Historical Essays and Studies/Wilhelm von Giesebrecht

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When Giesebrecht died, on 18th December last, there was no difficulty or difference in fixing his place amongst his peers. His rightful rank was ascertained and undisputed. He never became a European classic, like Ranke and Mommsen alone of the German historians. He was neither the head of a school, like Waitz, nor the chief of a party, like Sybel. Disciples of Baur knew more than he about the growth of doctrines, and disciples of Richter about ecclesiastical institutions. Sohm and Gierke were superior to him in politics and law ; Ficker and Denifle were more powerful originators. He did not speak with authority of the things that came before Clovis or after Manfred. Nobody turned to him for explanation of the fitful slumber of the civil code, the rise of universities, the philosophy of Abelard, or the significance and proportion of Citeaux. His limitations were distinctly marked, and they were part of his strength. He spent a long life of labour in mastering a single epoch and writing a single book. But among all his countrymen employed on the Middle Ages no one was more widely known, and read, and trusted ; and his Kaiserzeit was the nearest mediaeval equivalent of the Römische Geschichte and the Zeitalter der Reformation.

He gave himself up, until he was near forty, to the occult studies of the critic, and acquired an almost faultless knowledge of the sources, in print and manuscript, down to the thirteenth century. His training and skill were such that he succeeded in reconstructing a lost chronicle from its derivatives, and the discovery of the forgotten text afterwards proved the fidelity of his work. He depended, perhaps, more on chronicles and biographies than on acts and letters, and was more entirely familiar with the German and Italian publications than with French and English. In those early days, when no great reliance could be placed on editions and collections, it behoved the serious explorer to hew his own material, to decide upon texts and dates, authors and authorities, for himself. As national studies succeeded classical, this work has been taken up by a swarm of zealous students ; essays and dissertations have poured down from every quarter ; and the reigns of the earlier emperors have been examined, year by year, by the most solid historians in the land. Giesebrecht accomplished this, the first part of his duty, so well that Böhmer, in his day, considered him the soundest of mediaeval scholars, and Steindorff, coming after him, declares that he leaves little to glean. The preparation was so thorough, the gestation so prolonged, that his account of Frederic of Hohenstaufen, where he is a pioneer, and few preceding micrographers have broken the clods and sifted the sands, is scarcely inferior to the Gregorian volume, commodiously composed by the light of countless rivals. His tried methods and vast experience made him slow to follow the lead of enterprising juniors. In his youth he had witnessed the crash of falling fables and credulities, and had learnt the ways of the new learning ; but he was guarded against historical iconoclasm, and belonged, as a critic, to an epoch of reconstruction. Criticism, in his hands, was an instrument not of scepticism but of certainty. For plain reasons, the newest surprises the farthest innovations, have been connected with religion Giesebrecht, though no theologian, was a deeply religious Lutheran, an enthusiast in his royalism of so strict a temper that he would never visit Paris, the seat of revolution and corruption. He was not a man to be attracted by audacity in negation and rejection. All the doubt which is cast on statements and documents by the desire to remove an obstacle and promote a purpose was unknown to him. No fact was unwelcome, no proof traversed any favourite view ; for he inherited no tradition, cultivated no prejudice, cherished no legend. He felt the pathos, not the passions of the past. His profound research into the literature of history left him inclining to conservatism ; and he was tender of destroying, not from deficient acuteness but from unswerving integrity.

The revolutionary year 1848 roused him from the somewhat obscure and silent pursuit of evidence. The dream of empire was dispelled by the predestined emperor ; the German people were humbled and dispirited by failure. Giesebrecht resolved to disclose to them what the reality had been. It was the resolve of a good citizen to revive the fading faith, to remind his countrymen of the time when they were the foremost nation, when their monarch, wore the highest earthly crown, and seemed to rule the world. He called up the ages between the Othos and Frederic as a loyal Frenchman revels in the century between Vervins and Ryswick. A finer occasion, a happier inspiration, can scarcely be found in literature. Men of his standing, as able as himself, came to the front just then, taking up the Roman republic, the French revolution, the reign of Napoleon, the policy of Prussia. Some had no real contact with the topic of the day ; others were in so close a contact as to damage the serenity and security of impartial writing. Giesebrecht's subject, containing neither a Protestant church nor a Prussian state, was at a safe distance from practical politics, involved no controversy, and was legitimately popular. Before his book was half finished the empire he believed in was restored, and he doubted for a moment, under the altered conditions, whether it was worth while to continue labours made superfluous by success. He almost seemed to ask himself whether, in fact, he was a scholar making use of an incomparable opportunity, or an astute patriot applying ancient forces to arduous conjunctures of the day.

With unexampled constancy he worked for forty years at the five volumes which carried the imperial history to the end of Frederic Barbarossa. It was the first time that the highest scholarship was united, in German history, with the lighter elements of popularity. In early life, when Ranke asked him what he meant to be, he had answered that he wished to become a dramatist. "Nonsense," said his master ; "you will be a historian." The literary taste and faculty survived the extinction of the poet ; and besides the literary faculty there was the warm patriotism, the afterglow of 1848, the notion of history, neither philosophic nor cosmopolitan, but national.

