Leopold von Ranke

Alex Rover | July 19, 2023


Leopold von Ranke (December 21, 1795, Wiehe – May 23, 1886, Berlin) was an official historiographer of Prussia (from 1841) who developed the methodology of modern historiography based on archival sources and the pursuit of historicism. He introduced historical seminars into academic practice, from which many prominent historians emerged.

Member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences (1832), foreign corresponding member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (1860), foreign member of the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences (1860).

Ranke spent his childhood in a strictly religious and conservative environment. Ranke’s father was a lawyer and all his ancestors were clergymen.

He studied at the Dondorf Convent School, then at Schulpfort and at the University of Leipzig. The first lecture that Ranke attended was a lecture on history by the famous Professor Wieland, and this lecture discouraged him from studying history for a long time; he was more interested in philology, theology and philosophy.

An interest in antiquity was aroused in Ranke by reading Niebuhr, the first historical book which, in his own words, made an impression on him. Of the philosophers, Fichte had the greatest influence on Ranke.

For more than seven years, Ranke was a teacher of history and ancient languages at the Frankfurt (on the Oder) Gymnasium, studying Thucydides, Herodotus and Roman historians, and then medieval history, exclusively from sources. Ranke, like O. Thierry, was strongly impressed by W. Scott.

W. Scott’s historical novel “Quentin Dorward” pushed Ranke to F. de Commine, and the latter forced him to abandon those historical fictions, which were full of Scott’s novels. In 1824 Ranke’s first historical work, “History of the Romance and Germanic Peoples, 1494-1635,” was published.

Ranke was interested here more than anything else in the individuality of each historical figure, who under his pen receives a quite concrete image; the primum agens of history is the individual. In this view Ranke agreed with Goethe, W. Humboldt and Jacobi.

Ranke defines the task of his first work as follows: to show how events really happened (“wie es eigentlich gewesen”), without becoming a judge of the past or teaching his contemporaries. He has already shown here the objectivity that so sharply distinguishes him from Niebuhr.

The critical essay “Zur Kritik neuerer Geschichtschreiber” appended to the History of the Romance and Germanic Peoples marked the beginning of a new era in historical science. Here the author clarifies the method he followed in the use of sources, characterizes the best of them and, moving on to “was noch zu thun sei”, recommends the study of archival riches – acts, letters, ambassadorial reports.

In 1825 Ranke was invited to the University of Berlin to the chair of general history. He gave a general course in the history of Western Europe with a survey of literary and church history; among his many students was, among others, G. H. Hildebrand. In Berlin Ranke fell into the liberal circle of Varnhagen von Enze, in whose salon modern political questions were debated. This led Ranke to study modern history.

In the Berlin Library, Ranke found 48 volumes of unprinted Italian reports, mostly dealing with the history of southern Europe. He made use of them in his new work “The Sovereigns and Peoples of Southern Europe in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” (“Die Osmanen und die Spanische Monarchie im XVI u. XVII J.,” as he called the study in its new edition). XVII J.”, as he called this study in its new edition). And in this work historical personalities are in the foreground, their image becomes even more plastic: next to this the author notes the historical connection of events, points to the unity of the world-historical process; his criticism strikes with accuracy, thoroughness and methodicalness.

Ranck combines researcher, philosopher and artist with a marvelous harmony: he is objective to the point of coldness. An individual event is important to him only as a moment in the development of the absolute spirit (it does not occur to him, as an artist, to nurture these feelings for his heroes. In 1827 he visited Nuremberg, Munich, Dresden, Prague, Vienna. In Bohemia he met J. Dobrovsky and V. Ganka, in Vienna – with V. S. Karadzic, E. B. Kopitar, J. von Hormayr. His acquaintance with Karadzic induced Ranke to take up the modern history of Serbia; he completed it in the summer of 1828.

In the same year he traveled to Italy, where he developed a keen interest in antiquities and painting. Since the Vatican archive was not yet available to researchers at that time, Ranke in Rome had to limit himself to studying the private libraries of the Barberini, Chigi, Albani, and Corsini families. His studies of Florentine history in the Medici archives gave him material for characterizing Machiavelli.

Ranke returned from Italy with a vast store of archival material for the history of Venice, Don Carlos, and mainly the popes. In March 1831 Ranke returned to Berlin and took over, at Savagna’s suggestion, the editorship of a new journal, Historisch-Politische Zeitschrift, whose task was to combat the liberal press. In his first leading article he notes the following phenomena of his contemporary life: political theories decisively dominate; two schools fight among themselves. Just as medieval scholasticism sought to subordinate the intellectual world to its theories, so modern scholasticism has set out to govern the real world according to its abstract school theories.

