Leopold Von Ranke

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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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