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Ranke, Leopold Von

Ranke, Leopold Von




Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) is one of the great figures of European nineteenth-century scholarship and a founder of modern historical science. The son of a lawyer in a small town of Thuringia, he graduated from Schulpforta, one of the most renowned public schools of Germany, and studied philology and theology at the University of Leipzig. In 1818 he became a teacher of classical languages in the high school (Gymnasium) in Frankfurt on the Oder. In 1824 his first book, the History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations, appeared and immediately brought him wide recognition. Ranke was appointed professor at the University of Berlin and received a travel grant from the Prussian government that permitted him to spend four years abroad, mainly in Italy—decisive years for the development of his historical views. He returned to Berlin in 1831 and, with the exception of extended trips for research in German, French, and English archives, he spent the rest of his life in Berlin. In the historical seminars that he made an essential part of the education of a young historian he trained most of the better-known German historians of the nineteenth century. Ranke retired from teaching in 1871 but continued to work on a last great enterprise, a world history. When he died in 1886, ennobled by the king of Prussia and laden with honors from all countries of the world, he was generally recognized as the greatest historical scholar of the modern world.

Ranke’s collected works comprise 54 volumes. Most famous among them are his history of the popes (1834–1836), his history of the Reformation in Germany (1839–1847), his works on French history (1852) and on English history (1859–1869), and his 12 volumes on Prussian history (1847–1848). All of them focus on developments from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century; they show that Ranke’s main attainment was to provide a scientific basis for the study of modern history.

Ranke’s most important innovation was the introduction of a critical historical method. In an appendix to his first work, the History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations, which was concerned with the development of a European state system around 1500, Ranke showed that the historical works by contemporaries, on which previous treatments of this period were based, were vitiated by personal and political prejudices and should be used only with great caution. When Ranke was in Italy he discovered the reports that Venetian ambassadors delivered before the Senate after their return from their diplomatic missions and realized that such materials of an official character, produced in the course of the conduct of affairs, were far superior to narrative sources as tools for discovering the truth about the past. Thus he established that the materials from which the historian should construct his history ought to be, wherever possible, documentary sources. Both the proposition that serious history ought to be based on archival research and the large-scale publications of documentary source materials that were started in the nineteenth century have their origin in Ranke’s adoption of a new critical method.

This methodological innovation sprang from Ranke’s general notions about the task of the historian: “to show what actually happened” (wie es eigentlich gewesen). This statement sounds simple and matter-of-course, but it was meant to be a challenge to the philosophies of history of the first half of the nineteenth century, particularly the philosophy of Hegel. According to Ranke, history has no final aim that can be abstractly defined and is not an ascending process in which the later period is always superior to the earlier one. Ranke thought that it is almost sacrilegious for man to believe that he can grasp God’s providential plan, but he did believe that history helps reveal the working of God by demonstrating the richness and variety of life. Thus the statement that the historian ought “to show what actually happened” was complementary to another famous pronouncement by Ranke—that “each period is equally close to God.”

For Ranke each period of history has its own individual features: it is unique. Each period, almost each historical phenomenon, reflects a distinctive “idea.” His own deeply religious feeling, his romantic enthusiasm for the “abyss of individuality,” as well as Platonic influences—all combined to form Ranke’s view of the role of “ideas” in history. He had a very fine understanding of the manner in which the various activities of a period —political, literary, intellectual—are permeated by the same spirit and express the same “idea.”

Despite his understanding of the interrelation of all these spheres, Ranke was chiefly a political and diplomatic historian. He belonged to the age of rising nationalism, and his interests were focused on the great powers that were the political embodiments of the spirits of the various European nations. He saw these powers as individualities, as expressions of different “ideas.” The clearest formulation of these views can be found in his essay entitled “A Dialogue on Politics,” published in 1836 in the periodical Historisch—Politische Zeitschrift, which Ranke himself edited and which represented one of his few ventures into the field of practical politics. In the essay Ranke defended the existing governments against the revolutionary movements of 1830 and explained that liberalism could not set a generally valid political pattern because each state was a living organism, an individuality, and must have its own particular institutional forms. The events of foreign policy must form the central interest of the historian because the great powers developed their particular individualities during, and by means of, struggles against each other. Ranke never used the expression “primacy of foreign policy,” but the doctrine that is signified by this term—that external pressure forms and determines the internal structure of a state—is implied in his works. Because Ranke was principally concerned with foreign policy, he had little understanding of the importance of the changes that industrialization brought about in his own century. Ranke was fundamentally conservative.

Ranke’s views are incompatible with the aims of the modern social sciences. He rejected the possibility of laws of social development and of patterns generally applicable to social action or behavior. He was a great writer, and his books are not simply histories but also works of literature. Nevertheless, the turn he gave to the development of historical scholarship did have an influence on the development of the social sciences in that his views were a decisive factor in “professionalizing” history. History became an academic subject that required specialized training, and archival research and the editing of source materials became a great part of the activity of a historian. Although originally such efforts focused on sources for the history of foreign affairs, they soon extended to other aspects of the past: the sources for institutional, economic, and social developments. Thus historical scholarship has produced significant material for all kinds of social research. Moreover, by emphasizing the particular and individual character of each period of the past, Ranke implicitly suggested the existence of a relativity of values and helped to remove the barriers that had prevented an understanding of foreign cultures.

Felix Gilbert

[Directly related are the entriesHistoriography; History. Other relevant material may be found in the biography ofRobinson.]


