The tradition of German historismus (often translated in English as historicism) was the leading method of historical study in Germany through the 19th and well into the 20th century. Its reputation for rigour made it attractive to historians across Europe, notably in Britain through the advocacy of Lord Acton, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. The method of historicism involved a concern for the close empirical study of history in a spirit of neutrality, albeit one that found specificity in unique cultural formations credited implicitly with a providential type of significance.
Over the course of the next series of articles, I will examine how the tradition sheds light on the rise of fascism in two ways: firstly, it emerged concurrently with nationalism, both products of an attempt to distinguish specificities of the national character that could not be explained by universalist abstract law. This logic of historical particularism was conducive to nationalist politics, not least in the implication that some kind of vital or divine order could be divined in earthly phenomena.
In this regard, a link to the historicist school in theology is notable: liberal theologians had similarly sought to root ideas of the divine in immanent fact, a manoeuvre seen as both inducing a conservative backlash on one hand, and facilitating an ‘immanentisation’ of religion useful to totalitarian ideologies, on the other,
Secondly, at the same time, however, historismus also placed a strikingly high premium on facts, sedulously traced, apparently with the utmost impartiality — a method attacked by critics of the early 20th century as leading to a crisis of sterile positivism and ethical relativism, requiring a radical alternative, whether in nihilist detachment or a commitment to more absolutist faith positions. Both have been numbered among intellectual responses, some favourable, some hostile, to an emergent fascism.
These dimensions would be later recognised by two later key figures, Ernst Troeltsch (1862-1923), theologian and historian based first at Bonn, then Berlin University, who wrote in 1922 of a ‘crisis of historicism’, suggesting that its dry and sterile concern for the compilation of facts had reached a point of nullity, which could be resolved only through either an embrace of relativism, or a leap of faith (Kritische Gesamtausgabe, pp. 437-455). The second commentary was by Friedrich Meinecke (1862-1954), professor of modern German history at the University of Strasbourg and editor of Historische Zeitschrift (1896-1935), who, writing during the Nazi period, claimed in that historismus was “one of the greatest intellectual revolutions that has ever taken place in Western thought” (Historism, p. liv). The idea fed into a strong current in German national historiography that presented a long view of Germany’s emergence as a nation-state and imperial power: a ‘special path’ (sonderweg), albeit one ‘delayed’ and interrupted by the vicissitudes of European history.
Where did this double attitude begin, this simultaneous attention to specificity and pursuit of providential meaning in human affairs? Although some of the ideas and inflections of thought are dateable to earlier stages of thought, the first historian to be clearly identified as historicism’s originator is Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), in his long career as Professor of History at Berlin University (1825-1871). In this first blog, I will look Ranke and the roots of Historismus at the University of Berlin.
Ranke himself was born in 1795 in Saxony, in an area later annexed by Prussia under the terms of the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Ranke was not initially motivated by nationalist concerns. He expressed support for the continuation of both Austrian and Prussian powerbases within the German Confederation, seeing them as stabilising forces within the grouping of states established in the wake of Napoleon’s campaigns and the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire. It was only later, in response to the turbulence of the mid-century, that Ranke would voice his support for the centralisation of power in a conservative, modernised Prussian state.
Ranke’s studies in theology and philology at the University of Leipzig reflected his Lutheran family background, as did his later conviction that all history reflected God’s will. His training in philology, a discipline with roots in biblical study, led to a growing interest in carefully documented history-writing. He became a teacher at a gymnasium at Frankfurt on the Oder on the modern-day border of Poland and Germany, and it was here that he wrote his first book, Histories of the Romanic and Germanic Peoples from 1494-1514 (1824). His early work, already concerned with national character, involved the dense survey of secondary accounts and comparative review of sources which, it is often noted, obfuscated his first work, if not entirely its key concept: that of the Germanic peoples ‘as a historic unity distinct from nations that compose them and distinct from Europe or Christendom as a whole’, as Georg puts it (The German Conception of History, p. 69). Moreover, this first work’s preface contained the seed of his method, above all in the famous sentence that: that the task of history was not ‘to judge the past’, but ‘merely to show what really happened (wie es eigentlich gewesen’). This has become a motto associated with Ranke in English historiography, but in its application we must be sensitive to the particular meaning in the original German. ‘Eigentlich’, translated as ‘really’, is perhaps better read as ‘essentially’, conveying a sense of a deeply embedded orientation. In this case, ‘essential’ truths could be revealed through a dedication to empirical fact.
