1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ranke, Leopold von
RANKE, LEOPOLD VON (1795-1886), German historian, was born on the 20th or the 21st of December 1795, in the small town of Wiehe, in Thuringia, which then formed part of the electorate of Saxony. His father, Gottlob Israel Ranke, was an advocate, but his ancestors, so far back as the family can be traced, had been ministers of religion. Leopold received his education first at Donndorf, a school established in an old monastery near his home, and then at the famous school of Schulpforta, whence he passed to the university of Halle and later to that of Berlin. His studies, both at school and university, were classical and theological. The great political events which occurred during his boyhood and youth seem to have had less effect on him than on many of his contemporaries, and he was not carried away either by enthusiastic admiration for Napoleon or by the patriotic fervour of 1813. Nor was he implicated in the political movements which during the following years attracted so many students; on the contrary, he already displayed that detachment of mind which was to be so characteristic of him. In 1818 he became a master in a school at Frankfort-on-the-Oder, thereby entering the service of the Prussian government. The headmaster of this school was Ernst Friedrich Poppo (1794-1866), a celebrated Grecian, and Ranke was entrusted with the teaching of history.
With the scholar's dislike of textbooks, he rapidly acquired a thorough knowledge of the ancient historians, quickly passed on to medieval times, and here it was that he formed as the ideal of his life the study of universal history, the works of God as displayed in the history of the human race. Here, too, he composed his first work, which deals with the period to which most of his life was to be devoted, Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Völker 1494-1514 (Berlin, 1824). To this was appended a critical dissertation on the historians who had dealt with the period (Zur Kritik neuerer Geschichtschreiber), which, showing as it did how untrustworthy was much of traditional history, was to be for modern history as epoch-marking as the critical work of Niebuhr had been in ancient history. A copy of the book was sent to the Prussian minister of education, Karl Albert Kamptz (1769-1849), the notorious hunter of democrats. Within a week Ranke received the promise of a post at Berlin, and in less than three months was appointed supernumerary professor in the university of that city, a striking instance of the promptitude with which the Prussian government recognized scientific merit when, as in Ranke's case, it was free from dangerous political opinions. The connexion thus established in 1825 was to last for fifty years. At the Berlin Library Ranke found a collection of MS. records, chiefly Italian, dealing with the period of the Reformation; from a study of them he found how different were the real events as disclosed in contemporary documents from the history as recorded by most writers; and the result of his researches was embodied in his second work, Fürsten und Völker von Südeuropa im 16 und 17 Jahrhundert (1827). In later editions the title of this book was altered to Die Osmanen und die spanische Monarchie. It was now his ambition to continue his exploration of the new world thus opened to him. The Prussian government provided the means, and in September 1827 he started for Italy. His first sojourn was in Vienna, where the friendship of Gentz and the protection of Metternich opened to him the Venetian archives, of which many were preserved in that city — a virgin field, the value of which he first discovered, and which is still unexhausted. He found time, in addition, to write a short book on Die Serbische Revolution (1829), from material supplied to him by Wuk Stephanowich, a Servian who had himself been witness of the scenes he related. This was afterwards expanded into Serbien und die Türkei im 19 Jahrhundert (1879). In 1828 he at last crossed the Alps, and the next three years were spent in Italy. The recommendations of Metternich opened to him almost every library except the Vatican; and it was during these three years of study in Venice, Ferrara, Rome, Florence and other cities, that he obtained that acquaintance with European history which was to make him the first historian of his time. At Rome, as he said, he learned to see events from the inside. He wrote nothing but a critical examination of the story of Don Carlos, but he returned to Germany a master of his craft.
