political scene. Ranke’s historical philosophy was suited for this political agenda as he stressed the unique character of each nation, which he considered to be formed after God’s will. Ranke argued that every nation needed to develop according to its own inner principles and fulfil its own inner purpose. Radical alterations of a nation’s development needed to be avoided. Therefore Ranke opposed democratic reform and social revolution. This conservative stance coincided with German nationalism, which had parted with the liberalist trajectory after the Frankfurt Assembly of 1848 had failed to accomplish German unification.

In the process of ‘nationalizing’ the study of history, an important part was played by Johann Gustav Droysen (1808-1884). Droysen joined Ranke at the University of Berlin in 1859. There he acquired the status of the second men of German historiography, standing only one step below Ranke, who was considered the prince of the historical profession.[2] Droysen was active in establishing a historical philosophy that served to guard historical scholarship from merging with other scientific methods. He declared that the object of historical study was ‘the moral world’. This was a realm that was defined by moral actions that came from free will and human choice. Natural forces and laws played no part. Historical research thus was a hermeneutic act of Verstehen, which is reconstructing the actions of historical actors by understanding their true intentions, rather than seeking general laws of historical development as if history was like the natural sciences. Droysen believed that moral forces unfolded progressively throughout history and thereby integrated all ages into one ethical framework. In his understanding of history as the progressive movement of moral forces, Droysen was indebted to Hegel, whose student he had been. At this point, Droysen clashed with Ranke. The teleological integration of different eras by the theme of unfolding moral forces was at odds with Ranke’s conviction that every age needed to be judged independently. “Every age is immediate to God”, Ranke had stated in this respect.[3]

Droysen’s understanding of history was intertwined with German nationalist politics. He identified the German state as the highest moral imperative of historical development. In this perception, the historian had an active part to play in guiding the German nation towards the goal of political unification. This philosophy became the main principles of the historians that gathered under the label of the ‘Prussian school’. The Prussian school of historical scholarship had a close connection to the Prussian state. Historians and politicians resided in the same elitist circles, and shared the goal of German unification under Prussian leadership. The Prussian historians declared the state as the primary object of historical research. Other potential subjects of historical study, such as social topics, were discarded as irrelevant. Such a view corresponded with the political conviction that the state needed to guide and society needed to follow. Prussian historians and politicians agreed that the mutually desired German unification should be implemented from the top down

The support of the Prussian state allowed the Prussian school to expand history as an independent academic discipline. The number of academic chairs in history sharply increased in the second half of the nineteenth century. Evidently, the state supported academic system heavily favoured the Prussian perspective of history. Specialization was favoured over interdisciplinary synthesis. The historian was desired to remain strictly within the bounds of the discipline of (political) history, thereby safeguarding the academic independence of historical scholarship. The establishment of history as a professional and independent academic discipline, founded on the principles of the Prussian school, planted the seed for the academic bias against macro-scale and supra-national history. The political motivations also outlined the practical possibilities for historical research. Archives were built in the framework of the developing nation-state, so historical sources were estimated and preserved according to their national relevancy.

Present politics and historical telos came together in the German unification of 1871. Hereafter, political activism of the Prussian school waned, but the main contours of its perception of historical research remained. The method of critical source study taught in the seminar, as established by Ranke, combined with the nationalist orientation of the Prussian school became the norm for historical scholarship in Germany. The University of Berlin became the epicentre of German historical research. From here, students set out to become professors at other universities, spreading the principles of Ranke and the Prussian school over Germany. The history of national politics, studied by the critical examination of political documents, became the standard subject of academic historical scholarship.

The nationalist posture of Prussian historical scholarship may also have resulted from a relative lack of empire. The international influence of Prussia, and later the German Empire, stayed well behind that of Britain and France, who had possessions on all five continents. Such global empires both required and delivered historical knowledge of non-Western lands and cultures. As a consequence, German historiography had a narrower national focus than historical scholarship in Britain or France.

