Treitschke, Heinrich von

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Treitschke, Heinrich von



Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896), German historian and political publicist, was born in Dresden, the son of an army officer. He had planned a military career but was disqualified by an ear affliction that affected his hearing, and so he took up the study of political science and history instead. He also dabbled in poetry and playwriting and for a time thought of devoting himself to literary pursuits. His lectures and writings bear distinct traces of the poet and dramatist, just as their militant spirit reflects his earlier interest in a soldier’s career.

Treitschke’s interest in politics was first awakened when he was a high school student. Deeply disappointed by the failure of the revolution of 1848, he devoted much thought and study to the cause of German unification. As a student at the University of Bonn, he was influenced by his teacher Friedrich Christoph Dahlmann and by the writings of August Ludwig von Rochau, the creator of the concept of Realpolitik, and he came to the conclusion that unification could be achieved only by a combination of national enthusiasm and power and that Prussia alone could generate both. He became a contributor to, and later editor of, the Preussische Jahrbücher, a monthly dedicated to the Prussian-led unification of Germany. To the embarrassment of his family and at great risk to his academic career, he also advocated that cause after he had become Privatdozent at the University of Leipzig.

Initially, Treitschke hoped that Prussia would win its role as leader of Germany at least partly through “moral conquests,” and he objected strongly to the appointment of Bismarck as Prussian minister-president. But he became an ardent supporter of Bismarck after Prussia’s victory over Denmark in 1864 had convinced him of the effectiveness of power politics. By then he had become assistant professor of political science at Freiburg (Breisgau ). Forced to leave Freiburg at the outbreak of the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, he became professor of history at the University of Kiel and, later, at the universities of Heidelberg, in 1867, and Berlin, in 1874, receiving these appointments more because of his political views than his scholarly attainments. Treitschke was an eloquent and exciting teacher in spite of his growing deafness.

In the early 1860s Treitschke had sided with the liberal supporters of German unification, but he had always been essentially conservative, especially in his social views. After unification (in 1871) he became increasingly conservative politically too. Elected a deputy to the Reichstag on the National Liberal ticket, he eventually broke with that party and ran as an independent; he later withdrew from politics altogether. He came to detest liberalism as the embodiment of economic interests; he fought the Roman Catholics during the Kulturkampf on the grounds that they were weakening the state with their insistence on civil and religious liberties; and he turned on the Jews because, in his view, they refused to become wholehearted Germans and injected a dangerous materialistic, unheroic element into the German mind. As one who had always felt that the country should be ruled by an elite of birth and education, Treitschke also fought violently against the political aspirations of the workers, embodied in the emerging Social Democratic party.

To Treitschke, the only effective counterweight to these corrupting and demoralizing forces was a strong monarchy resting on a nonpartisan bureaucracy and a powerful army. The army’s domestic function would be primarily educational; it would teach idealism, discipline, and dedication. The parliament, in addition to its legislative function, would guard the country against possible abuses by the bureaucracy, but its power of the purse would be severely curtailed.

In his lectures and in his writing, Treitschke tried to fight selfishness and materialism. His famous course on politics (see 1897-1898), a “must” for students from all departments, extolled the state as the iron framework within which selfish interests are controlled, and he saw war as the great purifier of the nation. In his main work, the uncompleted History of Germany in the Nineteenth Century (1879-1894), he provided the nation with an inspirational guide to its past, describing Prussian determination and discipline as having triumphed over the egotism and complacency of the Austrians and South Germans.

Treitschke was not unaware of moral and spiritual values, but in his preoccupation with national strength and self-discipline his view of the state as a moral community was overshadowed by his emphasis on its power. He thus implanted in his students a spirit of arrogant, uncouth nationalism, which he was the first to deplore when it became the dominant theme of German policy under William n. As the admired teacher of thousands of other teachers, judges, administrators, and politicians, Treitschke helped to mold the political and social atmosphere of Germany from the 1880s to the 1920s, as many of his students and readers— for example, Max Weber, Friedrich Meinecke, Hem-rich Class, Admiral von Tirpitz, and Prince Bern-hard von Biilow—have testified. He was not a direct spiritual ancestor of National Socialism, but by his stress on the need for authoritarianism and power he helped to make the nation receptive to Nazi ideas.

Most of Treitschke’s works are now interesting only as historical documents. His German History, however, is still read both for its literary value and, in parts at least, as an important source of scholarly information.