Von Laue 1950 gives a description of Ranke’s early intellectual development and contains a bibliographical essay. The intellectual roots of Ranke’s views on history have been analyzed in Meinecke 1936. See Vierhaus 1957 for Ranke’s views on social developments and social history, and for Ranke’s part in the professionalization of history see Higham et al. 1965.


(1812–1885) 1964 Aus Werk und Nachlass. Volume 1: Tagebiicher. Edited by Walther Peter Fuchs. Munich: Historische Kommission bei der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. → The first volume of a projected set of Ranke’s previously unpublished works.

(1814–1886a) 1949 Neue Briefe. Edited by Bernhard Hoeft and Hans Herzfeld. Hamburg (Germany): Hoffmann & Campe.

(1814–1886b) 1949 Das Briefwerk. Edited by Walther P. Fuchs. Hamburg (Germany): Hoffmann & Campe.

(1824) 1909 History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations (1494–1514). London: Bell. → First published as Ge-schichte der romanischen und germanischen Volker von 1494 bis 1514.

(1833) 1950 The Great Powers. Pages 181–218 in Theodore H. Von Laue, Leopold Ranke: The Formative Years. Princeton Univ. Press. → First published as “Die grossen Mächte.”

(1834–1836) 1912 The History of the Popes During the Last Four Centuries. 3 vols. London: Bell. → First published as Die römischen Päpste in den letzten 4 Jahrhunderten.

(1836) 1950 A Dialogue on Politics. Pages 152–180 in Theodore H. Von Laue, Leopold Ranke: The Formative Years. Princeton Univ. Press. → First published as “Politisches Gesprach” in Volume 1/2 of the Historisch-Politische Zeitschrift.

(1839–1847) 1905 History of the Reformation in Germany. New York: Dutton. → First published as Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation.

(1847–1848) 1930 Zuöblf Bücher preussischer Geschichte. 5 vols. Munich: Historische Kommission bei der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. → An enlarged edition of the Neun Bucher preussischer Geschichte.

1852 Civil Wars and Monarchy in France, in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: A History of France Principally During That Period. 2 vols. London: Bentley. → First published as Franzbsische Geschichte in five volumes. The English translation was never completed.

(1859–1869) 1966 A History of England Principally in the Seventeenth Century. 6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon. → First published as Englische Geschichte, vornehmlich im sechzehnten und siebzehnten Jahrhundert.

Sämmtliche Werke. 54 vols. 3d ed. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot. 1875–1900.

(1881–1888) 1882–1902 Weltgeschichte. 9 vols. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.


Higham, John; Krieger, Leonard; and Gilbert, Felix 1965 History. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Iggers, George G. 1962 The Image of Ranke in American and German Historical Thought. History and Theory 2:17–40.

Meinecke, Friedrich (1936) 1959 Werke. Volume 3: Die Entstehung des Historismus. Munich: Oldenbourg.

Vierhaus, Rudolf 1957 Ranke und die soziale Welt. Miinster (Germany): Aschendorff.

Von Laue, Theodore H. 1950 Leopold Ranke: The Formative Years. Princeton Univ. Press.

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Leopold von Ranke

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).

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 theEra of the Reformation), which was largely based on the reports of the Imperial Diet in Frankfurt.

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.

Further Reading

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 Sources

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

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Ranke, Leopold von

Leopold von Ranke (lā´ōpôlt fən räng´kə), 1795–1886, German historian, generally recognized as the father of the modern objective historical school. He applied and elaborated Barthold Niebuhr's scientific method of historical investigation. Ranke's aim was to reconstruct the unique periods of the past as they actually were and to avoid injecting the history of former times with the spirit of the present; this approach to historiography is known as historicism. To attain his goal, Ranke insisted that only contemporary accounts and related material be used as sources. His technique depended in large part on exhaustive archival research and on philological criticism of sources.

It is difficult to say whether Ranke was more influential through his writing or through his teaching. As professor at the Univ. of Berlin (1825–71), he inaugurated the seminar system of teaching history and formed an entire generation of historians, who in turn spread his methods throughout the world. Outside Germany, his ideas were particularly influential in England and in the United States. The accumulation of facts and details, serving the purposes of preparatory research and practical training, was a prominent feature of Ranke's method. In his seminars originated the Jahrbücher [yearbooks], which grew into a tremendous repository of information on medieval Germany.

It is implicit in Ranke's work that he regarded history as the result of the divine will. Since he saw power as the overt expression of that will, Ranke concentrated on political, and primarily on diplomatic, developments. He sought to apply his methods to the history of all European nations, and his investigations ranged over a wide field. One of his earliest works was Zur Kritik neuerer Geschichtschreiber [critique of modern historical writing] (1824), which set forth his method; the culmination of his life work was his Weltgeschichte [universal history] (9 vol., 1881–88).

The great body of Ranke's writing is made up of particular histories of the 16th, 17th, and 18th cent. English translations include the enduring Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (3 vol., 1840), Memoirs of the House of Brandenburg and History of Prussia during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (3 vol., 1847–48), Civil Wars and Monarchy in France in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1852), and History of England (6 vol., 1875). Important among his other writings are extensive histories of Prussia and of the rise of the Prussian state. The quantity of his work is as impressive as the quality; the German edition (1867–90) of his complete works numbered 54 volumes without the universal history. Politically a conservative and a monarchist, Ranke did not share the liberalism of some of his Prussian contemporaries.

See G. P. Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (2d ed. 1952, repr. 1965); T. H. Von Laue, Leopold Ranke, the Formative Years (1950, repr. 1970).

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