Meinecke, Friedrich

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Meinecke, Friedrich



Friedrich Meinecke (1862-1954) was the most important German historian to follow Ranke and Burckhardt. He developed Dilthey’s concept of history of ideas; he followed the philosophy of historicism, first outlined by Ernst Troeltsch and Benedetto Croce, to its logical conclusion; and finally, he achieved a synthesis of historical thought and political action by becoming one of the moral leaders in Germany’s return to democracy after 1945.

Sources of thought. Meinecke was born in the town of Salzwedel in Prussian Saxony but was brought up in Berlin in solid, middle-class surroundings. As a student, he was stirred by the personality of Bismarck and influenced by the sense of discipline and courage found in the Prussian state. But Meinecke was impressed by the classical humanism of German literature and music, poetry, and philosophy as well as by the spirit of Potsdam.

After leaving the Gymnasium, Meinecke entered the University of Berlin, determined to become a historian. There he was initiated into the techniques of historical methodology which Leopold von Ranke and his school had perfected. Meinecke accepted not only their methods but also their general frame of reference; i.e., that the proper subject of study for the historian is conflict among the great powers. He attended the lectures of Johann G. Droysen and Wilhelm Dilthey; Heinrich von Sybel and Heinrich von Treitschke directed his scholarly pursuits.

A speech defect from which he suffered throughout his life made Meinecke choose the career of secluded archivist rather than academic teacher, and in “this dusty trade” he felt at home for many years. Among his fellow archivists was one of the masters of institutional and comparative history, Otto Hintze, who exercised considerable influence on Meinecke. Although Meinecke was shy and withdrawn by nature, his special gifts were soon recognized. In 1893 he was asked to become editor of the Historische Zeitschrift, Germany’s most important historical review.

History of ideas. In these early years of apprenticeship, Meinecke was already concerned with the world of political ideas. He formulated the task of the historian in this manner: “Ideas, carried and transformed by living personalities, [constitute] the canvas of historical life” (Erlebtes . . . p. 117). This sentence represents the core of Meinecke’s Ideengeschichte. He first put this conviction to the test when he wrote the biography (1896-1899) of Hermann von Boyen, the Prussian minister of war who, in 1814, introduced military conscription. It was a pioneering attempt to make the and facts of military history a part of the history of ideas.

Meinecke’s biography established Boyen’s niche in history and Meinecke’s own reputation as one of the most promising talents in Germany’s academic world. His appointment as professor of modern European history at Strasbourg in 1901 was evidence of his immediate recognition. There, in the southwestern corner of Germany, Meinecke encountered some of the best minds then active in that country: Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch, Heinrich Rickert, and many others, and they made him aware of the limitations of his earlier perspectives. One of Meinecke’s characteristics was his never-failing capacity for growth; in Strasbourg, and after 1908 in Freiburg, he shed much of his Prussian parochialism.

For more than a decade Meinecke remained fascinated by the problems and paradoxes of German history, especially the years from 1789 to 1848. In his next work, Welibürgertum und Nationalstaat (1908), he endeavored to show how cosmopolitanism and nationalism had become deeply intertwined in the complex development of nineteenth-century Germany. He showed how both elements could be found in the ideas of Fichte, Novalis, Schlegel, Hegel, and Ranke, and how early German nationalism was made up of politically inconsistent cultural components. As Meinecke saw it, the universalistic tendencies of German thinkers were put to the test in 1848, and the revolution failed because of the incapacity of many Germans to come to grips with the realities of power politics. In this perspective, Bismarck and what he stood for became essential to the German quest for national unity. Hegel, Ranke, and Bismarck were the great liberators who freed the German mind from its romantic mists and created a realistic attitude toward the state.

Meinecke thus traced the philosophical and literary origins of the ideology of the nation-state and went beyond the traditional borderlines of political history. His works were scon recognized as master-pieces in a new field, the biography of ideas or, as it were, of two ideas. He was at his best when analyzing the major polarities in Western thought: order and freedom, nationalism and universalism, power and ethics, “is” and “ought,” uniqueness and recurrence. He became the historian of political ideas par excellence, founding a new school of historical thought, and developing a unique style—subtle, sensitive, and highly expressive of the countless variations and mutations which political ideas produce as they develop.

In Freiburg, Meinecke moved into the political arena for the first time. Abandoning the conservative leanings of his earlier years, he joined the right wing of the liberal party, the National Liberals. His goal was the widening of the foundation of the nation-state to include the ever-growing masses of industrial labor. His initial attempt was timorous and lacking in energy; he approved of representative government, not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end—that of enabling Germany to play her role as a world power.

