Leopold von Ranke Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)
0111206070-Ranke.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Ranke is considered the father of modern historical scholarship and a founder of the German idea of history. His historical works rank as classics of modern historiography.

Early Life

Leopold von Ranke’s father, Gottlob Israel Ranke, was a lawyer, but the Lutheran ministry was the traditional profession of the family. Ranke’s parents expected him, the eldest of nine children, to follow a career in the Church. After an early education in local schools, he was sent to Schulpforta, a famous German public school known for the quality of its humanistic, classical curriculum. Ranke studied philology and theology at the University of Leipzig and received a doctoral degree in 1817 for a dissertation on the political ideas of Thucydides.

As a student, Ranke adopted the critical philological method of Barthold Niebuhr, a statesman and scholar whose Römische Geschichte (1811-1832; History of Rome, 1828-1842) reconstructed the historical origins of the Roman state. Ranke admired Niebuhr’s history but not his clumsy prose. A master stylist himself, he was early influenced by the German of Martin Luther and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Although he remained a devout Lutheran, Ranke declined to enter the ministry. The classics and philology interested him more than dogma. In 1818, he became a master of classical languages in the Gymnasium in Frankfurt an der Oder. Entrusted with the teaching of history, Ranke was led to write his first book, Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1514 (1824; History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations from 1494 to 1514, 1887), in which he applied his philological training to the field of modern history. Ranke was called in 1824 to the University of Berlin, where he taught until 1871.

Ranke’s students left a vivid vignette of their master. He is described as a slight figure with dark, curly hair, a low voice, a lively speaking manner, penetrating blue eyes, and a serene temperament. He, in turn, took a paternalistic interest in his students, who eventually filled almost every chair of history in Germany. Surrounded by his children and grandchildren (he married Clara Graves, daughter of an Irish barrister, in 1843, and the couple had two sons and a daughter), he would say that he had another and older family, his pupils and their pupils.

Life’s Work

In the programmatic preface to History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations from 1494 to 1514, Ranke gave a new direction to historical studies by declaring that it was not the duty of the historian to judge the past for the benefit of the present or the future. It was only “to show what actually occurred.” This matter-of-fact statement was directed against the historiography of the Enlightenment, which had given history an abstractly defined end and viewed it as an ascending process in which a later age was superior to an earlier one. According to Ranke each age was unique, “each period is equally close to God.”

In the appendix of his first book, Ranke added that he had found traditional histories untrustworthy; they did not correspond with the evidence he found in contemporary documents. For his history, he wrote, he had relied only on original sources, critically sifted and cross-examined. Ranke’s ambition to use only “the purest, most immediate documents” led him to the Italian archives in 1827. In Italy, where he gratified his “archival obsession” for three years, Ranke became the first scholar to examine the famous relazioni, secret reports Venetian ambassadors had submitted to their government after diplomatic missions to the courts of Europe. In such materials, Ranke believed, the historian could divine the core and secret of human events. Upon his return to the University of Berlin, where he became a full professor in 1836, Ranke created the historical seminar and instructed advanced students in Quellenkritik, the critical study of the sources.

Ranke spurned the schematic history of the philosophers but he was, nevertheless, a generalist. Through the perception of the particular, the historian was to grasp the inner connection and complete whole of history. As a devout Christian, Ranke believed that the unity and tendency of the historical experience were an expression of divine purpose—the “hand of God” was evident in...

(The entire section is 1820 words.)