Leopold von Ranke

Leopold von Ranke in Old Age (1880)

Leopold von Ranke (Wiehe 12 December 1795 - Berlin 23 May 1886) did not invent the footnote, or the concept of primary sources. His archival researches were revolutionary in implication, but his own writings did not fully exemplify the ideal of "scientific" history. He supported the Prussian state more than a modern liberal might have done (he was appointed Royal Historiographer by Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1841, and ennobled by Wilhelm I in 1865, whence the "von" in his name). But he was a cosmopolitan (he had met his Irish wife Clarissa in Paris; their home in Berlin was a social focus for Shakespeare readings as well as Goethe conversations). He believed in God, always a temptation to a historian, though he rejected the misty teleology of Hegel (at Berlin, he and Hegel defined the two principal opposing factions among the faculty). And he ignored other schematisms, confident that any larger movements would emerge from careful study of the details.

Neither he nor his disciples (not Mommsen, not Burkhardt, not Meinicke, not even Ludwig Riess, who carried the ideal of the new history to Japan) left a textbook of method. Ranke, like Confucius, taught by aphorism. Here are some of the chief aphorisms (to see the German originals, click on these English versions). Would longer ones really tell us more?

The Past

"But it is not for the past as a part of the present, but for the past as the past, that man is properly concerned" (Diaries, 1814)

"History has had assigned to it the office of judging the past and of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high offices the present work does not presume; it seeks only to show the past as it really was" (History of the Latin and German Peoples, 1824)

"I would maintain, on the contrary, that every epoch is immediate to God, and that its value in no way depends on what may have eventuated from it, but rather in its existence alone, its own unique particularity" (Lectures to King Maximilian of Bavaria, 1854)

Primary Sources

"I see the time coming when we will base modern history no longer on secondhand reports, or even on contemporary historians, save where they had direct knowledge, and still less on works yet more distant from the period; but rather on eyewitness accounts and on the most genuine, the most immediate, sources" (History of Germany in the Reformation, 1839)


"To accomplish anything in history there are three requirements: a sound understanding of people, courage, and honesty. The first, simply for insight into things; the second, not to be shocked at what one finds there; and the third, not to dissemble in any particular, even to oneself. So do the simplest moral qualities govern, even in science" (Diaries, c1843)


Here are a few further notes about Ranke and his idea of history:



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