The nature and justification of power. In 1913 Meinecke accepted an appointment at the University of Berlin. At the outbreak of World War I he was at first uncritically committed to Germany’s imperialistic aspirations. Only slowly did it dawn on him that this conflict harbored consequences surpassing by far the significance of previous engagements between feuding European nations. As the horizon around Germany grew darker, however, Meinecke’s perceptions became more piercing. His keen political analysis and counsel, in turn, began to be sought after by the more thoughtful statesmen of Germany; Richard von Kuhlmann, secretary of state in the Foreign Office, and Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, the hapless chancellor, discussed with Meinecke the unsolved problems of Germany’s domestic situation and the chances for a negotiated peace. He began to work for a peace by compromise and without territorial gains for any of the great powers. He also bent his efforts toward more equitable political representation for the working class. But although his advice was heard in many quarters, it was little heeded.

More important than Meinecke’s remedies for specific problems, however, was his emergent comprehension that the nation-state in which he had so strongly believed was no longer a sufficient answer to the political exigencies of the twentieth century. New questions crowded his mind: what was power? what was Germany’s relationship to the rest of the Western world? what lay behind the great conflict that seemed to be splitting the Occident? Meinecke could not accept the Marxist-Leninist interpretation of the crisis, since world revolution and the revolt of the masses appeared to him as the predominant threats to Western civilization. On the other hand, by the time the war ended he realized that the old, aristocratic Germany was doomed. The downfall of imperial Germany in 1918 filled him with grief but not with despair. He accepted the Weimar Republic as a necessity and was ready to work for a new democratic Germany.

Meinecke’s doubts about the nature and justification of power, aroused by World War I, were crystallized in his book Machiavellism (1924). Meinecke admitted that it was the extreme manifestations of power politics during World War I that had opened his eyes to the dangers of politics divorced from any ethical code. The Treaty of Versailles only served to deepen the lesson; it led him into a historical investigation of theories of the nature and function of power in human life, beginning with Machiavelli, through Bodin and Rohan, to Frederick the Great, Hegel, Ranke, and Treitschke. There are those who consider the book to be a history of Machiavellianism; others view it as an attempt to surmount the teachings of Machiavelli. Neither of these interpretations hits the mark; more nearly, the book is Machiavellianism considered with a guilty conscience. Meinecke could not subscribe to Burckhardt’s and Acton’s thoroughgoing condemnation of power; neither could he any longer assent to the idolatry of power found in Hegel and Treitschke. The result is a dichotomy, a separation of ethics and power that defies reconciliation: the creed of the statesman, said Meinecke, must embody both the interest of the state and the fundamental moral principles of mankind.

Historicism. There is a mood of philosophical reflection in Machiavellism which foreshadows an even more complex enterprise—a study of the genesis of historical thought. In Berlin, Meinecke lived in close contact with Troeltsch, who considered the historical outlook in its most comprehensive sense as characteristic of the twentieth century. In 1922 Troeltsch published Der Historismus und seine Probleme. After Troeltsch’s death in 1923, his work on this subject was continued by Meinecke. However, Meinecke’s perspective was somewhat narrower: as a historian he was more interested in the origins of historical thought than in its significance for the future of Western civilization. In 1936 he published Die Entstehung des Historismus (“The Origins of Historicism”). It is the third of his significant contributions to the history of ideas, completed when Meinecke was well past his seventieth year but dating back to very early reflections on the element of individuality, or uniqueness, in historical life.

German historians had long been hostile to positivistic attempts to reduce human development to “scientific laws”; such attempts, they contended, violate two of the most precious elements in history: spontaneity and uniqueness. Meinecke shared this interpretation of human life and traced it from the late seventeenth century to the twentieth. He defined “historicism” in the following manner: “the essence of historicism consists in replacing a general and abstract contemplation of human affairs by an individual one” (eine individualisierende Betrachtung) ([1936] 1959, p. 2). He did not hesitate to call this concentration on uniqueness the highest achievement in the contemplation of things human. This was an extreme stand, denying both the sociological ideal-type (as Max Weber conceived it) and the ethical norm of universal validity.