It is necessary to know the point of view of each people, to understand the inner motives that drive them. The New Journal, according to Ranke, is not an enemy of progress; it rebels only against extremely destructive innovations. Germany Ranke warns against excessive fascination with foreign doctrines. Editing the “Historical-Political Journal,” Ranke was forced to scatter in his studies: then he deals with a question of German history of the XVI century, then stops to characterize the Prussian regime under Frederick the Great, then unfolds before the readers a complex picture of the organization of the Italian communes, then assesses modern doctrines, clarifies the issues related to the revolution and restoration.

In 1834, Ranke founded his historical seminary, where he dealt primarily with the Salic Emperors and Hohenstaufen. The works of Raumer and Stenzel (on the Hohenstaufen and Salic Emperors) probably influenced the choice of these two periods for the seminary. The famous Ranke school of history emerged from the practical studies at the seminary; the future luminaries of German historical science – Georg Weitz, Giesebrecht, R. A. Köpke, Dönniges, Siegfried Hirsch, Heinrich von Siebel – worked here.

In 1837 the first work of these young scholars, the “Jahrbücher des deutschen Reiches”, published by Weitz, appeared. The introduction to the first volume of the “Jahrbücher” was written by Ranke. The university courses which Ranke had taken had established in him the conviction that each individual fact was important in its relation to the world-historical process. Ranke began to emphasize more and more his interest in universal, world history; “its tune he wants to catch”.

In the full light,” he says, “a particularity can appear only if it is placed in the general connection of events. In 1834, the first volume of Ranke’s fundamental work “The Popes of Rome” was published, in 1836 – the 2nd and 3rd volumes. Ranke’s task is to clarify the significance of the popes in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the period of their secondary, spiritual and secular power came. In the work of the Protestant historian there is no shadow of any animosity, tendency, or partiality, which has caused orthodox Protestants to admonish him. Ranke’s work is based exclusively on archival material; in an appendix to it (the so-called Analecten) Ranke gives a critical evaluation of printed sources, especially two works on the history of the Council of Trident – P. Sarpi (1619) and Pietro Sforza Pallavicini (“History of the Council of Trident”, 1656). All the scholars of Europe paid attention to the “Popes of Rome”.

In 1838 a French translation of the work was published by the Jesuit Gaebert; he falsified a number of places in the original in a purely ultramontane spirit. This compelled Ranke to publicize his protest against the distortions made; the German historian’s protest was welcomed by prominent French scholars such as L. A. Thiers, F. Minier, A.-F. Vilmain, and others. Several translations of Ranke’s work were published in England. For his newly conceived work – “History of the Reformation” – Ranke studied up to 70 volumes of records of the Frankfurt am Main archives, which contained materials for both the political history of Germany and the church movement in it. He also had to study the archives of Dresden, Weimar, Brussels, and Paris (the last two for the history of Charles V).

In 1839 the first volume of Ranke’s monumental history of Germany in the Reformation era was published (the last, 6th, volume of it was published in 1847 Ranke found that his new work came out as timely as possible. In Germany at that time the idea of German national unity was spreading more and more; these modern trends brought it closer to the Reformation era, when the German people first recognized their inner unity. In the history of the Reformation, Ranke’s religious views are prominent; he is a convinced Protestant, which he does not want to hide.

Nevertheless, Ranke studied the Reformation mainly from the political side; all the historians who had studied it before him had emphasized its exclusively confessional character. The criticism of the sources is made with astonishing skill. “The result of my archival pursuits,” writes Ranke, “is a large, voluminous volume, as shapeless, undone, and stretched as the acts themselves. But all the events of the epoch have now received a new coloring and illumination – I care nothing for the rest: mir isi zu Mute, wie der Mutter Natur, als sie den Elefanten machte.”

It is clear from these words of Ranke that he himself felt the stylistic shortcomings of his work. He puts forward in it also world-historical moments, which makes it important as a manual for the general history of the XVI century. To the history of Germany during the Reformation two other special studies are adjoined: “Zur deutschen Geschichte vom Religionsfrieden bis zum dreissigj ährigen Krieg” (3rd ed. 1888) and “Wallenstein.” Ranke then turns to the history of that state which began to rise as the empire declined: the history of Brandenburg-Prussia. Apart from the Protestant idea, Ranke endeavors to understand and portray the peculiar particularistic life that developed in Prussia.

In 1843, Ranke visited Paris, where he found important letters of the Marquis de Valori (Louis Guy Henri, marquis de Valori), the French ambassador to the court of Frederick the Great. In the Berlin archives he found valuable material for the history of Frederick-Wilhelm I. In 1847 the first volume of his “Neun Bücher preussischer Gesch.” appeared, subsequently supplemented and published under the title “Zwölf Bücher preuss Gesch.” (1874 и 1878-79). Besides its purely historical value, the “History of Prussia” is also curious for its Prussian-patriotic tendency. “I consider it a happiness to belong to a state with whose direction I quite agree,” wrote Ranke.

