Barthold Georg Niebuhr Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: An extraordinarily able historian, Niebuhr, through meticulously researched as well as voluminous books and published lectures, founded the modern German school of critical historical scholarship, one objective of which was regeneration of the Prussian state.

Early Life

Son of the noted German philologist and Arabian traveler Karsten Niebuhr, Barthold Georg Niebuhr was born on August 27, 1776, in Copenhagen, Denmark. Despite the appearance of being Danish, the Niebuhrs regarded themselves as German by virtue of having lived in Denmark’s Dithmarschen district, where for centuries Germans maintained separate, nearly independent rights, within the disputed duchies of Schleswig-Holstein. Self-described, Barthold’s childhood was that of a physically weak, almost chronically ill, and dreamy boy who lived in worlds of his own imaginative creation, which throughout life he regarded as dangerous to thought, justice, and morality. Indeed, from child to adult, he remained short, thin, and constitutionally nervous and excitable. Not surprisingly, having seldom passed beyond his house and garden, and being the only son of a then-famous father, he was precociously studious by disposition almost from infancy. He evinced predilections for ancient and modern languages, mathematics, geography, history, and political economy. Yet, until he was an adolescent ready for university he received his education at home.

Already formidably equipped intellectually, Barthold entered the University of Kiel eager to avoid narrow specialization and to master everything available in Kiel’s curriculum, from philosophy to mathematics, physics, chemistry, natural history, additional languages, Roman law, European constitutions, and antiquities. The purpose of this ambitiously catholic intellectual immersion was preparation for public service: Niebuhr wanted to become, on his father’s advice, not an academician but a man of practical affairs.

Life’s Work

Impatient to get on, Niebuhr thus abandoned the university in January, 1796, to serve as secretary to the Danish minister of finance, a post for which he seemed well adapted, considering his early and continuing interest in Danish-German land tenures (hence finance), curiosities that bent increasingly toward Europe’s classical origins. After two years’ service at the ministry, Niebuhr left to spend 1798-1799 between London and Edinburgh. These were years that generated interesting, if superficially critical, observations on British life and institutions to his father and the Moltke family. Although Niebuhr later developed immense admiration for most things British, particularly their practicality and liberties, his encounters at the time left him feeling that the quality of German conversation and thought was far superior.

Consequently Niebuhr returned to Denmark, married in 1801, and resumed various high-status official positions: assessor in the East Indies Company’s commerce department and director of the Copenhagen Royal Bank as well as of the Commercial Company of the East Indies. The great Prussian statesman-reformer Freiherr vom Stein soon drew him into Prussian service, initially to negotiate Dutch and English loans (essential during Prussian participation in the Napoleonic Wars), then as Frederick William III’s privy councillor during the Saxony campaign of 1813, and finally, from 1816 to 1822, as Prussian ambassador to Rome.

Although Niebuhr’s responsibilities in Prussia’s wartime officialdom were complex and onerous, his relations with Stein and State Chancellor Karl von Hardenberg became strained. Stein had misread Niebuhr both as a practical man of affairs and as a politician; accidentally, Stein had recruited a pedant. “Niebuhr,” Stein remarked, “is no use save as a dictionary whose leaves one turns over.” Yet these were mismatches made in Heaven, for Niebuhr, a staunch Protestant, regarded Hardenberg as immoral and complained repeatedly that he detested the public duties that he executed for Stein. Essentially what he preferred all along was an exclusive devotion to historical scholarship.

Time and fortune favored him. Selecting faculty for the newly founded University of Berlin in 1810, Prussia’s distinguished philologist, educational reformer, and, at the time, Minister of Education Wilhelm von Humboldt...

(The entire section is 1801 words.)