6. The spread of the Prussian model

The Prussian model of historical scholarship, and Ranke’s fame with it, did not stay confined to Germany. For several reasons German scholarship had a strong attraction on foreign students. German professors enjoyed higher prestige than their foreign colleagues, mostly due to their high salaries that were made possible by state funding, which also made student tuition much lower than elsewhere. Furthermore, German universities were religiously neutral institutions with the focus on scholarship. English universities, on the other hand, for a long time were concerned with the upbringing of good Christian gentlemen rather than the training of scholars, and up to 1871 required their students to sign the thirty-nine articles of the Anglican Church.[1] German universities also offered the possibility to earn a degree, which wasn’t yet possible in other Western countries such as France and the United States. In contrast to some places, the German institutions of higher learning also stood out by the mere possibility for foreign students to go there. The French Grand Écoles, for example, did not allow foreign students to enrol until 1896.[2]

Foreign students came to Germany in the hundreds, especially from the United States. It is estimated that in 1895 half of all American professional historians had studied in Germany.[3] When these foreign students went back home, they took the Rankean methodology with them. From the late 1860s to the beginning of the twentieth century, students from the Rankean school introduced the seminar in universities all over Europe, the United States, and even Japan. Although by the end of the nineteenth century few historians still had been taught by the master himself, Leopold von Ranke remained to be honoured internationally as the father of modern historical scholarship.[4]

Also France, Germany’s fiercest political rival, would eventually adhere to the German example of higher education. In 1893, the German philosopher Friedrich Paulsen (1846-1908) suggested that because the Germans lagged behind France and Britain on the international political stage, they had been encouraged to seek for development within instead.[5] What Germany lacked in global political power, he argued, it made up by the spiritual upbringing of its people. Whether or not this analysis was accurate, it were the German universities, not the French schools and faculties, that were the leading European intellectual institutions in the nineteenth century. In France itself, it was already noted in the 1860s that the country was falling behind the German lands when it came to education, but governmental financial backing for reform was not yet granted.

The French call for educational reforms only became urgent after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, as France’s military defeat was considered to be a reflection of moral and intellectual inferiority to the German enemy. Government funds for higher education now became widely available. German education subsequently formed the standard after which the French schools and faculties were reformed. Student scholarships were widely granted and the institution of the thesis was installed. The national government backed numerous professorships, among which several dedicated to La Méthode historique. The defeat of 1871 left French intellectuals with a certain degree of fascination for their German rivals, and many French historians went to study at a German university. Also Ernest Lavisse (1842-1922) and Gabriel Monod (1844-1912), prominent figures among the first generation of French academic historians who would become instrumental in establishing academic historical education in France, received their training in historical source study in German seminars.

When French historians from a new generation criticized the reforms that had been taken place from the 1870s onwards, it was because it was not following the Prussian model close enough. In 1910, the medievalist Ferdinand Lot (1866-1952) stated that French education and research kept lagging behind Germany, which he explained by the near absence in France of seminars according to the Prussian model. It had taken a French victory in a Franco-Prussian war to establish the ‘Prussian model’ in the German lands. It took a Prussian victory in a Franco-Prussian war to install that model in France.

Despite his renown, Ranke’s international followers did not always interpret his ideas correctly. In the preface of his 1824 history of the Roman and Germanic peoples, Ranke famously noted that it was the historian’s task to reconstruct wie es eigentlich gewesen. This line was initially translated to English as “how it has actually been”, and in this form it became the credo of the modern historian in the English-speaking world. More recently, however, historians have pointed out the ambiguous meaning of the German term eigentlich in the nineteenth century and have argued that “how it has essentially been” is a more accurate translation of Ranke’s most famous phrase.[6] Also Ranke’s call to turn history into a Wissenschaft was subject of misinterpretation. In nineteenth-century Germany, the meaning of this term resembled that of the English word “discipline” rather than “science”, yet it was in the latter way that Ranke’s colleagues from the Anglo-Saxon world understood it. Ranke was seen as a champion of pure empirical research who refuted any theory and speculation. Ranke was identified with positivism, the philosophy that claimed that the humanities should follow the way of the natural sciences: seeking general laws by the method of mere empirical research.

Ironically, in Germany the Rankean school of history was considered the very opposite of positivism. Ranke himself had renounced that history could be modelled after the natural sciences. The individuality and uniqueness of all historical subjects excluded the possibility of constructing general historical laws. Neither was Ranke hostile to theory or speculation, because he saw empirical research only as half of the historian’s task. The deviant reception of Ranke in North America and the United Kingdom had much to do with the dominance of an analytical tradition in the English-speaking world, which went back to Bacon’s inductionism. Theory was considered a pointless distraction. Truth could be found in direct and undistorted observation. The strong position of this philosophy was due to the many tangible results of scientific endeavour in the United States and Great Britain, which very early on in the nineteenth century enjoyed a high level of technological and industrial development. The idea of progress, as it unfolded under one’s very eyes, was far from dead. Further, inductive methodology produced great scientific results throughout the nineteenth century in the works of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, Charles Lyell, and James Clerk Maxwell. The ideas of Ranke were – unknowingly – distorted to be incorporated into Anglo-Saxon philosophy. The extent of Ranke’s influence on historians in the United States and Britain was comparable to that in Germany, yet the Ranke in his native country was very different from the one across the seas.

The Rankean school (or the distorted perception of the Rankean school) delivered the founding principles of academic history in many countries. State support, community building through the seminar, and (assumed) scientific pretensions by empirical research, made it a very attractive model for the establishment of a discipline that was academic, professional, and relatively independent from other branches of knowledge. Academic history thus internationally was established on ideals and ideas that were hostile to macro-scale and supra-national historiography.

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[1] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: the “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge University Press, 1988) 22.

[2] Pim de Boer, Geschiedenis als beroep. De professionalisering van de geschiedbeoefening in Frankrijk (1818-1914) [History as profession. The professionalization of the practice of history in France (1818-1914)] (Nijmegen: SUN, 1987) 254.

[3] De Boer, Geschiedenis als beroep, 160.

[4] After Ranke died in 1886 one of his former students from the U.S. purchased his library, his portrait and some objects from his study room. He used these to set up a shrine for his former teacher at Syracuse University. See: Novick, That Noble Dream, 26. Although not having been his student, Ghent historian Paul Fredericq equally admired the “prince of history”. Among Fredericq and his colleagues there existed the practice to collect and exchange portraits of famous historians . The portrait of Ranke was the most valuable of all. See: Jo Tollebeek, Fredericq & Zonen. Een antropologie van de moderne geschiedwetenschap [Fredericq and Sons. An anthropology of modern historical science] (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2008) 174-175.

[5] De Boer, Geschiedenis als beroep, 227.

[6] Iggers and Von Moltke, Leopold von Ranke, xix. Woolf, A Global History of History, 372-373.