Leopold von Ranke

Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) was a German historian and one of the most prolific and universal modern historians of his time. He imparted his expertise and methodology through the introduction of the seminar as an informal but intensive teaching device.

Leopold von Ranke was born on Dec. 21, 1795, in the rural Thuringian town of Wiehe, which then belonged to electoral Saxony. Although Ranke was born into the era of the French Revolution, his bourgeois, small-town, generally well-ordered, and peaceful background and upbringing did not provide much contact with the violent events of the times. After receiving his early education at local schools in Donndorf and Pforta, he attended the University of Leipzig (1814-1818), where he continued his studies in ancient philology and theology.

In the fall of 1818 Ranke accepted a teaching position at the gymnasium (high school) in Frankfurt an der Oder. His teaching assignments in world history and ancient literature, for which he disdained the use of handbooks and readily available prepared texts, as well as the contemporary events of the period, led him to turn to original sources and to a concern for the empirical understanding of history in its totality.

Making use of materials from the Westermannsche Library in Frankfurt and from the Royal Library in Berlin, Ranke produced his first work, Geschichten der romanischen und germanischen Völker (1824; Histories of the Romanic and Germanic Peoples), which earned him a professorial appointment at the University of Berlin in 1825, where he was to remain for the rest of his life except for extended research trips abroad.

Although this first work was still lacking in style, organization, and mastery of its overflowing detail, it had particular significance because it contained a technical appendix in which Ranke established his program of critical scholarship—"to show what actually happened"—by analyzing the sources used, by determining their originality and likely veracity, and by evaluating in the same light the writings of previous historians "who appear to be the most celebrated" and who have been considered "the foundation of all the later works on the beginning of modern history." His scathing criticism of such historians led him to accept only contemporary documents, such as letters from ambassadors and others immediately involved in the course of historical events, as admissible primary evidence.

With Ranke's move to Berlin, the manuscripts of Venetian ministerial reports of the Reformation period became available to him and served as the basis for his second work, Fürsten und Völker von Süd-Europa (1827; Princes and Peoples of Southern Europe), which was republished in his complete works as Die Osmanen und die spanische Monarchie im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert (vols. 35 and 36; The Ottomans and the Spanish Monarchy in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries).

Advertisement

Travels and Research

The limited collection in Berlin whetted Ranke's appetite to investigate other European libraries and archives, especially those of Italy. Armed with a travel stipend from the Prussian government, he proceeded at first to Vienna, where a large part of the Venetian archives had been housed after the Austrian occupation of Venetia. A letter of introduction brought acquaintance with Friedrich von Gentz, who, through intercession with Prince Metternich, not only opened the Viennese archives to Ranke but also brought him into immediate contact with the day-to-day politics of the Hapsburg court. During his stay in Vienna he wrote Die serbische Revolution (1829), republished in an expanded version as Serbien und die Türkei im 19. Jahrhundert (1879; Serbia and Turkey in the 19th Century).

In 1828 Ranke traveled to Italy, where he spent 3 successful years of study visiting various public and private libraries and archives, although the Vatican Library remained closed to him. During this period he wrote a treatise, Venice in the Sixteenth Century (published 1878), and collected material for what is generally considered his masterpiece, Die römischen Päpste, ihre Kirche und ihr Staat im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert (1834-1836; The Roman Popes, Their Church and State in the 16th and 17th Centuries).

Returning from Italy in 1831, Ranke soon became involved in the publication of a journal designed to combat French liberal influence, which had alarmed the Prussian government in the aftermath of the revolutionary events of 1830. Although the Historisch-Politische Zeitschrift, with Ranke as editor and chief contributor, contained some of the best political thought published in Germany during this time, it lacked the polemical quality and anticipated success of a political fighting journal and was discontinued in 1836. In the same year Ranke was appointed full professor and devoted the rest of his life to the task of teaching and scholarly work. A Protestant counterpart to his History of the Popes was published as Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation (1839-1847; German History during the Era of the Reformation), which was largely based on the reports of the Imperial Diet in Frankfurt.

Advertisement

Last Works

With the following works Ranke rounded out his historical treatment of the major powers: Neun Bücher preussischer Geschichte (1847-1848; Nine Books of Prussian History); Französische Geschichte, vornehmlich im 16. and 17. Jahrhundert (1852-1861; French History, Primarily in the 16th and 17th Centuries); and Englische Geschichte, vornehmlich im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert (1859-1868; English History, Primarily in the 16th and 17th Centuries). Other works, dealing mainly with German and Prussian history during the 18th century, followed in the 1870s.

During the last years of his life Ranke, now in his 80s and because of failing sight requiring the services of readers and secretaries, embarked upon the composition of his Weltgeschichte (1883-1888; World History), published in nine volumes. The last two were published posthumously from manuscripts of his lectures. He died in Berlin on May 23, 1886.

The complete work of Ranke is difficult to assess. Not many of his works achieved the artistic high point of The Roman Popesor its appeal for the general reader. Yet there is hardly a chapter in his total enormous production which could be considered without value. His harmonious nature shunned emotion and violent passion, and he can be faulted less for what he wrote than for what he left unwritten. His approach to history emphasized the politics of the courts and of great men but neglected the common people and events of everyday life; he limited his investigation to the political history of the states in their universal setting. Ranke combined, as few others, the qualities of the trailblazing scholar and the devoted, conscientious, and innovative teacher.

Advertisement

Further Reading on Leopold von Ranke

Considerable biographical information is in T. H. Von Laue, Leopold Ranke: The Formative Years (1950). A comprehensive and fair study which emphasizes an evaluation of Ranke's major works and provides a useful bibliography is G. P. Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913; rev. ed. 1952); it also discusses Ranke's critics and pupils and provides a chapter on the Prussian school of historical scholarship that paralleled Ranke's career. An assessment critical of Ranke as historian appears in James W. Thompson, A History of Historical Writing, vol. 2 (1942). Historian Pieter Geyl discusses Ranke in his Debates with Historians (1955; rev. ed. 1958). Carlo Antoni, From History to Sociology: The Transition in German Historical Thinking (1940; trans. 1959), and Ferdinand Schevill, Six Historians (1956), contain chapters on Ranke. For general background see Georg G. Iggers, The German Conception of History: The National Tradition of Historical Thought from Herder to the Present (1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Krieger, Leonard, Ranke: the meaning of history, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.