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Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) General

understanding and philosophy of history

Method · January 2015

DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.1309.7043


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Andreas Boldt
National University of Ireland, Maynooth


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Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886)
General understanding and philosophy of history

Leopold von Ranke endeavoured to understand political order within

its own historical context. To understand the nature of historical
phenomena such as an institution or an idea, one had to consider its
historical development, and the changes it underwent over a period
of time. Historical epochs, Ranke argued, should not be judged
according to predetermined contemporary values or ideas. Rather,
they had to be understood on their own terms by empirically
establishing history ‘as things really were’ (‘wie es eigentlich
gewesen’). Ranke emphasized both ‘individuality’ and ‘development’
in history. Each historical phenomenon, epoch and event had its
own individuality, and it was the task of the historian to establish its
essence. To do this, historians had to immerse themselves in the
epoch and assess it in a manner appropriate for that time. They had, in Ranke’s words, ‘to
extinguish’ their own personality. This individualizing approach to the writing of history went hand in
hand with a notion of historical development that, according to Ranke, was sanctioned by God’s will.
This ‘Protestant’ element in Ranke’s historical thinking and writing was significant. Despite the
strong theological colouring, Ranke was always a secular historian, devoted to appraising the major
forces in history. He taught the necessity of juxtaposing important universal trends with particular
details. Yet sometimes grand ideas seemed to work in a dialectical way, especially when confronted
by a new set of ideas. Ranke viewed each nation and its people as unique entities producing forces
of nationalism that no longer could be ignored. He was convinced in all his work that there was
meaning and coherence in history and that the established political institutions embodied moral
forces, yet he emphatically rejected the reduction of history to a grand scheme. In Ranke’s opinion
the historian had to proceed from the particular or individual to the general, not the reverse, and it
was the particular that opened the path to a perception of the great moral forces manifest in
history. While rejecting the idea of progress, Ranke saw in Protestant Europe the apex of history but
at the same time he opposed the liberal and democratic movements that had occurred since the
French Revolution. Despite his call for impartiality and objectivity, he
was convinced of the solidity and beneficence of the established order
as it had grown historically and so he projected a conservative bias into
his conception of the past. Although he was aware of the new theories
of evolution, and did not reject them, he preferred to leave questions of
human prehistory out of historical narratives. With his seminar
program, Ranke set a model for the training of historians in systematic,
critical research methods, which were copied throughout the world as
history became a professional discipline. Ranke made important
contributions to the emergence of modern history and is recognized as
the father of the ‘scientific’ historical school of the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries. Due to him, methodical principles of archival
research and source criticism became commonplace in academic
institutions. By using his new method (the philological-critical one),
Ranke was often credited with raising history to a science.
Ranke’s key rules
1. Historians should stick to the facts. There should be no evidence of their views and commitments in
their writing. It is only when they remove all trace of themselves that they can revive the past. A
number of writers have translated the phrase ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ as ‘what actually happened’,
‘as it really was’ or ‘simply tell how it was’. As a more correct translation I would suggest ‘how things
really were’.
2. In order to establish the past as ‘how things really were’ one had ‘to extinguish themselves’, because
the ‘truth can be only one’. The historian should not include any of their contemporary ideologies or
movements, as they would colour the outcome of the work and a full understanding of particular
events and or an epoch cannot be reached. When writing history, the historian is supposed to analyse
all materials, and not just interesting bits and pieces
3. History can never be viewed or reviewed from a one-sided perspective and Ranke noted: ‘The truth
lies possibly in the middle’. Ranke’s thoughts on how to write history and that history has to remain
free of any influences. In a letter written in 1828, Ranke expressed his feeling on this issue in just one
sentence: “Instead of basing their political opinion on history, which is the research of facts, many
people want to control history through the general opinion; an undertaking, which would destroy all
freedoms of science, if it should succeed.”
4. Self-criticism was also an important task of the historian. In this way Ranke was able to remain
objective as much as possible. He always enforced and encouraged his students to use the method of
objectivity; however, he was aware himself, that this was one of the most difficult tasks for the
historian. It remained the utmost ideal to be fully objective in a work of history, and even Ranke never
fully reached this self-set goal himself.
5. Ranke believed that Art and Science should never be dealt with and thought of separately. As he put
it: ‘in both you have to learn, create, educate; in both you have to be the master of your subject; in
both to be free to the highest, what you think and suggest, express and present.’ He believed that if
history is viewed as Arts then nobody could develop further than the old historians, hence it is
necessary to view it as a Science, which allows a straight, clear and appropriate way of writing history.
6. Generally Ranke believed that the historian should never include temporary judgments. The historian
should concentrate on the issue of how people within an epoch lived and thought, and then he will
also find, except of some sustained central ideas, that certain moral codes were different in each
epoch. As Ranke wrote: ‘And I certainly believe that each epoch is close to God and its value relies not
on that, what evolves from it, but in its own existence, in being on its own.’
7. Ranke follows the idea for good writing which was influenced by the Enlightenment movement where
one should enjoy the reading, but yet his work is still academic as Ranke uses footnotes, critical
analysis and research of his primary sources. Ranke made ‘scientific’ history readable and enjoyable
for the masses, which cannot be said of many modern academic historians (only a few such as Simon
Schama, Niall Ferguson, Tony Judt and Dorothy Kearns Goodwin). He is the first German who
combines both – literary and academic writing – in his work.
8. Ranke wrote not only on German history, but the history of a number of states in nineteenth-century
Europe. His historical writing created an awareness of their own history in a number of states, like in
Ireland and Serbia.
9. Ranke preferred writing national histories in a European context. Despite the criticism of writing ‘dry
as dust’ history, Ranke expounded the vision of Europe as a unity, following the example of the Holy
Roman Empire. This vision is represented in all of his books, which do not only cover the larger powers
such as England, Spain, Russia, France and Germany, but also smaller states and institutions such as
Belgium, Serbia or the Catholic Church.