For a time Ranke was now engaged in an occupation of a different nature, for he was appointed editor of a periodical in which Friedrich Perthes designed to defend the Prussian government against the democratic press. Ranke, contemptuous in politics, as in history, of the men who warped facts to support some abstract theory, especially disliked the doctrinaire liberalism so fashionable at the time. He hoped, by presenting facts as they were, to win the adhesion of all parties. We need not be surprised that he failed; men desired not the scientific treatment of politics, but satire and invective. Exposed thus to attack, his weakness, if not his venality, was long an article of faith among the liberals. He did not satisfy the Prussian conservatives, and after four years the Historische Politische Blätter came to an end. Two-thirds of the matter had been contributed by the editor, and the two stout volumes in which the numbers were collected contained the best political thought which had for long appeared in Germany. For Ranke the failure was not to be regretted; the rest of his life was to be wholly devoted to that in which he excelled. During 1834-36 appeared the three volumes of his Die römischen Päpste, ihre Kirche und ihr Staat im 16 und 17 Jahrhundert (Berlin, 1834-36, and many other editions), in form, as in matter, the greatest of his works, containing the results of his studies in Italy. Henceforth his name was known in all European countries; the English translation by Mrs Austin was the occasion of one of Macaulay's most brilliant essays. Before it was completed he had already begun the researches on which was based the second of his masterpieces, his Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation (Berlin, 1830-47), a necessary pendant to his book on the popes, and the most popular of his works in his own country. In 1837 he became full professor at Berlin; in 1841 Frederick William IV., always ready to recognize intellectual eminence, appointed him Prussian historiographer. Stimulated by this, he brought out his Neun Bücher preussischer Geschichte (1847-48), a work which, chiefly owing to the nature of the subject, makes severe demands on the attention of the reader — he is the “Dryasdust” of Carlyle's Frederick; but in it he laid the foundation for the modern appreciation of the founders of the Prussian state. The nine books were subsequently expanded to twelve (Leipzig, 1874). He took no immediate part in the movements of 1848, but in the following years he drew up several memoranda for the king, whom he encouraged in his efforts to defend the character and identity of the Prussian state against the revolutionaries. Though never admitted into the inner circle of the king's associates, he found the king the most appreciative of readers and stimulating of companions, and the queen one of the most faithful of his friends; in biographical works and on other occasions he always defended the memory of the unfortunate monarch. A friend even more sympathetic he found in Maximilian II. of Bavaria, whom he advised in his expansive schemes for the promotion of learning and letters. In the quieter years that followed he wrote the third of his masterpieces, Französische Geschichte, vornehmlich im 16 und 17 Jahrhundert (Stuttgart, 1852-61), which was followed by his Englische Geschichte, vornehmlich im 16 und 17 Jahrhundert (1859-68). This, the longest of his works, added much to existing knowledge, especially as to the relations between England and the continent, but it lacked something of the freshness of his earlier books; he was over seventy when it was completed, and he was never quite at home in dealing with the parliamentary foundations of English public life. In his later years his small alert figure was one of the most distinguished in the society of Berlin, and every honour open to a man of letters was conferred upon him. He was ennobled in 1865, and in 1885 received the title of Excellenz. When the weakness of his eyes made it necessary for him to depend almost entirely on the service of readers and secretaries, in his eighty-first year he began to write the Weltgeschichte (9 vols., Leipzig, 1883-88). Drawing on the knowledge accumulated during sixty years, he had brought it down to the end of the 15th century before his death in Berlin on the 23rd of May 1886.
Ranke's other writings include Zur deutschen Geschichte. Vom Religionsfrieden bis zum 30 jährigen Kriege (Leipzig, 1868); Geschichte Wallensteins (Leipzig, 1869; 5th ed., 1896); Abhandlungen und Versuche (Leipzig, 1877; a new collection of these writings was edited by A. Dove and T. Wiedemann, Leipzig, Aus dem Briefwechsel Friedrich Wilhelms IV. mit Bunsen (Leipzig, 1873); Die deutschen Machte und der Fürstenbund. Deutsche Geschichte 1780-90 (1871-72); Historisch-biographische Studien (Leipzig, 1878); Ursprung und Beginn der Revolutionskriege 1701-92 (Leipzig, 1875); and Zur Geschichte von Oesterreich und Preussen zwischen den Friedensschlüssen zu Aachen und Hubertusberg (Leipzig, 1875). He also wrote biographies of Frederick the Great and Frederick William IV. for the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie.
Ranke married, at Windermere, in 1843, Miss Clara Graves, daughter of an Irish barrister. She died in 1870, leaving two sons and one daughter.