Andreas Dorpalen

[For the historical context and subsequent development of Treitschke’s ideas, see Dictatorship; National Socialism; Nationalism.]


(1865-1867) 1896-1897 Historische und politische Aufsatze. 5th ed. 4 vols. Leipzig: Hirzel.

(1874) 1897 Zehn Jahre deutscher Kampfe: Schriften zur Tagespolitik. 3d ed. 2 vols. Berlin: Relmer. → Volume 1: Von 1865-1870. Volume 2: Von 1871-1879. The first edition had the subtitle 1865-1874.

(1879-1894) 1915-1919 History of Germany in the Nineteenth Century. 7 vols. New York: McBride. → First published in German.

1896 Deutsche Kdmpfe; neue Folge: Schriften zur Tages-politik. Leipzig: Hirzel.

(1897-1898) 1916 Politics. 2 vols. London: Constable. → From university lectures covering thirty years. Har-court published an abridged edition in 1963.

(1913-1920) Heinrich von Treitschkes Briefe. 3 vols. in 4. Edited by M. Cornicelius. Leipzig: Hirzel.


Bussmann, Walter 1952 Treitschke: S.ein Welt- und Geschichtsbild. Götingen: Musterschmidt.

Bussmann, Walter 1954 Treitschke als Politiker. Historische Zeitschrift 177:249-279.

Curtius, Friedrich 1900 Treitschkes Politik. Deutsche Rundschau 105:196-216.

Dorpalen, Andreas 1957 Heinrich von Treitschke. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Hausrath, Adolf (1901) 1914 Treitschke: His Doctrine of German Destiny and Internal Relations, Together With a Study of His Life and Work. New York: Putnam. → First published in German.

Kohn, Hans (1946) 1952 Prophets and Peoples. New York: Macmillan.

Leipprand, Ernst 1935 Heinrich von Treitschke im deutschen Geistesleben des 19. Jahrhunderts. Stuttgart (Germany): Kohlhammer.

Treitschke, Heinrich von

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TREITSCHKE, HEINRICH VON (1834–1896), German nationalist.

Born on 15 September 1834 in Dresden, the future champion of Prussian-led German unification Heinrich von Treitschke grew up in the aristocratic, conservative, and provincial atmosphere of the capital of the kingdom of Saxony. The son of an army officer who eventually rose to the rank of general and a mother who descended from a venerable Saxon noble family, Treitschke became interested at an early age in German nationalism, convinced as early as 1848 that only the Prussian monarchy could unite the Germans states. Prevented from becoming an officer due to a childhood ear affliction that eventually resulted in total deafness, Treitschke graduated in 1851 from the elite Holy Cross secondary school and went on to study history, political economy, and state administration in Bonn, Leipzig, Tübingen, Freiburg, and Heidelberg before taking a teaching position at the University of Leipzig in 1859.

As a university professor and a contributor to the journal Preussische Jahrbücher, Treitschke initially promoted German unification from a classically liberal standpoint. Prussia's current authoritarian nature, Treitschke believed, hindered unification because it represented a foreign-influenced perversion of the ideal traditional Prussian state, one based on collaboration between the monarchy and a civil service dominated by the educated bourgeoisie. Events in the 1860s caused Treitschke to revise his opinions. Prussia's victories over Denmark in 1864 and Austria in 1866 convinced him to overlook Otto von Bismarck's role in the conflict between the Prussian state and its parliament and to begin to believe that Bismarck could succeed in forging a centralized nation-state in central Europe. The founding of the German Empire in 1871 largely fulfilled Treitschke's wishes, despite reservations concerning, among other things, Germany's weak federalist structure.

Although he served as a deputy in the national parliament until 1884, Treitschke exerted his influence primarily through his writings and lectures. His five-volume, unfinished monumental German History in the Nineteenth Century, begun in 1879, chronicled political, economic, theological, philosophical, and cultural developments in the period up to 1848. Like his other writings, this work wedded his deeply felt political convictions with his interest in historical events; the first two decades of the century were characterized as a blossoming of the national ideal that was crushed after 1815 by the triumph of small-minded German particularism and the unnatural and pernicious domination of central Europe by the Habsburg Monarchy. Clear to contemporary readers was the implicit glorification of Prussia's role in creating a unified nation-state.