Die Entstehung des Historismus begins with an analysis of Shaftesbury, Leibniz, and Vico; it moves into an evaluation of the historiography of the Enlightenment, with special emphasis on Voltaire, Montesquieu, Hume, and Gibbon. From English preromanticism it switches to Möser, Winckelmann, Herder, and Goethe, and it ends with an epilogue on Ranke. Critics have pointed out, with justice, that this history of historicism ends at the moment when the movement really came into its own and that it describes its growth but not its flowering. Likewise, the problem of relativism (inherent in the idea of uniqueness) versus absolute and perennial values is stated by Meinecke but by no means elucidated or solved. Nevertheless, the book marks an important advance in the long discussion among historians, social scientists, and philosophers of the proper subject and the meaning of history.

The German catastrophe. Meinecke might have tried to answer some of these questions more conclusively had it not been for the general conditions of his time. When this book on historicism was published, Hitler had triumphed in Germany. Meinecke had fought with courage against the rise of National Socialism, both in the press and from his chair at the University of Berlin. Some of his close associates were ousted and silenced. Many of Meinecke’s students were obliged to flee the country, and in 1935 Meinecke relinquished the editor-ship of the Historische Zeitschrift. But he was perhaps most oppressed by the foreboding of a second world war. His correspondence clearly reveals that he was one of the few German scholars who never compromised with the authorities and who had the courage to state frankly in his letters what he was not allowed to say in public.

An indefatigable worker, Meinecke spent these years working on his memoirs; they hold a certain charm but do not rank with his contributions to intellectual history. The war did not spare him: he suffered the same privations, the hunger, and bombings, as millions of others. Finally he fled from Berlin, shortly before it fell to the Russians. Once more his mind turned to the enigma of German history, especially to the questions that have puzzled so many observers: how could the advent of Hitler be explained? and further, to what extent was Germany responsible for the greatest retrogression in European civilization since the days of the Black Death?

Meinecke’s answers were given in a small book, The German Catastrophe (1946). He began his analysis with the statement that National Socialism must be understood against the background of our entire Western civilization, against the conflict between the old society and the new industrial masses. And he did not spare those forces which had once elicited his praise: the Prussian state and the German bourgeoisie. The Prussian state, he wrote, had permeated the nation with its militaristic attitude; the bourgeoisie had closed its mind to democratic forms of government, which alone could have brought a reconciliation between itself and the working class. He accounted for the success of a demoniac figure like Hitler by indicating the German social interests which had tried to manipulate the “revolution of nihilism” only to become its victims.

This new approach, an attempt to combine intellectual and social history, is also apparent in other essays that Meinecke wrote after 1945, especially in his comparison of Burckhardt and Ranke (1948 a) and in his appraisal of the revolution of 1848 (1948 b). They reveal, if nothing else, an indomitable will to continue the task of the historian in a world changed beyond recognition from the well-grounded security into which Meinecke had been born.

When a large part of the student body revolted against the oppression of the communist-controlled University of Berlin, it found in Meinecke the leader to head an independent institution—the Free University of Berlin. To have heralded and ushered in so momentous an action is surely one of Meinecke’s titles to lasting fame. His contributions to modern historiography have proved surprisingly durable and have reached well beyond the confines of Germany. They have been emulated, corrected, and improved in Austria, Italy, and, more especially, in the United States, where some of his students carry on his work.

Gerhard Masur

[See alsoHistory; Nationalism; Power; and the biographies of Burckhardt; Croce; Dilthey; Hegel; Hintze; Machiavelli; Ranke; Treitschke; Troeltsch.]


1896-1899 Das Leben des Generalfeldmarshalls Hermann von Boyen. 2 vols. Stuttgart: Cotta.

(1908) 1962 Weltbürgertum und Nationalstaat: Studien zur Genesis des deutschen Nationalstaates. Edited with an introduction by Hans Herzfeld. Munich: Olden-bourg.

(1924) 1962 Machiavellism: The Doctrine of Raison d’État and Its Place in Modern History. New York: Praeger. → Originally published as Die Idee der Staatsräson in der neueren Geschichte. Contains a general introduction to Friedrich Meinecke’s work by Werner Stark.

(1936) 1959 Werke. Volume 3: Die Entstehung des Historismus. Munich: Oldenbourg. → The translation of the extract in the text was provided by Gerhard Masur.

(1946) 1950 The German Catastrophe: Reflections and Recollections. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → First published in German. A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Beacon.

(1948 a) 1954 Ranke and Burckhardt. Pages 141-156 in Hans Kohn (editor), German History: Some New German Views. Boston: Beacon. → First published in German.