At the time of his death Ranke was, not in his own country alone, generally regarded as the first of modern historians. It is no disparagement to point out that the recognition he obtained was due not only to his published work, but also to his success as a teacher. His public lectures, indeed, were never largely attended, but in his more private classes, where he dealt with the technical work of a historian, he trained generations of scholars. No one since Heyne has had so great an influence on German academical life, and for a whole generation the Berlin school had no rival. He took paternal pride in the achievements of his pupils, and delighted to see, through them, his influence spreading in every university. While his own work lay chiefly in more modern times, he trained in his classes a school of writers on German medieval history. As must always happen, it is only a part of his characteristics which they learnt from him, for his greatest qualities were incommunicable. The critical method which has since become almost a formal system, aiming at scientific certainty, was with him an unexampled power, based on the insight acquired from wide knowledge, which enabled him to judge the credibility of an author or the genuineness of an authority; but he has made it impossible for any one to attempt to write modern history except on the “narratives of eye-witnesses and the most genuine immediate documents” preserved in the archives. From the beginning he was determined never to allow himself to be misled, in his search for truth, by those theories and prejudices by which nearly every other historian was influenced — Hegelianism, Liberalism, Romanticism, religious and patriotic prejudice; but his superiority to the ordinary passions of the historian could only be attained by those who shared his elevation of character. “My object is simply to find out how the things actually occurred.” “I am first a historian, then a Christian,” he himself said. In another way no historian is less objective, for in his greatest works the whole narrative is coloured by the quality of his mind expressed in his style. An enemy to all controversy and all violence, whether in act or thought, he had a serenity of character comparable only to that of Sophocles or Goethe. Apt to minimize difficulties, to search for the common ground of unity in opponents, he turned aside, with a disdain which superficial critics often mistook for indifference, from the base, the violent and the common. As in a Greek tragedy, we hear in his works the echo of great events and terrible catastrophes; we do not see them. He also made it a principle not to relate that which was already well known, a maxim which necessarily prevented his works attaining a popularity with the unlearned equal to their reputation among historians. But no writer has surpassed him in the clearness and brevity with which he could sum up the characteristics of an epoch in the history of the world, or present and define the great forces by which the world has been influenced. His classicism led to his great limitations as an historian. He did not deal with the history of the people, with economic or social problems — the dignity of history was to him a reality. He belonged to the school of Thucydides and Gibbon, not to that of Macaulay and Taine; he deals by preference with the rulers and leaders of the world, and he strictly limits his field to the history of the state, or, as we should say, political history; and in this he is followed by Seeley, one of the greatest of his adherents. The leader of modern historians, he was in truth a man of the ancien régime.
Many of Ranke's works have been translated into English. Among these are Civil Wars and Monarchy in France, by M. A. Garvey (1852); History of England, principally in the 17th Century (Oxford, 1875); History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations, 1494-1514, by P. A. Ashworth (1887) and again by S. R. Dennis (1909); History of the Reformation in Germany, by S. Austin (1845-47); History of Servia and the Servian Revolution, by Mrs A. Kerr (1847); Ferdinand I. and Maximilian II. of Austria; State of Germany after the Reformation, by Lady Duff Gordon (1853); Memoirs of the House of Brandenburg and History of Prussia during the 17th and 18th Centuries, by Sir Alexander and Lady Duff Gordon (1849); and History of the Popes during the 16th and 17th Centuries, by S. Austin (1840; new eds., 1841 and 1847), by W. K. Kelly (1843), and by E. Foster (1847-53). A collected edition of Ranke's works in fifty-four volumes was issued at Leipzig (1868-90), but this does not contain the Weltgeschichte.
For details of Ranke's life and work see his own Zur eigenen Lebensgeschichte, edited by A. Dove (Leipzig, 1890); and the article by Dove in the Allgemeine deutsche Biographie. Also Winckler, Leopold von Ranke. Lichtstrahlen aus seinen Werken (Berlin, 1885); W. von Giesebrecht, Gedächtnisrede auf Leopold von Ranke (Munich, 1887); Guglia, Leopold von Rankes Leben und Werke (Leipzig, 1893); M. Ritter, Leopold von Ranke (Stuttgart, 1895); Nalbandian, Leopold von Rankes Bildungsjahre und Geschichtsauffassung (Leipzig, 1901); and Helmolt, Leopold Ranke (Leipzig, 1907).