In his published essays, Treitschke engaged many of the pressing issues of the day. He supported Bismarck in the anti-Catholic Kulturkampf of the 1870s, and he railed against socialism and its proponents within academe. Treitschke also played an important role in making respectable and thereby spreading anti-Semitism within German society. Although he claimed to abhor the violent manifestations of anti-Semitism, Treitschke attacked Germany's Jews in print, accusing them of undermining traditional German values and thereby weakening the German state. Generations of anti-Semites would thank him for the infamous slogan "the Jews are our misfortune."

By the mid-1880s, Treitschke was calling for Germany's acquisition of overseas colonies. "All great nations in history felt the urge to impress the stamp of their authority on barbaric countries while they felt strong enough to do so," Treitschke wrote. "He who does not take part in this gigantic competition is destined to cut a poor figure one day. … It is therefore a vital question for the [German] nation to show colonial drive" (quoted in Winzen, p. 160). A consequence of his growing interest in the issue of German expansion was a growing hatred of Great Britain. For Treitschke, Great Britain represented a "reactionary power" that would have to be dealt with if Germany were to realize the goals of Weltpolitik. Moreover, Treitschke believed that military conflict with England or other powers was not only inevitable but also legitimate and often beneficial.

Although most historians believe Treitschke contributed very little to the discipline of history, scholars recognize his enormous impact on the many Germans who attended his lectures or read his articles. Lecturing to overflow crowds at Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm University, Treitschke helped to instill imperialistic, chauvinistic, and anti-Semitic values in a generation of young men, many of whom later occupied important positions in the Wilhelmine state and its society. Men such as Carl Peters, Alfred von Tirpitz, Bernhard von Bülow, and Helmuth Johannes von Moltke learned from Treitschke of the positive effects of war, the essential foreignness of Jews and non-Germans, and the deficiencies of parliamentary democracy. Whether such teachings laid the foundation for National Socialism remains a subject of debate among scholars.

See alsoAnti-Semitism; Imperialism; Nationalism; Ranke, Leopold von.


Bussmann, Walter. "Heinrich von Treitschke 1834–1896." In Die Grossen Deutschen. Deutsche Biographie, edited by Hermann Heimpel, Theodor Heuss, and Benno Reifenberg. Berlin, 1957.

Dorpalen, Andreas. Heinrich von Treitschke. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957.

——. "Heinrich von Treitschke." Journal of Contemporary History 7, nos. 3–4 (1972): 21–35.

Iggers, Georg. "Heinrich von Treitschke." In Deutsche Historiker. Band II, edited by Hans-Ulrich Wehler. Göttingen, 1971.

Kupisch, Karl. Die Hieroglyphe Gottes. Grosse Historiker der bürgerlichen Epoche von Ranke bis Meinicke. Munich, 1967.

Langer, Ulrich. Heinrich von Treitschke. Politische Biographie eines deutschen Nationalisten. Düsseldorf, 1998.

Loftus, Ilse. "Bismarck and the Prussian Historians." In Imperial Germany. Essays, edited by Volker Dürr, Kathy Harms, and Peter Hayes. Madison, Wisc., 1985.

Winzen, Peter. "Treitschke's Influence on the Rise of Imperialist and Anti-British Nationalism in Germany." In Nationalist and Racialist Movements in Britain and Germany Before 1914, edited by Paul Kennedy and Anthony Nicholls. London, 1981.

Charles Lansing

Heinrich von Treitschke

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Heinrich von Treitschke

The German historian, politician, and political publicist Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896) was the most famous and influential member of the Prussian school of history in 19th-century Germany. He advocated a powerful German state under Prussian leadership.

Heinrich von Treitschke was born on Sept. 15, 1834, in Dresden. His father, who rose to general officer's rank in the service of the Saxon monarchy, was of German-Czech descent, had been ennobled in 1821, and maintained his aristocratic conservatism and loyalty to the Saxon royal family throughout his life. Young Heinrich showed early intellectual promise in his schooling, which, however, was interrupted at the age of 8 by a severe case of measles complicated by glandular fever which led to increasing loss of hearing. Thus a career of public service as a soldier or statesman-politician became impossible, and Heinrich decided on a life of scholarship.

His Education

Attending Dresden's Holy Cross Gymnasium (high school) from 1846 to 1851, Treitschke was exposed not only to the traditional classical education but also to liberal ideas critical of the semiabsolutism of the times. The study of German literature under Julius Klee and personal observations of the political events of the revolutionary years 1848-1849 molded Treitschke's tendency toward strong political conviction into an attitude of enthusiastic support for a constitutional, united Germany under Prussian leadership.