The principle was expanded then upon in ‘technical appendix’, entitled ‘In Criticism of Modern Historians’, in which Ranke applied the principles of Barthold Georg Niebuhr, one of the most influential historian of the previous generation, had used a similar logic in his Römische Geschichte, 3 vol. (1811–32; History of Rome). Indeed, Ranke built upon several earlier methodological schools, owing a significant debt to the Gottingen School, an 18th century grouping who specialised in the writing of universal history. This was not an original idea; moreover, there had already been an attention to historical specificity in the work of early German romantics, including Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and above all Johann Gottfried von Herder, whose Also a Philosophy of History (1774) is perhaps the key originating text for this concern with individuality and organic development in history (these writers will be dealt with in other blogs in this series).
Historismus / Historicism: Roots at the University of Berlin
In 1825, Ranke was invited to take a chair at the University of Berlin on the strength of his first work, and here he entered an institution, established earlier that century, that harboured several forms of ‘historicist’ thinking including that of its founder, William von Humboldt. In the School of Jurisprudence, Friedrich Carl von Savigny and Karl Friedrich Eichhorn were applying a method of historismus to the field of law. In these instances, a nation’s legal precedents would be viewed in light of their unique conditions and contexts rather than applied according to abstract principle: ‘every law is inseparably woven with the true historical development of a people’ (Iggers, p. 66). Meanwhile, Ranke’s friend Friedrich Schleiermacher applied a similar logic in the University’s School of Theology. The historicist tradition here emphasised Christ’s historical reality; for later theologians this risked denuding the Trinity of transcendent value and validating a monism that would have illiberal as well as liberal uses for later generations.
Set against these scholars’ shared concern for the study of facts, the University also hosted another major school of historical interpretation. Hegel was established by this time as the Professor of Philosophy. Thus within the University of Berlin from 1825 were the founders of two quite different but equally influential approaches to the philosophy of history in the 19th and 20th centuries. What emerges here is an important difference between two approaches to history, which are often blurred within the English usage of the term ‘historicism’.
Historismus in the tradition sketched above dealt with the indwelling, vital, rooted formation of events which could only be gleaned through the empirical, divinatory skills of historians. The term was early on translated into English as ‘historism’.
In contrast, Hegel’s philosophy of history found its meaning through an interaction of with a world-spirit in a more abstract way, sometimes termed panlogism. While the view of Hegelianism as dealing purely with abstractions is reductive, and in fact he was concerned with the interaction of historical actors and local circumstances, these patterns were ultimately seen as the expression of something patterned and recognisable – ‘the cunning of reason’ at work in a dialectic that could be tracked and charted, a secularised eschatology legible to human analysis. The abstract mode of thinking about historical progress would evolve into Marxism and other forms of political utopianism. It was attacked notably by Karl Popper, who, to distinguish it from Rankean historism, called Hegelian or Marxist teleological thinking ‘historicism’. The difference might perhaps be compared to the contrasting nuances of the terms ‘teleology’ and ‘entelechy’: the first term suggests a chartable movement towards an end point in a progressive line; the other describes the complex growth of a seed: an organism beyond analysis, its impetus knitted inwardly with its particular environment.
However, somewhat confusingly, the prevailing tendency in accounts of historismus in English was to translate this Rankean term as historicism. Popper’s usage thus failed to establish the term ‘historicism’ as denoting reductive teleological histories. His polemical attack on ‘historicism’ just after the war in fact exacerbated a confusion between the two usages that continues to this day.
Accounts of this concept need carefully to separate the two schools of thought which were taught side-by-side in the University of Berlin of the 1820s and 30s. Indeed, in the second part of this series, I will explore how this distinction paved the way to two dimensions of German historical thinking that potentially fed into what has been described as the ‘palingenetic ultranationalism’ of Fascist ideology.
Dr Henry Mead is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Academic Adviser at Oxford Programme of Undergraduate Studies. See his profile here.
© Henry Mead. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
Research for this article was supported by a European Research Council Starting Grant (TAU17149) “Between the Times: Embattled Temporalities and Political Imagination in Interwar Europe.
 Ernst Troeltsch, ‘Die Krisis des Historismus’ (1922), in: Ernst Troeltsch – Kritische Gesamtausgabe (further on: KGA) 15, ed. by Gangolf Hübinger and Johannes Mikuteit, Berlin – New York 2002, pp. 437-455.