7. Alternatives and opposition to the Prussian model

Despite the hegemony of an approach that favoured minute historical examination, the establishment of professional academic historical scholarship in the nineteenth century did not entail an absolute rejection of all syntheses and macro-analysis in the perception of the past. In the first place, there were the philosophers who constructed large stadial frameworks, nomothetic systems, or grand intercultural schemes of comparison, which put forward universal trends or historical laws. Such systems were universal in claim, but very much grounded in Western historical experience, and often were based on the assumption of the West’s superior ability to explain world affairs.[1] Most of these thinkers belonged to the fields of philosophy or the social sciences, rather than academic history. Renowned thinkers in this respect from the nineteenth and early twentieth century were August Comte (1798-1857), Karl Marx (1818-1883), and Max Weber (1864-1920).

August Comte was a French philosopher and sociologist that established the doctrine of positivism. He was publishing from the 1830s to the 1850s. In the account of Comte, human history could be divided into three stages. First there had been the theological stage, which was followed by the stage of metaphysics. For his own time, Comte foresaw the coming of the third stage: the scientific. Society would be improved by removing the blind spots of religion and metaphysics in favour of a mere scientific approach to knowledge. To Comte science meant the discovery of universal laws of social progress, based on the observation of actual “positive” facts.[2] Fields dealing with the realm of human action, such as sociology and history, had to be modelled after this dictum, equally to the natural sciences.

Comte motivated a universal perception of history in two ways. Firstly, the three-staged model of human development in itself was a glimpse of a grand universal history. Secondly, the notion of universal laws provided the tool for others to produce historical studies on a diversity of subjects that all could be related to one conceptual framework. The most notable expression of Comte’s positivist philosophy in historical scholarship was the multivolume History of Civilization in England (1857-1861), written by Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862). Buckle was a self-educated English historian that lacked university training. He sought to model history after the natural sciences by copying its methods and seeking for general historical laws. Although the orientation of Buckle’s main work was on English national history, he planned to expand the perspective of his combined works by composing similar histories on other countries. He died of typhoid before he could do so.

The historical philosophy that Karl Marx put forward in Das Kapital (1867) resembled that of August Comte. Like the French philosopher, Marx had a stadial understanding of human history and believed that historical processes unfolded according to general laws. Marx perceived historical progress to take place at the level of impersonal forces, among which repeatedly occurred collisions whereupon a new situation emerged. In this perception, Marx had been influenced by the dialectic philosophy of Hegel. Yet, whereas both Hegel and Comte located the motor of historical development in the realm of ideas, Marx identified material conditions and production relations as the engines behind historical change. In Marx’s view of history, all of humankind passed through the same set of stages, each stage defined by a particular form of social-economic hierarchy. The order of social stages was universal, but different regions might pass through them in different paces and at different times. In the beginning there had been primitive communal society, subsequently followed by slave society, feudal society, and capitalist society. For the future, Marx predicted the coming of the communist and socialist society, in which the social wrongs of the three foregoing stages would be set right.

The German sociologist Max Weber refuted the positivist approach that equated the methods of the natural sciences to the human sciences, but also rejected the ways of the Prussian historical school. According to Weber, studies to human behaviour also required concepts, theories, and generalizations.[3] The mere method of intuitive Verstehen applied by the Prussian school lacked such scientific tools. Weber argued that within cultures and societies, individuals behaved according to certain accepted standards. Therefore there could be distinguished patterns in every society, from which it was possible to reduce concepts for social scientific analysis.

The distinction of general social patterns made it possible for Weber to understand societies (a term that was used interchangeably with ‘civilization’ and ‘culture’) as conceptual wholes that could be analyzed in their totality. Weber believed that every civilization possessed a set of characteristics that determined its character. This perception allowed for Weber’s intercultural comparisons, such as between the West and the non-West. Weber arrived at the conclusion that the West was superior because it was the only civilization that had developed scientific thinking.

Weber considered history as an international struggle for survival, and the global scope of his comparative research was motivated by a German nationalist ideology. Weber’s most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-5), was an exercise in intercultural comparative history that was written with a nationalist agenda.[4] Weber explained the rise of capitalism in seventeenth-century North-western Europe by the Calvinist spirit that encouraged hard work and the maximization of profit. Weber approved of these qualities, and hoped that the German bourgeoisie of his own time would take an example out of it.