The first part established his reputation, but did not display him at his best. Beyond all scholars of his rank and resource he was averse from the mechanical parade of inanimate erudition. He would have liked to quote nothing, but to present a compact and convincing narrative, without tags of proof, to a contented public. By degrees he modified his plan, to the advantage of serious readers. When no evidence is required he offers none. We miss the familiar and obvious passages with which the followers of Waitz rejoice to load the foot of the page. He only annotates when he has something particular to tell, some difficulty to explain ; so that every note adds to the information in his narrative. When, as director of the Perthes collection of European histories, he invited Brewer to complete the work which Pauli had abandoned, he was bountiful as to space ; but while he allowed the continuator ten or a dozen volumes he desired to restrict the notes, and did not like to be reminded that his own fill two hundred pages in a volume. In truth, they contain the most penetrating and instructive discussion of authorities to be found anywhere in modern literature, and there are readers who hold them to be a richer prize than the text which they illustrate.

To exact learning, sound criticism, and real literary power Giesebrecht added the rarer virtue of sincerity. Born and bred at Berlin, he went from Königsberg to Munich, and there spent the effective evening of his honoured and prosperous life. Those who complained of Hyperboreans, bringing with them to the South the spirit of a Melanesian apostolate, found it hard to fix reproach on this high-minded and generous North German. From the beginning of Sybel's Historische Zeitschrift, which opened with his inaugural lecture, and from the Ghibelline controversy which, about the same time, brought the Prussian philosophy of history into high relief, it was apparent that he held aloof from the views of many men who were his comrades and friends. All of course would agree that the past must be interpreted and tried by some standard that does not vary, not by the view which each man may have made his own. But then there is the fixed standpoint of manifest destiny. If the past is not judged by the present, it must be judged by the event, which is the verdict of the power that governs the universe. Our view must be based not on theory but experience. History conveys no wisdom to men who refuse to verify and register its conclusions. Failure is always deserved, and that which perishes perishes by its own fault. Nothing in the memory of mankind broke down more disastrously than the scheme of ruling Western Europe by the combined Empire and Papacy. It brought upon the German and Italian people a long succession of sorrows and humiliations ; and its end, like that of ancient Rome, of ancient France, is among the solemn portents of the world. The judgment of ages impresses and imposes itself alike on royalist and republican, Christian and pagan, whose several sympathies have nothing to do with the manifest facts of science.

Giesebrecht was less definite in asserting his opinions, and practised a larger charity. Not being a divine, a canonist, a politician, but a narrator of events, he left it to experts of every kind to moralise, to generalise, to eliminate permanent truths from the succession of causes and effects. Papacy and Empire were the shape in which Germans of the twelfth century understood religion and policy ; he resolutely makes the best of pope and emperor. The hierarchy does not make him an enemy by crushing the liberties of Rome ; and when the emperor puts out the eyes of his prisoners he goes on with unabated interest to tell the rest of his story. In accordance with this easy amenity, made up, in unequal parts, of generosity, indifference, and calculation, he assigns a qualified credit to writers seldom treated seriously, such as Damberger and Sugenheim ; so that he was sometimes accused of favouring the Jesuit and sometimes the Jew ; and when Gfrörer assailed him in the tone of Landor or Carlyle he continued to cite him with respect. His extreme discretion and reserve, the absence of fixtures and of edge, made him fortunate in the limits of his work. He laid down his pen between the pacification of Venice and the third crusade, before the Sicilian marriage which wrecked the empire. If it had come down to the struggle for life or death which destroyed the house of Hohenstaufen and broke up the nation, his studious neutrality would have suffered a painful trial.

His eminent qualities, moral and intellectual, obtained an extended acceptance not given to harder men like Waitz and Dümmler, whom scholars prefer and few but scholars read. Outside of his domain, beyond the two centuries which were essentially his own, he was an excellent teacher and adviser. Every office of literary trust was forced upon him, and the inevitable correspondence explains the prodigious fact that only six months ago he was patiently labouring at a book begun before the middle of the century. He had been one of Ranke's earliest pupils, and remained one of the most faithful and representative observers of the direction which his master gave. He did not entirely escape that habit of the seminary of Berlin to dwell so long on the literary preliminaries that, as in the instance of his friend Koepke, the analysis of writers almost precluded touch with events. But, like his teacher, he wrote not for the school but the nation. Like him he believed that the true knot lay in the mingled fortunes of the Teuton and the Latin, of the race whose portion was the empire and the race that held the priesthood. And it was in the same genuine spirit that he was a gracious and merciful judge of men, forgetful of himself, and deemed it his true function to describe events, committing ideas, institutions, and principles to those whom they professionally concern. His fame will rise or fall with the authority of the school which still reigns supreme. If, taking other examples and other methods into account, historians occupy themselves with all that goes to weave the web of social life, then the work of Giesebrecht, like the work of Ranke, will appear neither sufficient nor efficient, but characteristic of a passing stage in the progress of science. But if politics and history are one, so that the historian has only to record, in absolute purity, the action of organised public forces, then he deserves to be remembered, among the best men of Germany, as one who during his lifetime was unsurpassed in mediæval narrative.


  1. English Historical Review, vol. v. 1890.