In the 1880s, Cambridge and Oxford offered multiple courses on the history of India and the East, focusing on periods from both before and after European colonization.[4] At Oxford there was a chair in Indian history, and at Cambridge one course focused on the two-way influence between England and India. In Germany there also were courses on Asian history, but these were – on average – not very common. Of the fifteen German universities that were offering history in 1881, only two had a course on “the History of Oriental Peoples”, while all but one offered at least one course on the history of Germany or Prussia.[5]

Although Germany had no grand international empire, its desire to have one did inspire some works that were world history in name. Hans Delbrück (1848-1929) – a Berlin-based historian that was closely involved in nationalist politics[6] – sought to produce world history to serve the imperialistic aims of the German Empire.[7] From 1924, Delbrück published a five-volume “Weltgeschichte”, composed of his lectures given at the University of Berlin from 1896 to 1920.[8] Delbrück was a military historian, and war was the main theme of his work.

Each of the five volumes of Delbrück’s work represents another era. The first volume (sub-titled Altertum, bis 300 n. Chr.) discusses the conventional topics from ancient history: from Egypt and Babylonian, via the Greek world, to the Roman Empire. The second volume (Mittelalter, 300-1400) debates Medieval Europe; looking at the rise of Christianity, and the deeds of the German, French, and English medieval monarchies. It briefly leaves Europe by discussing the Islamic prophet Mohammed and the foundation of an Arab nation-state. Volume three (Neuere Zeit, 1400-1789) deals with the fall of Constantinople, further wars between European nations, the Renaissance, Reformation and Counterreformation, and the Wars of Religion; up to the time of Friedrich the Great. The fourth volume (Revolutionsperiode, 1789-1852) is all about European revolutions; from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, to the European revolutions of the early nineteenth century and the new political movements that sprung from these. The final volume (Neueuzeit, 1852-1894) begins with the reign of Napoleon III and the Crimean War, but thereafter basically becomes mere German national history: discussing Bismarck, the War of 1866, the North German Confederation, the French-Prussian War of 1871, German unification, to conclude with a chapter on “Nationalism and Imperialism under the reign of Wilhelm II”.

The “world history” of Delbrück thus was not only extremely Eurocentric (the chapters on Ancient Egypt, Babylon, the Punic Wars, and the Arabs were the only indications that there existed something outside the European continent); it also grew increasingly ‘German-centric’ as it proceeded. Despite its title, the work of Delbrück focused on political and military history of European nation-states and thus was typical for the scholarship of the Prussian school. The German desire for empire may have produced works that were titled “world history”, but without any practical knowledge from regions outside of the West, these remained European and German histories in disguise.

What a greater international influence of English academics could have meant was demonstrated at the University of Göttingen, where in 1882 Reinhold Pauli (1823-1882) taught a course on the English colonies in Hindustan that also included an outline of the history of the Indian peninsula before the arrival of the Europeans.[9] Pauli had lived many years in England, and thus had brought with him the English perspective of history as he went back to lecture in his home country. It indicates that early European academic historiography could have had a wider geographical scope if it had been the English universities that had attracted the bulk of international students and scholars. However, as will appear on the next page, it were the German institutions of higher education that managed to do so instead.

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[1] Iggers and Von Moltke, Leopold von Ranke, xxxvii.

[2] Roger Chickering, Karl Lamprecht: A German Academic Life (1856-1915) (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1993) 31.

[3] Georg G. Iggers, Historiography: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (1997; repr., Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2005) 29-30.

[4] This appears from the travel accounts of Belgian historian Paul Fredericq, who in the 1880s made visits to history faculties in England, Scotland, Germany, France, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, and his native Belgium. See: Paul Fredericq, The Study of History in England and Scotland, trans. Henrietta Leonard (Baltimore: Publication Agency of the John Hopkins University, 1887) 18, 28-29, 32-33.

[5] Fredericq provided a table of all German-language universities that were offering history in 1881, but only fifteen of these (of a total of 23) were at the time located within the German Empire. See: Paul Fredericq, The Study of History in Germany and France, trans. Henrietta Leonard (Baltimore: Publication Agency of the John Hopkins University, 1890) 43.

[6] Georg G. Iggers, The German Conception of History: The National Tradition of Historical Thought from Herder to the Present (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1968) 176.

[7] Stuchtey and Fuchs, Writing World History, 6.

[8] Hans Delbrück, Weltgeschichte: Vorlesungen gehalten an der Universität Berlin 1896/1920. 2nd print (1924; repr., Berlin: Deutsche Berlagsgesellschaft, 1931).

[9] Fredericq, The Study of History in Germany and France, 34.