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Ranke

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Leonard Krieger’s Ranke is a worthy successor to his previous studies of the relationship of ideas and institutions in German history in The German Idea of Freedom and the Politics of Discretion. In some ways Ranke represents an interesting departure from his previous works, for this intellectual biography relates the content (or discontents) of Ranke’s personality to his development as a historian. Since the ideas and personality of Ranke are analyzed against the backdrop of the forces of the nineteenth century, the result is a major synthesis on the father of scientific history.

Krieger displays great empathy with his subject, even to the point of attempting to write “Rankeified” history. At the end of the book Krieger states his admiration of Ranke’s devotion to painstaking research as the path to cumulative wisdom. Says Krieger, “There are no substitutes. There are no shortcuts.” The author has lived up to his ideal. His study of Ranke has exhaustively explored both published and unpublished works, even Ranke’s early student essays. Krieger has spared no pains to make sense of the vast amount of detail of a particularly long life in a particularly complex century.

Ranke’s dictum that history be written as it actually happened (“wie es eigentlich gewesen”) has also been followed. The result is not a critical essay on Ranke as in Georg G. Iggers’ fine work, The German Conception of History. Nor is it purely a biographical and historiographical study as Theodore von Laue’s equally useful Ranke: The Formative Years. Krieger’s book attempts to reconcile contradictory elements of biography, historical thinking, and the history of Ranke’s own time. It thus aspires to the master’s original attempt to synthesize the particular with the general, what Krieger calls Ranke’s quest to portray “humanity’s consciousness of its own interrelatedness.”

Leopold von Ranke was the founder of both scientific history and the school of historicism which believed that history was the primary source of the disclosure of divine and human truths. For Krieger, Ranke was not so much an original thinker as a synthesizer. Such early nineteenth century historians as Barthold Georg Niebuhr had already stressed the critical study of documents as the core of historical science. Fichte and Hegel had already viewed history as the revelation of the ideals of spiritual and rational universal truths. What was original about Ranke was the manner in which he combined the two seemingly irreconcilable elements of particular facts and general principles and ideas. How Ranke reconciled this duality of science and spirit through his theories and methods of history is a major focus of Krieger’s successful book.

Unlike Hegel and Fichte, whose starting point for the study of history was the application of philosophical theories and purposes to facts, Ranke was a nominalist. He stressed facts over concepts as the starting point of historical reality. His first concern was with historical objectivity, to tell how things really happened rather than why they happened. First the facts had to speak for themselves. Ranke’s standards of judgment professed to be those of the particular period he studied. For him each age was a valuable and unique field of knowledge, equally justified in the sight of God. Ranke’s God was also Luther’s, a diety whose true nature was unfathomable and unchanging, who revealed his externals in history, but not his true purposes as was the case for Hegel. Ranke accordingly rejected Hegel’s idea of progress. For Ranke, progress entailed humanity’s growing ability to grasp the meaning of the facts of humanity’s past through causal and temporal interrelatedness. Yet Krieger is quite right to stress that Fichte and Hegel influenced Ranke to the extent that history became for Ranke the study of the greatest ideas (Hauptideen ) of the human community. These ideas or basic units of civilization assumed a primarily political...

(The entire section is 2,239 words.)