Part Two: Historismus, Ranke’s Influence and its Ultimate Crisis

In the previous blog, Henry Mead scoped out the nature and origins of ‘Historismus’ in the work of Leopold von Ranke. Today’s second part scopes out Ranke’s influence and his legacy in the subsequent crisis of the concept of historicism during the interwar period.

Leopold von Ranke

Ranke’s Influence

As discussed in the first part of this series, students at the University of Berlin from 1825 would have had the chance to follow the Hegelian or Rankean versions of ‘historicism’ in their choice of faculty. Over the next 50 years, Ranke’s work had a powerful influence, reaching the next generation through his books, lectures and seminars. The books were hefty exemplars of his method, including Princes and Peoples of Southern Europe. The Ottoman and Spanish Empires (1927) and The Serbian Revolution (1829), and The History of the Popes (1834-36) – works which relied often on diplomatic correspondence unearthed in archives across Europe. It was Ranke’s objectivity in treating these documents that brought him the admiration of historians establishing the modern discipline across the West. Lord Acton in his 1895 inaugural lecture at Cambridge wrote how ‘He taught it to be critical, to be colourless, and to be new. We meet him at every step, and he has done more for us than any other man.’

Ranke taught for many years at Berlin. His regular lectures were reportedly often digressive and difficult to follow; more influential were his seminars, bringing together students in a group of around 10-15 to discuss papers submitted by various participants. Ranke’s own papers were received attentively but it was perhaps in the seminar discussion that we might find the true groundwork of the Rankean method – extending its reach and influence on the German academic establishment. For example, students who passed through this seminar went on to teach, publish and lecture themselves, and their responses to Ranke would establish the school of historiography in his method.

What was this method? It went beyond mere meticulous attention to detail in crediting raw materials with some kind of historiographical pattern. Some attributed this to his Lutheran upbringing, which led him to find patterns in events; but Luther’s pessimistic view would see no connection between human and divine patterns, but would rule out any touch of God’s work in the fallen world of men. So, in fact, this desire to see a pattern comes from some other source – his reading of Herder and other nationalists. Ranke was essentially optimistic, seeing no human phenomenon as evil, but as unique in different formats.

Indeed, as the years passed, the political dimensions of this thinking became more apparent. Though not by nature a Prussian nationalist, he was of the Restoration generation that saw the French Revolution as a threat to European civilisation, and treated subsequent periods of turbulence as the products of a foreign universalism at odds with German culture. In 1832, he was invited by a group of conservatives to be the first editor of Historisch-Politische Zeitschrift, a journal established to make the case for modernising the Prussian state. Seeking a strengthened and centralised bureaucracy and government, the journal was hostile to liberal or democratic reform, but also to the retrogressive mind-set of the old aristocratic class. The Prussian state would grow organically out of the soil of the past; this kind of progress would only be endangered by radical institutional change.

Most of Ranke’s theoretical contributions to German historical studies date from the period of his editorship, 1832-1836. His key essay ‘The Great Powers’ (1833) argues for the development of states as a reflection of a divinely ordained balance of powers, each developing in individual ways. This variety was only occasionally overwhelmed by the rise of a dominant force, for example Napoleonic France, in the wake of which the powers soon reverted to a natural diversity and equilibrium.

His ‘Political Dialogue’, an imagined conversation between two brothers, Friedrich and Carl (the former usually seen as representing Ranke’s opinions and the latter as questioning them) describes the emergence of the state as a natural process, unique to a culture, and yet suggesting that such a thing as a perfect state exists. A paradox is seemingly at work here as the emergent German state is implicitly seen as the ideal form, yet Ranke insists on the variety of forms at the same time. Ranke goes on to argue here that power is not the core component of the state, but merely a tool to manifest ‘spiritual forces and tendencies’.

After the journal’s closure in 1836, Ranke’s theoretical and political remarks became less frequent, aside from some notable interventions. In 1841, Frederick Wilhelm IV, the new King of Prussia, who first sought Ranke’s acquaintance in the early 1830s, made him Historiographer to the Prussian State. Frederick Wilhelm continued to seek Ranke’s advice after the upheavals of 1848 and appointed him in 1854 to the Council of State. In his ‘Political Memoranda’ written for the Frederick Wilhelm between 1848-1851, Ranke condemned revolutionary events across Germany and Austria, suggesting that they had been orchestrated and even funded by France. He warned against the liberalizing nationalism of 1848, including the expansion of universal suffrage, and urged a return to monarchical rule. In line with his political statements of the early 1830s, Ranke argued that the king and army were essential to stability in Germany.