(1948 b) 1951 Year 1848 in German History: Reflections on a Centenary. Pages 668-686 in Herman Ausubel (editor), Making of Modern Europe. Volume 2: Waterloo to the Atomic Age. New York: Dryden. → First published as “1848: Eine Sakularbetrachtung.”

Erlebtes: 1862-1919. Stuttgart: Koehler, 1964. → The translation of the extract in the text was provided by Gerhard Masur.

Werke. 6 vols. Munich: Oldenbourg, 1957-1962. → Volume 1: Die Idee der Staatsrdson in der neueren Geschichte. Volume 2: Politische Schriften und Reden. Volume 3: Die Entstehung des Historismus. Volume 4: Zur Theorie und Philosophic der Geschichte. Volume 5: Weltbürgertum und Nationalstaat: Studien zur Genesis des deutschen Nationalstaates. Volume 6: Ausgewdhlter Briefwechsel.


Sterling, Richard W. 1958 Ethics in a World of Power: The Political Ideas of Friedrich Meinecke. Princeton Univ. Press. → Contains a bibliography of Friedrich Meinecke’s writings and books and articles about him.

Friedrich Meinecke

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Friedrich Meinecke

Friedrich Meinecke (1862-1954), Germany's greatest historian in the period from 1890 to 1950, founded a school of the history of ideas and trained many scholars.

Friedrich Meinecke was born in Salzwedel and educated in Berlin. His family belonged to the solid middle class which formed the backbone of imperial Germany. Early in life he decided to become a historian and was trained at the universities of Bonn and Berlin. Hampered by a speech defect, he did not feel he should enter the teaching profession and chose instead the career of archivist. In "this dusty trade" he felt himself quite at home. However, his intellectual qualities were soon recognized, and he was appointed editor of the country's most distinguished review, Die historische Zeitschrift, an office he held until he was ousted by the Nazis in 1935.

Meinecke's first work, a two-volume biography of the Prussian general Hermann von Boyen, was immediately recognized as proof of brilliant and searching scholarship, and he was appointed professor of history at the University of Strassburg in 1901. Until then his outlook had partaken of a somewhat parochial and conservative Prussianism; the move into Alsace opened new horizons for him. In 1908 he published Cosmopolitanism and Nation State (Weltbürgertum und Nationalstaat), which established the history of political ideas as an important and new discipline and evidenced Meinecke's propensity to think in dialectic and even dualistic terms. Throughout his life he pursued the evolution of opposing and even antagonistic ideas, such as cosmopolitanism and nationalism, ethic and power, uniqueness and recurrence. In 1913 he took the chair of modern history at the University of Berlin, which he occupied until his retirement in 1932. At the outbreak of World War I, in 1914, Meinecke was as nationalistic as most Germans, but contacts with leading politicians soon altered his outlook; he began to speak out for domestic reforms and for a peace without annexation. His voice was heard but not heeded. Resignation rather than conviction converted him into a republican when Germany met defeat in 1918, and he began to work for a democratic Germany in earnest. In 1924 he published what may be considered his most important work, Machiavellism (Die Idee der Staatsräson in der neuren Geschichte), a study in intellectual history, but this time devoted to the conflict between ethics and the imperatives of political necessity.

Meinecke continued his close contacts with the leading statesmen of the Weimar Republic and wrote articles remonstrating against the rising tide of fascism. Again his warning was disregarded; Hitler became chancellor in 1933. Many of Meinecke's students fled from Germany or were ousted from their positions, but since he was already past 70, the Nazis did not attack him personally. In 1936 he published a history of the origins of historicism (Die Ursprünge des Historismus).

The outbreak of World War II, which Meinecke had feared and predicted, found him writing his memoirs. The Allied bombings drove him out of Berlin; he found refuge in Franconia and witnessed the American offensive in southern Germany. Surrounded by the cacophony of war, he began an inquiry into the causes of the German disaster, The German Catastrophe (Die deutsche Katastrophe). When the old University of Berlin split and the young veterans refused to commit themselves to the Communist propaganda of East Germany, Meinecke, although 86 years of age and nearly blind, offered his services and became the first rector of the Free University of Berlin.

Further Reading

A full-length study of Meinecke is Richard W. Sterling, Ethics in a World of Power: The Political Ideas of Friedrich Meinecke (1958). Extensive material on Meinecke can also be found in John Higham and others, History (1965); Georg G. Iggers, The German Conception of History (1968); and Fritz K. Ringer, The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933 (1969). □

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