Meinecke, Friedrich (1862–1954)

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Friedrich Meinecke, the German historian and political philosopher, was small in stature and somewhat frail but remained mentally very vigorous and intellectually prolific until his death at the age of ninety-two. His great charm and influence were due partly to his erudition, partly to his modesty, and partly to two conflicting tendencies in his thinking that he continually sought to reconcile.

One of these tendencies was his patriotism and loyalty to Germany's best traditions of the past. As a boy he had been thrilled by the sight of the victorious German troops marching home through the Brandenburg Gate after the Franco-Prussian War. Later he admired the skill with which Otto von Bismarck established the long-desired unification of his country and saw with pride Germany's industrial and commercial expansion into a great power. After studying under the Prussian nationalist historian J. G. Droysen, Meinecke became an archivist and published in rapid succession several valuable historical works, including accounts of the German uprising against Napoleon Bonaparte and a two-volume biography of Hermann von Boyen, one of the leading figures in the reorganization and liberalization of Prussia in the early nineteenth century. In 1893 he was appointed an editor of the leading German historical journal, Historische Zeitschrift, a post that he filled with distinction for forty years until ousted by the Nazis.

The second tendency in Meinecke's thinking asserted itself in 1901 when he became deeply occupied with the problems of European political philosophy. In that year he was promoted to a teaching position at the University of Strassburg, later moving to Freiburg. Here in these two cities in the beautiful Rhine valley Meinecke's eyes were opened to the charm of the countryside. His talks with the Roman Catholic population and scholars and his contact with French culture widened his outlook and quickened his philosophical interests. These were his happiest years. In 1914 he was appointed to a permanent professorship at Berlin.

Meinecke's dual preoccupation with liberal culture and with Prussia found expression in a perceptive account of German development. Weltbürgertum und Nationalstaat (1908) examines the views of many cosmopolitan liberals and political leaders and, at the same time, analyzes the characteristics and pretensions of the Prussian state, which had been exaggerated by G. W. F. Hegel. It was supplemented by some two dozen articles written by Meinecke in the following years and reprinted in Preussen und Deutschland (1918).

Can reason of state justify the employment of might against right? May a state properly do things that are ethically forbidden to the ordinary citizen? Does it enjoy a code of morals above and beyond that of the private individual? Meinecke's classic treatment of these old but perennial questions, Die Idee der Staatsräson in der neueren Geschichte (1924), examines meticulously the actions of various European rulers and statesmen and the writings of numerous political theorists from Niccolò Machiavelli to Heinrich von Treitschke. Meinecke comes to the conclusion that, since power is the essence of its existence, the state is justified in using such means as are necessary to maintain and even extend its power, but that this power is limited by the state's obligation to protect the rights of its citizens and to promote their cultural and material welfare. It is, however, practically impossible to draw a precise line between state egoism and ideal morality.

Meinecke always preferred to till a small area where he could closely observe concrete facts and deal with them in a rigorously critical scientific manner. For Leopold von Ranke and Jakob Burckhardt he had the highest regard. He rejected the grandiose theoretical constructions of Karl Lamprecht, Oswald Spengler, and Arnold Toynbee. If he could be said to have had any one primary underlying thought, it would be that of individualitythe unique individual character of every event, person, social group, nation-state, or idea. In addition he believed in evolutionthe capacity of every individuality for development either by growth or decay. Hence his preoccupation with Machiavelli, Cardinal Richelieu, Freiherr vom Stein, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Joseph Maria von Radowitz, Bismarck, and Adolf Hitler. Meinecke's conceptions of individuality and evolution contributed to the new way of historical thinking, now known as "historicism," which developed in the age of Johann Gottfried Herder and Goethe and which Meinecke minutely unfolded in Die Entstehung des Historismus (1936). Historicism dealt a sharp blow to unquestioning belief in absolute values, optimistic positivism, religious creeds, and natural law. It opened wide the floodgates of relativism. Meinecke, however, was not unaware of the aberrations resulting from historicism and tried to counteract them by repeatedly insisting that the only sure and safe guide to morality and conduct is the individual's own conscience.

With the advent to power of the Nazis, Meinecke was forced to retire from active teaching, and under their tyranny he suffered spiritual agony and physical hardship. He might have escaped abroad as did so many others; but he remained in the country hoping to hasten Hitler's downfall and by his own advice and influence to help to lead Germany back to its older and better traditions. He was a close personal friend of General Beck and had some inkling of the plots to get rid of Hitler, but did not participate actively in them. His last contribution to an understanding of German history and his own interpretation of it was his little volume Die deutsche Katastrophe in 1946. Later, when the University of Berlin fell under communist control he took the lead in founding the new Free University in West Berlin, of which he was appropriately chosen rector.

See also Burckhardt, Jakob; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Historicism; Humboldt, Wilhelm von; Machiavelli, Niccolò; Political Philosophy, History of; Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst; Spengler, Oswald; Toynbee, Arnold Joseph.


works by meinecke

The principal works of Friedrich Meinecke are Weltbürgertum und Nationalstaat (Munich and Berlin, 1908; 7th ed., 1929); Preussen und Deutschland (Munich and Berlin, 1918); Die Idee der Staatsräson in der neueren Geschichte (Munich and Berlin: Oldenbourg, 1924), translated by D. Scott as Machiavellism: The Doctrine of Raison d'État and Its Place in Modern History (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957); and Die Entstehung des Historismus, 2 vols. (Munich and Berlin: Oldenbourg, 1936). Die deutsche Katastrophe (Wiesbaden: Brockhaus, 1946), translated by Sidney B. Fay as The German Catastrophe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950, and Boston, 1962), written at the moment of Germany's utter defeat and deepest despair, contains Meinecke's penetrating reflections on the preceding hundred years, the causes of the Nazi disaster, and his faith in the future. Two short autobiographical volumes are Erlebtes, 18621901 (Leipzig: Koehler and Amelang, 1941) and Strassburg-Freiburg-Berlin, 19011914 (Stuttgart: Koehler, 1949). A six-volume edition of part of his works was published for the Friedrich Meinecke Institute of the University of Berlin between 1957 and 1962; this edition contains a volume of his correspondence and a reprint, with valuable editorial introductions and notes, of his more important writings. See also Meinecke's Cosmopolitanism and the National State, translated by Robert B. Kimber (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970); Historism: The Rise of a New Historical Outlook, translated by J. E. Anderson (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972); and The Age of German Liberation, 17951954, edited by Peter Paret, translated by Paret and Helmuth Fischer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).

works about meinecke

One of the best books on Meinecke and historicism is Walther Hofer, Geschichtschreibung und Weltanschauung: Betrachtungen zum Werk Friedrich Meineckes (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1950). A bibliography of writings by and about Meinecke may be found in the Historische Zeitschrift, Vol. 174, 503523.

additional sources

Pois, Robert A. Friedrich Meinecke and German Politics in the Twentieth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Sterling, Richard W. Ethics in a World of Power: The Political Ideas of Friedrich Meinecke. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958.

Wolfson, Philip J. "Friedrich Meinecke (18621954)." Journal of the History of Ideas 17 (1956): 511525.

Sidney B. Fay (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)

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