*Ranke, Leopold von

Leopold von Ranke

Leopold von Ranke



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Ranke, Leopold von

German, 1795–1886
Prussian historian Leopold von Ranke is generally regarded as the founder of modern historiography. While the 20th century has produced a substantial number of German historians who are also interesting as essayists, there was a paucity of such in Ranke’s day. The great or near-great can, indeed, be counted on one hand: Mommsen, Friedrich Christoph Dahlman, Heinrich von Treitschke, and Alfred Dove, as well as Ranke himself.
Though he apparently never wrote consciously as an essayist—even though the genre had established itself as such by the mid-19th century in Germany, with such writers as Herman Grimm and Karl Hillebrand, and fellow historians Georg G.Gervinus, Otto Gildemeister, and Theodor Mommsen—Ranke did write a number of shorter works that could well qualify as essays. These were often in the form of dialogues, intended as prefaces to his major works, or were otherwise relatively informal and briefer works without the usual formidable scholarly apparatus characteristic of Ranke’s major writings.
Ranke’s essayistic writings, though by definition not displaying the meticulous and distanced craftsman, are nonetheless perfectly consistent with the tenor, predispositions, and general style of his most famous scholarship, Die Römischen Päpste (1834–36; The History of the Popes), Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation (1839–47; History of the Reformation in Germany), and other works. Notably, there are no significant changes in the style, tenor, or general purport of Ranke’s essays over the course of an extensive stretch of time.
Essayistic compositions sometimes occur as parts of longer works, such as the oftexcerpted pieces from the Vorträge (lectures) for the benefit of King Maximilian II of Bavaria—for instance, “Wie der Begriff Fortschritt in der Geschichte aufzufassen sei” (1854; How the concept of progress in history should be understood) and “Was von den sogenannten leitenden Ideen in der Geschichte zu halten sei” (1854; What should one think of the so-called leading ideas in history); such contributions show the best side of Ranke as essayist. Two even briefer pieces from the same series, “Die nordamerikanische Revolution” (1854; The North American revolution) and “Die französische Revolution” (1854; The French Revolution), though displaying the careful historian reluctant to make easy generalizations unsupported by mountains of data and detail, yet reveal the more relaxed and expansive essayist who implicitly assumes an understanding between himself and his reader that the author is not writing for archival record.
While Ranke edited and wrote most of the contributions for a journal he founded, the Historische-politische Zeitschrift (Historical-political journal), this work is hardly a mine for those exploring Ranke as essayist: its primary purpose was to function as an organ for the policies of the Prussian government. The journal did, however, contain his two most important contributions to the essay: “Das politische Gespräch” (1836; “A Dialogue on Politics”) and “Die grossen Mächte” (1832; “The Great Powers”).
In “A Dialogue on Politics” the character of Friedrich is patently the writer’s spokesman, while the figure of Karl is representative of Ranke’s friend, the renowned Prussian jurist Friedrich Karl Savigny. It examines, among other themes: the political situation in the 1830s; the nature of the state; the state vis-à-vis political parties; the varying role of the army according to the form of state it serves; states considered as individual personalities; the duties and limitations of government; and the relationship between church and state. Seemingly under the influence of Johann Gottfried Herder, Giambattista Vico, and Edmund Burke, Ranke maintains that each state has its unique personality and Zeitgeist (a term popularized by but not originating with Ranke) and, consequently, reforms—no matter how attractive in theory—should never be arbitrarily imposed upon an existing state. Moreover, the individual citizen gains his full development as a human being only through his life within the state. Based upon this rootedness of the citizen in a particular state, the continued vitality of European civilization itself is made possible. The past, therefore, should never be judged from the perspective of the present or with criteria by which epochs are evaluated according to
their contribution to some notion of progress. This form of historicism, while certainly intended in part to refute such politically engaged historians as Gustav Droysen and Heinrich von Sybel, surely had the dominant political thought of Hegel as its primary target. Moreover, unlike some of his fellow historians (e.g. Friedrich Christoph Schlosser, Karl von Rotteck, Gervinus, and Thomas Babington Macaulay), Ranke felt that the historian should be a technician rather than a moralizing judge “distributing praise and blame” (Pieter Geyl, 1958).
Written consistently in the tone of a broadminded and freewheeling discussion, the dialogue is lively, realistic, and often compelling, never stepping out of its guise and degenerating into a dissertational style. It comes as no surprise that Ranke regards drama as the most effective literary means for gaining insight into the human heart. Peter Gay (1974) comments on this: “In Ranke, the shaping hand of the literary artist is never far from the constructive effort of the historian.” Frequent use is made of the rhetorical question and what Gay calls the “counterfactual alternative.” Lyricism, smoothness, and breadth are characteristic, but—perhaps surprisingly, given the frequent use of irony— there is little genuine humor.
The second of Ranke’s most important essays, “The Great Powers,” is a wide-ranging survey of those European powers—England, France, Austria, Prussia, and Russia— among whom a political and cultural, seemingly perpetual, competition serves to keep the balance of power (and thus the civilization) of Europe in a healthy condition. Everything, Ranke asserts, is secondary to the authority of the state, while foreign policy is the state’s most important function. Although not as lively a piece as “A Dialogue on Politics,” this earlier work must be regarded as one of the most perceptive and instructive contributions to the subject during the author’s lifetime.
Ranke’s letters, diaries (Tagebücher), and notebooks also contain much that can be classified as essayistic in nature. Unfortunately, little scholarly attention has been paid to these sources as contributions to the genre. In them can be found occasional statements of belief, attitude, and feeling—ruminations and speculations rather than tightly reasoned arguments, e.g. on the nature of history, its place among other academic disciplines, the primacy of political history (almost to the exclusion of everything else), and the importance of the great historical figure (the “Great Man” theory of history).
Beyond the considerations of theme and content in Ranke’s essays, there is always the compelling excellence of his style and form. It seems that Ranke took the preceding century’s Buffon to heart (“le style est l’homme même” [style is the man himself]) and believed that it was only through style that a writer—especially the historian—could rise above the prosaic role of reporter and recorder (Gay). He took obvious pleasure in his role as a historical commentator and speculator, a disposition eminently appropriate for the accomplished essayist.