Ranke’s book, however, is alien to the chauvinism of later Prussian historiographers. This is evident from his quite objective attitude to Austria and Maria Theresa. In his History of Prussia, Ranke is more interested in political history than anything else; he has little to do with the inner workings of the Prussian state.

On the history of Prussia Ranke owns the following works: “Der Ursprung des Siebenjah rigen Kriegs” (1871), “Die deutschen Mächte und der Furstenbund” (1871), “Ursprung und Beginn der Revolutions-Kriege 1791-92” (1875), “Aus d. Briefwechsel Friedrich Wilhelms IV mit Bunsen” (1873), “Zur Gesch. von Oesterreich und Preussen zwishen den Friedensschlüssen zu Aachen und Hubertusburg” (1875), and Ranke’s “Denkwürdigkeiten von Hardenberg” published. In 1850 Ranke visited Paris for the third time, where he collected material for the history of France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in archives and libraries.

The first volume of this exemplary history (“Französische Geschichte”) appeared in 1853. To continue it, Ranke had to go once more to Paris and Versailles (where the manuscripts of Mrs. de Mentenon are to be found), and then to Brussels. He finished his work in 1861. His French critic notes the marvelously faithful characterizations of Catherine de Medici, Henry IV, and Richelieu. Thiers called Ranke the greatest historian of Germany, and perhaps of all Europe. In 1854 came out a French translation of the history of France. From the history of France Ranke moved on to the study of the fate of the English state in the same centuries, the sixteenth and seventeenth.

For this purpose, he visited England three times, then collected materials in Paris and The Hague. Ranke speaks about his stay in England and France in detail in his letters. In London he came into contact with T. Macaulay and J. Groth. In the introduction to the history of England (“Englische Geschichte”) characterized the church reform and outlined the main problems that fell to the share of England in the XVII century Hardly anyone before Ranke so masterfully clarified the essence of religious and political struggle, played out in the XVII century The opposing Catholic and Protestant systems (Philip II and Elizabeth I), the clash of them, the relationship of England to France and in general to the European continent – all this is illuminated in Ranke completely new, a unique light.

Next to political history, Ranke was also interested in the literature of England; he gave an excellent characterization of the literary geniuses of England in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. In 1875 the history of England was translated into English. English criticism treated the work of the German scholar with the greatest appreciation.

In Germany at this time a curious dispute arose between the two historical schools, Ranke and F. C. Schlosser. Schlosser’s method was advocated by G. G. Gerwinus, while Ranke’s ideas were fervently defended by Johann Wilhelm Loebell. Ranke himself kept out of this polemic. Gustav Adolf Bergenroth (before him Heine sharply criticized Ranke.

Always interested in world history, Ranke made the first experience of such history in a course which he was invited in 1854 to deliver to King Maximilian II of Bavaria, who had become acquainted with Ranke while he was still at the University of Berlin. This course is a kind of historiographical systematics. In his introduction, Ranke discusses the progress and guiding principles of the new age.

“I would call,” he says, “the guiding principles of our time the mutual separation of the two principles of monarchy and popular power, with which all other contrasts are connected; the infinite growth of material forces; the extremely versatile development of the natural sciences; the unprecedented participation of a large public in spiritual life; the boundless diffusion of knowledge; the lively attitude toward public affairs. These are the characteristic features of our epoch”. The characterization of individual centuries and historical epochs is made in the lectures in an exemplary manner.

This is the more remarkable because Ranke, when he read his course to the king, had no books at hand. He himself called his lectures historical rhapsodies. With the assistance of Maximilian II at the Munich Academy of Sciences was founded in 1859 a special historical commission, whose task was to publish the most important monuments of German history. Ranke stood for several years at the head of this commission and contributed to the success of its members. – At times Ranke gained influence in Prussian government circles; it is known that he became close to Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, and later, as historiographer, to Bismarck.

He remained a professor until 1871. His interest in world history increased in him as he became involved in public affairs. In 1880 the first volume of his “Weltgeschichte” was published, which he no longer wrote but dictated. His advanced age caused apprehension whether he would bring his grand enterprise to completion. Death struck him on the seventh volume: Volumes 8 and 9 were already compiled from his notes and markings by Alfred Dove.

In Ranke’s account, world history is a powerful stream that takes in all countries, all peoples; the unity of the process excludes all subdivisions. “Only our century,” says Ranke, “could develop the concept of world history in the sense of depicting the phenomena of life of all peoples, at all times, in their mutual connection, to the extent that these phenomena, coexisting with each other or following one another in close succession, really form a single living whole. No one, neither before nor after Ranke, was better able to put forward this world-historical point of view than he.

