Friedrich Meinecke (1862-1954), Germany's greatest historian in the period from 1890 to 1950, founded a school of the history of ideas and trained many scholars.
Friedrich Meinecke was born in Salzwedel and educated in Berlin. His family belonged to the solid middle class which formed the backbone of imperial Germany. Early in life he decided to become a historian and was trained at the universities of Bonn and Berlin. Hampered by a speech defect, he did not feel he should enter the teaching profession and chose instead the career of archivist. In "this dusty trade" he felt himself quite at home. However, his intellectual qualities were soon recognized, and he was appointed editor of the country's most distinguished review, Die historische Zeitschrift, an office he held until he was ousted by the Nazis in 1935.
Meinecke's first work, a two-volume biography of the Prussian general Hermann von Boyen, was immediately recognized as proof of brilliant and searching scholarship, and he was appointed professor of history at the University of Strassburg in 1901. Until then his outlook had partaken of a somewhat parochial and conservative Prussianism; the move into Alsace opened new horizons for him. In 1908 he published Cosmopolitanism and Nation State (Weltbürgertum und Nationalstaat), which established the history of political ideas as an important and new discipline and evidenced Meinecke's propensity to think in dialectic and even dualistic terms. Throughout his life he pursued the evolution of opposing and even antagonistic ideas, such as cosmopolitanism and nationalism, ethic and power, uniqueness and recurrence. In 1913 he took the chair of modern history at the University of Berlin, which he occupied until his retirement in 1932. At the outbreak of World War I, in 1914, Meinecke was as nationalistic as most Germans, but contacts with leading politicians soon altered his outlook; he began to speak out for domestic reforms and for a peace without annexation. His voice was heard but not heeded. Resignation rather than conviction converted him into a republican when Germany met defeat in 1918, and he began to work for a democratic Germany in earnest. In 1924 he published what may be considered his most important work, Machiavellism (Die Idee der Staatsräson in der neuren Geschichte), a study in intellectual history, but this time devoted to the conflict between ethics and the imperatives of political necessity.
Meinecke continued his close contacts with the leading statesmen of the Weimar Republic and wrote articles remonstrating against the rising tide of fascism. Again his warning was disregarded; Hitler became chancellor in 1933. Many of Meinecke's students fled from Germany or were ousted from their positions, but since he was already past 70, the Nazis did not attack him personally. In 1936 he published a history of the origins of historicism (Die Ursprünge des Historismus).
The outbreak of World War II, which Meinecke had feared and predicted, found him writing his memoirs. The Allied bombings drove him out of Berlin; he found refuge in Franconia and witnessed the American offensive in southern Germany. Surrounded by the cacophony of war, he began an inquiry into the causes of the German disaster, The German Catastrophe (Die deutsche Katastrophe). When the old University of Berlin split and the young veterans refused to commit themselves to the Communist propaganda of East Germany, Meinecke, although 86 years of age and nearly blind, offered his services and became the first rector of the Free University of Berlin.
Further Reading on Friedrich Meinecke
A full-length study of Meinecke is Richard W. Sterling, Ethics in a World of Power: The Political Ideas of Friedrich Meinecke (1958). Extensive material on Meinecke can also be found in John Higham and others, History (1965); Georg G. Iggers, The German Conception of History (1968); and Fritz K. Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933 (1969).