Born 21 December 1795 in Wiehe, Kursachen. Studied at the Schulpforta, near Naumburg; University of Leipzig, 1816–17, doctoral degree, 1817. Taught history at the gymnasium in Frankfurt-on-Oder, 1818–24; chair of history, University of Berlin, 1825– 71, where he taught Jacob Christoph Burckhardt. Traveled and studied in Italy, 1828– 31. Editor, Historische-politische Zeitschrift, 1832–36. Ennobled, 1865.
Died in Berlin, 25 May 1886.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Über die Epochen der neueren Geschichte: Neunzehn Vorträge für König Maximilian von Bayern, edited by Alfred Dove, 1888, and Theodor Schieder and Helmut Berding, 1971
Zeitbilder und Charakteristiken, edited by Alexander Eggers, 1918
Ausgewählte Schriften, edited by Friedrich Ramhorst, 1918
Volkssagenforschung: Vorträge und Aufsätze, 1935
Geschichte und Politik: Ausgewählte Aufsätze und Meisterschriften, edited by Hans Hofmann, 1942
Weltgeschichtliches Lesebuch, edited by Fritz Ernst, 1957
The Theory and Practice of History, edited by Georg G.Iggers and Konrad von Moltke, translated by von Moltke and Wilma A. Iggers, 1973

Other writings: many volumes on history, particularly on the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as an unfinished history of the world (Weltgeschichte, 16 vols., 1881–88) and a history of the popes (1834–36), diaries, and correspondence.
Collected works editions: Sämtliche Werke, 54 vols. (in 29 vols.), 1867–90;
Gesamtausgabe (German Academy Edition), edited by Erich Marcks and others, 1925– (in progress).

Helmolt, Hans F., Ranke-Bibliographie, Leipzig: Dykschen, 1910

Further Reading
Barnes, Harry Elmer, A History of Historical Writing, New York: Dover, revised edition, 1962 (original edition, 1937)
Gay, Peter, Style in History, New York: Norton, 1988 (original edition, 1974)
Gay, Peter, and V.G.Wexler, editors, Historians at Work, vol. 3, New York: Harper and Row, 1975
Geyl, Pieter, Debates with Historians, New York: Meridian, 1958: especially Chapter 1,
“Ranke in the Light of the Catastrophe”
Gilbert, Felix, History, Politics or Culture? Reflections on Ranke and Burckhardt, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990
Guillard, Antoine, Modern Germany and Her Historians, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1970 (original French edition, 1915)
Iggers, Georg G., The German Conception of History, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1968
Iggers, Georg G., and James M.Powell, editors, Leopold von Ranke and the Shaptng of Historical Disciplines, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1990
Kohn, Hans, editor, German History: Some New German Views, Boston: Beacon Press, and London: Allen and Unwin, 1954: especially “Ranke and Burckhardt” by F. Meinecke
Krieger, Leonard, Ranke: The Meaning of History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977
Rohner, Ludwig, Deutsche Essays: Prosa aus zwei Jahrhunderten, vol. 1, Berlin and Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1968

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