Ranke, Leopold von

Ranke, Leopold von

(lā`ōpôlt fən räng`kə), 1795–1886, German historian, generally recognized as the father of the modern objective historical school. He applied and elaborated Barthold NiebuhrNiebuhr, Barthold Georg
, 1776–1831, German historian, b. Copenhagen; son of Karsten Niebuhr. He served in the Danish and, after 1806, in the Prussian civil service, took part in the foundation of the Univ.
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'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).

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Ranke, Leopold Von


Born Dec. 21, 1795, in Wiehe, near Halle; died May 23, 1886, in Berlin. German historian. Professor at the University of Berlin from 1825 to 1871 and official historian of the Kingdom of Prussia from 1841. Son of a Lutheran pastor.

Ranke’s theoretical views were influenced by philosophical idealism and Protestantism. Characteristic of his methodology is a reliance on providence as an explanatory principle in history: he viewed the historical process as the realization of a divine plan for the world. He attributes a decisive role in historical development to religious ideas and to the political idea embodied in the state. His main interest was in political and diplomatic history, and he maintained that foreign policy was more important than internal politics. He ignored social relations and focused exclusively on the activities of kings, popes, military leaders, and other “great men.”

Ranke’s principles were clearly expressed in his main historical works. Among these are Geschichte der romanischen undger-manischen Volker von 1494 bis 1535 (1824; English translation, History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations, 1846), Fürsten und Völker von Süd-Europa im sechzehnten und siebzehnten Jahr-hundert: Die Osmanen und die spanische Monarchie (1827; English translation, The Ottoman and the Spanish Empires in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 1843), and Die romischen Päpste, ihre Kirche undihr Staat, im sechzehnten und siebzehnten Jahrhundert (vols. 1–3, 1834–36; Russian translation of vols. 1–2, 1869; English translations of an expanded version, The Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes of Rome, 1840, and The History of the Popes During the Last Four Centuries, 1908).

Ranke’s chief works also include Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation (vols. 1–6, 1839–47; English translation, History of the Reformation in Germany, 1845–47), Zwölf Bücher preussischer Geschichte (vols. 1–5, 1874; English translation of an earlier version, Memoirs of the House of Brandenburg, 1849), Französische Geschichte, vornehmlich in sechzehnten und siebzehnten Jahrhundert (vols. 1–5, 1852–61; English translation, Civil Wars and Monarchy in France in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 1852), and Englische Geschichte, vornehmlich in sechzehnten und siebzehnten Jahrhundert (vols. 1–7, 1859–68; English translation, A History of England, Principally in the Seventeenth Century, 1875). All these works are brilliant in form and contain masterful portraits of historical figures but are at the same time extremely superficial in content.

Ranke’s contribution to historical science lies in his research methodology. His methodology assumed that objective truth is contained in archival material of a political nature and that what is not documented does not exist for history. He believed that the correct use of sources requires philological analysis, the determination of the authenticity and reliability of documents, and a number of other operations related to the external and internal analysis of the text. Ranke taught his method in the history seminars he initiated at the University of Berlin, seminars in which many important historians received their training.

Ranke proclaimed that the historian’s main goal is to determine “how it all really happened.” But his pretensions to “objectivity” and “nonpartisanship” did not succeed in masking his reactionary political position: his obsequiousness toward monarchs, his admiration of the Prussian state’s military power and foreign policy of aggression, his aristocratic contempt for the common people, and his hatred of revolutionary movements. Ranke greatly influenced the formation of German bourgeois-Junker historiography and the reactionary bourgeois historiography of other nations.


Samtliche Werke, vols. 1–54. Leipzig, 1867–90.
Hauptwerke, vols. 1–12. Wiesbaden, 1957.


Vainshtein, O. L. “Leopol’d fon Ranke i sovremennaia burzhuaznaia istoriografiia.” In K kritike noveishei burzhuaznoi istoriografii. Moscow-Leningrad, 1961.
Schilfert, G. “L. von Ranke.” In the collection Die deutsche Geschichtswissenschaft. Berlin, 1963.


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