Ranke died at the age of 91, on May 25, 1886. After Ranke’s death, a new complete edition of his works was undertaken.

The importance of Ranke as a historian and as a teacher, the founder of an entire school, is equally great. The first impression that Ranke made as a professor was, according to G. von Siebel, an impression of surprise. Small in stature, with a huge head and curly hair, he usually accompanied his speech with frequent and lively gestures. He spoke quickly, sometimes stopping to find a more apt expression, and then, carried away, again accelerated his speech to the point that it was difficult to follow him. But it was only necessary to get used to these external features of Ranke – and the fascination with him was boundless. In his courses, the richness of content went hand in hand with a surprisingly plastic form. Ranke wrote down every lecture he gave and spent a great deal of time preparing them. As a teacher, Ranke gave his students complete freedom in the choice of subject matter; he was of the opinion that the business of the school was not to train individual powers, but to develop them.

Ranke’s critical method is nowhere described by himself. Always basing his research on archival material, he also demanded from his students a critical attitude to the sources; he reminded them that, when starting to study one or another narrative, they should remember that the latter does not convey the fact itself, but only the impression it made on the narrator. The subjective element is intensified as the narrative is conveyed by second, third, etc. persons. Criticism must strive to get to the original source. In order to separate the subjective element of a particular report, it is necessary to take into account the individual nature of the communicator, to weigh the circumstances in which he lived.

The historian should thus be likened to a physicist who, from knowledge of the properties of glass, comes to a conclusion about the original direction and color of the ray passing through the glass. For an accurate assessment of the personality of the transmitter, knowledge alone is not enough; the historian must possess to a certain extent and creative imagination, he must be both a scientist and an artist. True history arises from the combination of methodical research with philosophical insight and artistic reproduction. Ranke did not want his students to build their conclusions on weak foundations – but neither did he want them to consider the building of strong basement vaults (die Errichtung fester Kellergewölbe) as the ultimate and highest goal of their work.

History has entrusted itself with the task of judging the past, of giving lessons to the present for the benefit of the ages to come. This work does not aspire to these lofty goals. Its task is merely to show how things really happened (wie es eigentlich gewesen)

Between 1940 and 1945, Prague’s Lužická Street was named after the German historian Leopold von Ranke


  1. Ранке, Леопольд фон
  2. Leopold von Ranke
  3. 1 2 Leopold Ranke // Brockhaus Enzyklopädie (нем.) / Hrsg.: Bibliographisches Institut & F. A. Brockhaus, Wissen Media Verlag
  4. Leopold von Ranke // Gran Enciclopèdia Catalana (кат.) — Grup Enciclopèdia, 1968.
  5. 1 2 www.accademiadellescienze.it (итал.)
  6. Ранке Леопольд фон // Большая советская энциклопедия: [в 30 т.] / под ред. А. М. Прохоров — 3-е изд. — М.: Советская энциклопедия, 1969.
  7. ^ Schirrmacher, Thomas. “Leopold von Ranke regarding my Grandfather Friedrich Wilhelm Schirrmacher”. Thomas Schirrmacher. Archived from the original on 3 January 2014. Retrieved 28 November 2012.
  8. Richard Perceval Graves, The assault heroic. Papermac 1986. Stammbaum auf Seite x.
  9. Vgl. Barbara Beuys: Emilie Mayer. Europas größte Komponistin. Eine Spurensuche. Dittrich Verlag, Weilerswist 2021, ISBN 978-3-947373-69-7, S. 153–155.
  10. a b c Ulrich Muhlack: Ranke, Leopold von. In: Neue Deutsche Biographie, Band 21, 2003, S. 140–142 [Online-Version]
  11. Leopold von Ranke †. In: Vossische Zeitung. 24. Mai 1886. Abend-Ausgabe. S. 4. Auf Rankes Grabplatte auf dem Berliner Sophienkirchhof wird irrtümlich der 25. Mai 1886 als Todestag angeführt. Dies ist in einigen Publikationen aufgegriffen worden. Siehe z. B.: Hans-Jürgen Mende: Lexikon Berliner Begräbnisstätten. Pharus-Plan, Berlin 2018, ISBN 978-3-86514-206-1, S. 68.
  12. Vossische Zeitung. 19. Mai 1986. Morgen-Ausgabe. S. 5. Berliner Tageblatt. 20. Mai 1886. Abend-Ausgabe. S. 3. Vossische Zeitung. 21. Mai 1886. Morgen-Ausgabe. S. 3.
  13. “Scientific Historiography and the Philosophy of Science ” ( History and Theory , February 2006)
  14. Von Ranke (1973), p.27.
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