In the years to come, the philosophies of Comte, Marx, and Weber would remain a source of both inspiration and aversion for academic historians. But although these thinkers made a mark in historical scholarship, they themselves were outsiders to the field of history. Opposition against the Prussian school could also be found within the academic historical discipline. In 1872, the Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897) declined the offer of the Berlin chair of Ranke, who before had been Burckhardt’s teacher, because he rejected the narrow political focus of the Prussian historians. Another opponent was the French historian Charles Seignobos (1854-1942), who criticized historical scholarship in the German universities after a visit in 1881 for its obsession with detail and inability to make small-scale studies speak to more general truths.[5]

The Belgian historian Paul Fredericq (1850-1920), an outspoken admirer of German historical scholarship, refuted Seignobos’s judgement as having little foundation, but not because Fredericq dismissed generalization. The Belgian was confident that eventually great architects would use the material dodged up in the German seminars to produce grand syntheses.[6] Yet, like Seignobos, he agreed that the microscopic tendency of German historical research was taken too far. He stated: “After having lived exclusively upon metaphysical history, the famous philosophy of history that in principle carried out the tradition of a priori generalization which the eighteenth century bequeathed us, we have, with reactionary eagerness, repudiated all general views as premature and have set ourselves to scrutinizing matters of history with a microscope.”[7] Apparently, some of his German colleagues shared this view. Fredericq cited a German professor, whose name he did not disclose, saying that Ranke at age eighty-four at date is the last representative of the old tradition that required the historian to be at once an explorer of new sources and a thinker with general views. Fredericq quotes: “The young men are making a mistake in persistently cultivating microscopic history!”[8]

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the Prussian school waged its final battle over the question what were going to be the prominent subject and methodology of German academic historical scholarship. There emerged a polemic that would become known as the Methodenstreit. In this dispute, the main opponent of the Prussian school was Karl Lamprecht (1856-1915).

To the historians of the Prussian school, Lamprecht must have appeared as a rival from within. Lamprecht’s biographer Roger Chickering states that the historian was “cut from the classic mold of German historians”.[9] Lamprecht grew up in an area in Saxony from which came a disproportionately large share of German historians. And like many other professors, he was the son of a university-educated Lutheran pastor. Lamprecht was educated in elite schools in Wittenberg and Naumburg, and later was a student at the universities of Göttingen, Leipzig, and Munich. In 1878, he became teacher at a gymnasium in Cologne, whereupon he became a professor in history at subsequently the universities of Bonn (in 1885), Marburg (1890), and Leipzig (1891).

But whereas Lamprecht’s background and career were conventional for an academic historian in late nineteenth-century Germany, his ideas about history were not. Instead of focusing on events in national politics, Lamprecht mostly wandered off into the broad realms of culture and economy. Lamprecht’s approach to history was holistic. The periods in which he divided German history were taken to characterize the whole of society in the given era.[10] The many social, economic, and cultural topics that he touched upon in his works were all considered to be indications of the one historical period to which they belonged. Lamprecht also included the history of arts, as he considered arts to be the expression of the mental and spiritual life that defined the historical period in which it was created. But Lamprecht argued that arts, just as political events, were conditioned by more profound social and material structures. These structures were fundamental to the different historical periods. Hence, the motor of all of historical development, which caused the transition from the one period to the next, had to be found in the material realm, concerning changes in modes of production and social relations. This entailed that history was determined by structural changes, which could not be influenced by conscious individual actions. According to Lamprecht, the agency of powerful individuals was not a factor in historical development.