Another admirer was King Maximilien of Bavaria, a former student who urged Ranke to accept a post at the University of Munich. While choosing to remain in Berlin, Ranke did become chair of the Historical Commission at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, in which position he delivered the notable lecture, ‘About the Epochs of History’, including the famous assertion that ‘all epochs stand in relation to God’. A unilinear view of historical progress of the sort described by Hegel, was therefore ruled out. Yet this observation of the unique significance of any given age re-introduced the sense of divinely-ordained growth that paradoxically resided at the heart of his particularism.

For Ranke, German nationalism was worryingly linked to earlier democratising forces, which explains his reservations regarding Otto von Bismarck’s policies from the 1860s. In the spirit of the Restoration years, Ranke retained at the mid-century a belief in dual Austrian-Prussian power within the German states. Subsequently, however, he came to accept Prussian dominance as a natural development, as did indeed many liberals, who swung behind the Bismarckian project despite its conservatism.

Though disapproving of the war against Austria in 1866, Ranke accepted that Prussia’s victory was a sign of providential growth, as was the 1871 defeat of Napolean III, which he saw as a defeat of the French revolutionary spirit by German conservative principle. The creation of the German Empire was treated with caution: Bismarck’s concessions to the National Liberals caused Ranke disquiet, as did the rise of the Social Democrats. Yet these fears receded as the liberals lost influence, and Ranke over time came to defend the Chancellor’s policies as necessary to the formation of a strong German state. Thus, the historian from Saxony had helped establish a logic of organic growth to support a view of the righteous rise of Prussia, with a claim to special status, a sign of the sonderweg (or ‘special path’) of Germany. Slowed in its natural course by the prolongation of the Holy Roman Empire’s loose federalism, its centralised power was a sign of what it should always have been: Germany was a ‘delayed nation’ finally reaching its proper status.

Despite such roles in defining Germany’s place in world history, Ranke was by no means as strident a nationalist as some of his contemporaries, but ultimately harked back to the conservatism of the Restoration period. Numbers in his lecture hall were dwindling by the 1870s as the national mood changed, as reflected in the University’s choice of Heinrich von Treitschke to take his place. The University commented that this appointment would ‘do justice also to those circles of students who seek instruction in history for other purposes that to dedicate themselves exclusively to the study of history and historical research’ (Iggers, p xxiii). Indeed, the arrival of Trietschke marks a heightening of nationalist historicism, in line with the new Prussian School of History, centred on Johann Gustav Droysen and Heinrich von Sybel.

Ranke’s differentiation from this group is notable; he belonged to an earlier worldview, one that placed at its heart the idea of a ‘balance of power’. His displacement at Berlin marks this shift, as does the criticism increasingly levelled at his work for its close focus on foreign affairs and diplomatic papers at the expense of a wider sense of social and economic forces.

Having retired from teaching at the age of 83 because of poor eyesight, Ranke in his last years began work on what he called a Universal History, completing 17 volumes before his death in 1883. The Universal History was never completed but Ranke’s ambition here suggests that his particularism and the Idealist philosophy of history were not completely at odds. Ranke’s legacy according to most accounts marked the division of German historiography from Hegelian philosophy. However, his ‘scientific’ history were tied, ultimately, to a belief in a pattern emerging through particular data; a sense of the destiny of nations or their conception as ‘the thoughts of God’, as he put it in the ‘Political Dialogue’. This was a method that both urged a positivism and a projection of national providence. Karl Popper’s attack on ‘historicism’ omits from its critique the term’s Rankean signification, which stands at odds with the clean, rational lines of Popper’s Idealist bêtes noires, but remains a key part of nationalist thinking in the early 20th century.

The Prussian School, the subject of the next essay in this series, accentuated this view and signalled the strongest argument yet for the emergence of a strong ‘small Germany’ in line with Bismarck’s thinking, leading the way towards the more virulent nationalism of the twentieth century. The path would not be straightforward though, but complicated by philosophic challenges to the organic metaphor which Ranke, like Herder and Humboldt before him, had placed at the heart of the German historiography. The epistemic challenges of the late 19th century would render this tradition prone to both a relativistic doubt and a virulent political Darwinism, together seen as steps in the rise of 20th century ultranationalism, as we shall see in the next two essays.

Dr Henry Mead is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Academic Adviser at Oxford Programme of Undergraduate Studies. See his profile here.

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