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Leopold von Ranke

Ranke, Leopold von (lāˈōpôlt fən rängˈkə) [key], 1795–1886, German historian, generally recognized as the father of the modern objective historical school. He applied and elaborated Barthold Niebuhr's scientific method of historical investigation. Ranke's aim was to reconstruct the unique periods of the past as they actually were and to avoid injecting the history of former times with the spirit of the present; this approach to historiography is known as historicism. To attain his goal, Ranke insisted that only contemporary accounts and related material be used as sources. His technique depended in large part on exhaustive archival research and on philological criticism of sources.

It is difficult to say whether Ranke was more influential through his writing or through his teaching. As professor at the Univ. of Berlin (1825–71), he inaugurated the seminar system of teaching history and formed an entire generation of historians, who in turn spread his methods throughout the world. Outside Germany, his ideas were particularly influential in England and in the United States. The accumulation of facts and details, serving the purposes of preparatory research and practical training, was a prominent feature of Ranke's method. In his seminars originated the Jahrbücher [yearbooks], which grew into a tremendous repository of information on medieval Germany.

It is implicit in Ranke's work that he regarded history as the result of the divine will. Since he saw power as the overt expression of that will, Ranke concentrated on political, and primarily on diplomatic, developments. He sought to apply his methods to the history of all European nations, and his investigations ranged over a wide field. One of his earliest works was Zur Kritik neuerer Geschichtschreiber [critique of modern historical writing] (1824), which set forth his method; the culmination of his life work was his Weltgeschichte [universal history] (9 vol., 1881–88).

The great body of Ranke's writing is made up of particular histories of the 16th, 17th, and 18th cent. English translations include the enduring Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (3 vol., 1840), Memoirs of the House of Brandenburg and History of Prussia during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (3 vol., 1847–48), Civil Wars and Monarchy in France in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1852), and History of England (6 vol., 1875). Important among his other writings are extensive histories of Prussia and of the rise of the Prussian state. The quantity of his work is as impressive as the quality; the German edition (1867–90) of his complete works numbered 54 volumes without the universal history. Politically a conservative and a monarchist, Ranke did not share the liberalism of some of his Prussian contemporaries.

See G. P. Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (2d ed. 1952, repr. 1965); T. H. Von Laue, Leopold Ranke, the Formative Years (1950, repr. 1970).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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