Although Lamprecht replaced the concept of the German nation-state – which he deemed too narrowly political – with that of the German Volk, his identification of the German unification of 1871 as the telos of historical development was conventional in the German historical profession.[11] Hence, just as his colleagues of the Prussian school, Lamprecht’s main orientation was German history. Before the publication of his main work on German history, Deutsche Geschichte (1891-1895), Lamprecht was mainly engaged in studies to the local history of the Rhineland.[12] This topic followed the interest of Lamprecht’s patron, a Cologne-based businessman who provided the historian with the opportunity to be engaged in historical research at a time when he had not yet been able to acquire a position at a university. However, Lamprecht used Rhenish local history merely as a tool to study German history. He believed that developments in the Rhineland were local expressions of processes that had been unfolding nationwide, and even at a broader geographical scale. “Here in the local is where the universal really appears clearly and immanently”, Lamprecht stated while working on Rhineland history.[13]

After taking the step from local to national history with the publication of Deutsche Geschichte, Lamprecht considered writing a work of universal scope. In 1896, he posed that the developments that he had distinguished in Deutsche Geschichte could also be encountered in other European nations, as well as among the peoples of classical antiquity.[14] He kept coming back to this idea in the first decade of the twentieth century, when he also considered the value of ethnographic studies to non-Western peoples for such a monumental work. Lamprecht expected that a universal history would provide a decisive counter-argument against the many critics of Deutsche Geschichte. The stages that he had distinguished in German history would be confirmed to be accurate, Lamprecht expected, when he could demonstrate that a similar pattern of development could be found in the histories of all peoples of the world. Lamprecht’s notion of world history was determined by the universal stages of development. Cross-cultural influences could occur, but these were never able to set a particular culture of its basic track. The plans for a universal history never materialized, but Lamprecht’s ideas found expression in the Institute of Cultural and Universal History in Leipzig, which opened its doors to students in 1909.

The roots of Lamprecht’s deviant perceptions of history cannot be exactly determined, but some influential scholars on his thinking can be pointed out. An early influence was Friedrich Wilhelm Herbst (1825-1882), who was the rector at Lamprecht’s elite school in Naumburg and probably was instrumental in the decision of the young Lamprecht to study history.[15] Herbst was a former student of Ranke and distinguished himself by the broad geographical scope of his historical interests. During his years as a student, influential tutors of Lamprecht were the anthropologist W.H. Riehl (1823-1897), the philosopher Rudolf Hermann Lotze (1817-1881), who propagated a grand synthesis between the natural sciences and the humanities, the historian Ernst Bernheim (1850-1942), who leaned towards positivism and introduced Lamprecht to Comte and Buckle, and the economist Wilhelm Roscher (1817-1894), who is considered the father of the German historical school of national economy. Some influence of general German philosophy can be found in Lamprecht’s conviction that all aspects of life are reducible to the essence of its era, which resembles the philosophy of Hegel. Lamprecht also took inspiration from the work of Burckhardt, although he never was a student of the Swiss cultural historian. Lamprecht liked how Burckhardt focused on diverse aspects of popular culture, and how he considered art to represent the central expression of the cultural spirit of an era.[16] However, Lamprecht criticized Burckhardt for overlooking the material foundations of political history, by which he considered Burckhardt to repeat the common mistake of the German political historians.

It is no coincidence that most of the scholars that influenced Lamprecht were not academic historians engaged in political history. Most of those had little in common with Lamprecht’s ideas about history. During his studies and later university appointments, Lamprecht mostly operated in an academic environment in which his work was not held in high regard. Especially after the publication of the first volume of Deutsche Geschichte in 1891, the opposition of academic historians towards Lamprecht increased. Objections to Lamprecht mainly came from the fear that his approach threatened the independence of history as an academic discipline, as Lamprecht brought perceptions from the social and natural sciences into his analyses of the past. The Deutsche Geschichte was criticized for failing to incorporate the basic rule of historical scholarship: Lamprecht’s large abstractions were said to lack any ground in empirical research.[17] The attacks on Lamprecht got a political dimension when he was accused of being a Marxist and a materialist. Although this verdict probably was unjust,[18] it did not help that in 1893 the Deutsche Geschichte received a positive review from Germany’s leading Marxist historian Franz Mehring (1846-1919), who concluded that Lamprecht practically stood on the ground of historical materialism.[19] Such an association was very harmful in the sphere of German academic historiography, where conservative nationalism was the dominant ideology.

