The German historian, politician, and political publicist Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896) was the most famous and influential member of the Prussian school of history in 19th-century Germany. He advocated a powerful German state under Prussian leadership.
Heinrich von Treitschke was born on Sept. 15, 1834, in Dresden. His father, who rose to general officer's rank in the service of the Saxon monarchy, was of German-Czech descent, had been ennobled in 1821, and maintained his aristocratic conservatism and loyalty to the Saxon royal family throughout his life. Young Heinrich showed early intellectual promise in his schooling, which, however, was interrupted at the age of 8 by a severe case of measles complicated by glandular fever which led to increasing loss of hearing. Thus a career of public service as a soldier or statesman-politician became impossible, and Heinrich decided on a life of scholarship.
Attending Dresden's Holy Cross Gymnasium (high school) from 1846 to 1851, Treitschke was exposed not only to the traditional classical education but also to liberal ideas critical of the semiabsolutism of the times. The study of German literature under Julius Klee and personal observations of the political events of the revolutionary years 1848-1849 molded Treitschke's tendency toward strong political conviction into an attitude of enthusiastic support for a constitutional, united Germany under Prussian leadership.
From 1851 to 1854 Treitschke studied at the universities of Bonn, Leipzig, Tübingen, and Freiburg, attending classes under F. C. Dahlmann, the political economist Wilhelm Roscher, and the eminent Tübingen philosopher Friedrich Theodor Vischer.
After a brief interlude in Dresden, Treitschke studied at Göttingen and Leipzig. He succeeded in publishing two volumes of poems, Patriotic Songs (1856) and Studies (1857). In 1858 he finished his habilitation thesis, Die Gesellschaftswissenschaft (1859; The Science of Society), which earned him an appointment as lecturer at the University of Leipzig in 1859.
The political atmosphere in Leipzig did not prove congenial, and in 1863 Treitschke accepted a professorial appointment at Freiburg. Here he wrote his famous essay Bundesstaat und Einheitsstaat (1863-1864; Federation and Centralization). In 1866, when Baden joined Austria in war against Prussia, Treitschke resigned his position at Freiburg and demanded in a pamphlet, The Future of the North German Middle States, the annexation of Hanover, Hesse, and Saxony by Prussia.
Although Treitschke was estranged from his father, his fame as a political publicist had now reached national eminence. Positions at Kiel (1866) and Heidelberg (1867-1874) followed before he finally settled in Berlin. His strong Prussian sentiments had earned him appointment as editor of the Preussische Jahrbücher (Prussian Annals) in 1866 and election to the German Reichstag (House of Deputies) in 1871. Although originally affiliated with the National Liberal party, he left that party in 1879 to support Bismarck's new commercial policy and held his seat until 1884 as an independent member with conservative leanings.
The period from 1859 to 1871 is important for Treitschke's development. More and more he abandoned his original liberal constitutional attitude and became an ever more ardent advocate of the power state, of war as the noblest activity of man, and of a German expansionist, cultural mission under Prussian leadership which would establish Germany as an equal among the world powers. Although he counted among his close friends a number of Jews, he participated in the anti-Semitic movement of the late 1870s, proclaiming that Jewry could play an important role only if its individual members were to merge themselves with the nationality of their state.
History of Germany
Treitschke had planned to write a history of Germany since 1861; but not until he had settled in Berlin, where the Prussian archives were close at hand, did the work progress. The first volume of his Deutsche Geschichte im 19. Jahrhundert (German History in the 19th Century) was published in 1879, starting with the Napoleonic period. The fifth volume, published in 1894, brought the narrative only to the beginning of 1848. Although this, the greatest of his works, also suffered from the shortcomings of Treitschke's emotional patriotic nature and was limited to the almost exclusive use of the Prussian archives, it nevertheless constitutes a major contribution to historical writing. Its literary style and power of expression have been likened to Friedrich von Schiller's diction and Johann Gottlieb Fichte's rhetoric. In spite of his tendency to oversimplify complicated events, Treitschke exhibited a grasp of detail and power to synthesize that produced a general cultural historical setting uncommon among the works of historians of his time.
Other important historical and political essays were published in four volumes as Historische und Politische Aufsätze (1896; Historical and Political Essays); and his lectures on politics were collected and published in two volumes as Vorlesungen über Politik (1898; Politics).
Treitschke died on April 28, 1896, in Berlin. His influence during his lifetime was threefold: as teacher, political propagandist, and historian. A generation of students and of the general public was affected by his political lectures and nationalistic journalism, and even abroad he was often regarded as an official mouthpiece of German policy.
Although after his death Treitschke's influence among German historians, who generally preferred to follow the more balanced methodological example of the Ranke school of historical writing, became largely dormant, it was revived in coarsened form by Nazi ideologists, who utilized his unbridled nationalism as a point of departure for their thought and actions.
Further Reading on Heinrich von Treitschke
The best full-length biography of Treitschke is Andreas Dorpalen, Heinrich von Treitschke (1957). Adolf Hausrath, Treitschke: His Doctrine of German Destiny and of International Relations (1914), combines a section on Treitschke's life and work with a number of his essays reprinted in English. Henry W.C. Davis, The Political Thought of Heinrich von Treitschke (1914), attempts to analyze Treitschke's work within the context of his time. For background see G.P. Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913; rev. ed. 1952); Antoine Guillard, Modern Germany and Her Historians (1915); and Georg Iggers, The German Conception of History (1968).