From 1851 to 1854 Treitschke studied at the universities of Bonn, Leipzig, Tübingen, and Freiburg, attending classes under F. C. Dahlmann, the political economist Wilhelm Roscher, and the eminent Tübingen philosopher Friedrich Theodor Vischer.

After a brief interlude in Dresden, Treitschke studied at Göttingen and Leipzig. He succeeded in publishing two volumes of poems, Patriotic Songs (1856) and Studies (1857). In 1858 he finished his habilitation thesis, Die Gesellschaftswissenschaft (1859; The Science of Society), which earned him an appointment as lecturer at the University of Leipzig in 1859.

The political atmosphere in Leipzig did not prove congenial, and in 1863 Treitschke accepted a professorial appointment at Freiburg. Here he wrote his famous essay Bundesstaat und Einheitsstaat (1863-1864; Federation and Centralization). In 1866, when Baden joined Austria in war against Prussia, Treitschke resigned his position at Freiburg and demanded in a pamphlet, The Future of the North German Middle States, the annexation of Hanover, Hesse, and Saxony by Prussia.

Political Activities

Although Treitschke was estranged from his father, his fame as a political publicist had now reached national eminence. Positions at Kiel (1866) and Heidelberg (1867-1874) followed before he finally settled in Berlin. His strong Prussian sentiments had earned him appointment as editor of the Preussische Jahrbücher (Prussian Annals) in 1866 and election to the German Reichstag (House of Deputies) in 1871. Although originally affiliated with the National Liberal party, he left that party in 1879 to support Bismarck's new commercial policy and held his seat until 1884 as an independent member with conservative leanings.

The period from 1859 to 1871 is important for Treitschke's development. More and more he abandoned his original liberal constitutional attitude and became an ever more ardent advocate of the power state, of war as the noblest activity of man, and of a German expansionist, cultural mission under Prussian leadership which would establish Germany as an equal among the world powers. Although he counted among his close friends a number of Jews, he participated in the anti-Semitic movement of the late 1870s, proclaiming that Jewry could play an important role only if its individual members were to merge themselves with the nationality of their state.

History of Germany

Treitschke had planned to write a history of Germany since 1861; but not until he had settled in Berlin, where the Prussian archives were close at hand, did the work progress. The first volume of his Deutsche Geschichte im 19. Jahrhundert (German History in the 19th Century) was published in 1879, starting with the Napoleonic period. The fifth volume, published in 1894, brought the narrative only to the beginning of 1848. Although this, the greatest of his works, also suffered from the shortcomings of Treitschke's emotional patriotic nature and was limited to the almost exclusive use of the Prussian archives, it nevertheless constitutes a major contribution to historical writing. Its literary style and power of expression have been likened to Friedrich von Schiller's diction and Johann Gottlieb Fichte's rhetoric. In spite of his tendency to oversimplify complicated events, Treitschke exhibited a grasp of detail and power to synthesize that produced a general cultural historical setting uncommon among the works of historians of his time.

Other important historical and political essays were published in four volumes as Historische und Politische Aufsätze (1896; Historical and Political Essays); and his lectures on politics were collected and published in two volumes as Vorlesungen über Politik (1898; Politics).

Treitschke died on April 28, 1896, in Berlin. His influence during his lifetime was threefold: as teacher, political propagandist, and historian. A generation of students and of the general public was affected by his political lectures and nationalistic journalism, and even abroad he was often regarded as an official mouthpiece of German policy.

Although after his death Treitschke's influence among German historians, who generally preferred to follow the more balanced methodological example of the Ranke school of historical writing, became largely dormant, it was revived in coarsened form by Nazi ideologists, who utilized his unbridled nationalism as a point of departure for their thought and actions.

Further Reading

The best full-length biography of Treitschke is Andreas Dorpalen, Heinrich von Treitschke (1957). Adolf Hausrath, Treitschke: His Doctrine of German Destiny and of International Relations (1914), combines a section on Treitschke's life and work with a number of his essays reprinted in English. Henry W.C. Davis, The Political Thought of Heinrich von Treitschke (1914), attempts to analyze Treitschke's work within the context of his time. For background see G.P. Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913; rev. ed. 1952); Antoine Guillard, Modern Germany and Her Historians (1915); and Georg Iggers, The German Conception of History (1968). □

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