After Georg von Below (1857-1920) in 1893 wrote a destructive review of Deutsche Geschichte, the Methodenstreit kicked off. Pleas for two opposing perceptions of historical research were published in response to each other, mostly in the Historische Zeitschrift. The polemic was not just about the mere question of method, but also about fundamentally opposing understandings of the nature of history. The historians of the Prussian school faced Lamprecht in debates on several interrelated oppositions: freedom versus structure, universal patterns of development versus the uniqueness of nations, the collective versus the singular, Erklären versus Verstehen, and cultural history versus political history. Lamprecht was never going to win. Although he had his supporters, the academic top of German historical scholarship was firmly against him. In 1899, the then editor of the Historische Zeitschrift, Friedrich Meinecke (1862-1954), proclaimed that the polemic had lasted long enough. From then on, Lamprecht was systematically ignored by his colleagues. The Methodenstreit had come to an end.

The dispute also took place within the Leipzig faculty. The seminar was split into two autonomous sections; one lead by Lamprecht and one lead by his opponents. Lamprecht’s seminar was even banned to a separate building, but this isolation meant that Lamprecht could remain dominant and influential within his own academic sphere. Next to broader support among teachers in secondary education and some foreign scholars, Lamprecht also made disciplines in German academic scholarship. One of Lamprecht’s students, Hans Helmolt (1865-1929), published a multivolume world history: Helmolts Weltgeschichte (1919-1922). Helmolt renounced the Eurocentric worldview and included historical experiences from peoples of the Americas, Oceania, and Asia.[20] There no longer was room for this kind of scholarship in German academic historiography. The association with Lamprecht impaired Helmolt’s chances for a lasting academic career, and he eventually had to choose a different life path.

Another victim in the aftermath of the Methodenstreit was Kurt Breysig (1866-1940). Breysig had gained a professorship in Berlin in 1896 and seemed to have a glorious career in front of him. Yet, around that time, his interests shifted from the conventional historical subjects towards the plan for a comparative world history. In the first volume of his Geschichte der Menschheit (1907) Breysig argued that the ‘primitive peoples’ of his time existed in a state through which the ‘cultural peoples’ had already passed.[21] As with the work of Lamprecht, such universal syntheses were perceived to jeopardize the academic independence of history. Breysig became isolated in Berlin and his career stalled. The Methodenstreit proved to be the final blow to synthesis and world history in academic historical scholarship in Germany.

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[1] Q. Edward Wang and Georg G. Iggers (eds.), Turning Points in Historiography: A Cross-Cultural Perspective (The University of Rochester Press, 2002) 5.

[2] Iggers and Wang, A Global History of Modern Historiography, 120-121.

[3] Ibid., 169-171.

[4] Burrow, A History of Histories, 488.

[5] Charles Seignobos, ‘L’Enseignement de l’histoire dans les universités allemandes,’ Revue Internationale de l’Enseignement I, no. 6 (June 1881): 563-600.

[6] Fredericq, The Study of History in German and France, 53.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Chickering, Karl Lamprecht, 22.

[10] Lamprecht’s magnum opus, the 5-volume Deutsche Geschichte (1891-1895), was divided into the following periods: the “Symbolic” period (to 350 AD), the “Typical” period (350-1050), the “Conventional” period (1050-1450), the “Subjectivistic” period (1450-1850), and the “Impressionistic” period (1850 to the age of the author). Chickering, Karl Lamprecht, 120.

[11] Chickering, Karl Lamprecht., 136.

[12] Ibid., 67-97.

[13] Ibid., 76.

[14] Ibid., 338.

[15] Ibid., 17.

[16] Ibid., 53.

[17] Chickering states that this accusation was very much justified because Lamprecht’s research often was hasty and sloppy. Chickering, Karl Lamprecht, 109.

[18] Iggers and Wang state that Lamprecht was not a Marxist or materialist. See: Iggers and Wang, A Global History of Modern Historiography, 159. Chickering argues that the association of Lamprecht with Marx does too little respect to the consistent execution of Marx’s historical philosophy in comparison to the sloppy work of Lamprecht.

[19] Chickering, Karl Lamprecht, 175.

[20] Benedikt Stuchtey and Eckhardt Fuchs, ‘Introduction. Problems of Writing World History: Western and Non-Western Experiences, 1800-2000’, in: Ibid., Writing World History, 1800-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) 7.

[21] Ibid., 7-8.