Only say how it essentially was. (wie es eigentlich gewesen) –Leopold von Ranke
The Prussian historian Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) probably did more than any other individual to establish history in its modern professional form. He was descended from a long line of Lutheran ministers, lived most of his life as a bachelor and (in the best Prussian tradition) a rigidly disciplined scholar, and tended to mistrust liberal reform as a French conspiracy against German institutions and values. Through nearly five decades of teaching, and particularly his seminars (a method he pioneered), he decisively influenced the first generation of professional historians, and through them (in a rather curious way—more on this later) the American historical profession as well.
Following Johann Herder, Ranke believed that each person, institution, and nation had to be understood as uniquely itself. One can hardly do without generalizations in describing them, but these should be understood as conventions, not actual things or “laws,” and should be kept to an absolute minimum. Similarly, systems of classification are always ad hoc, never real—only particular things were real. That which gives these living things their uniqueness is their idea, or as we might say, their internal logic/subjective experience, the realization of which is their natural objective. The idea is not reducible to its own internal components or to anything outside itself, and it is not bound by natural law; it is a vital, ineffable, irreducible spark, which must be apprehended through an act of imaginative sympathy aimed, not at explanation, but understanding (verstehen.)
Each living thing must be understood on its own terms, but this did not complete the historian’s task, for the understanding he sought was not simply of living things, but of their interactions with each other. In order to acquire this, a historian must adopt a value-neutral position. The aim of such a history—of, for instance, the battle of Waterloo—would be to produce an account of it that would be acceptable to a French, a British, and a German observer all at once, while leaving room for, though not necessarily incorporating, their value judgments about it. “Objectivity,” he stressed, “is always also impartiality.”
But if everything is to be understood as uniquely itself, and in terms of its own idea or self-development, what, one might wonder, gives the past its coherence? How are we to make sense out of all these unique and particular entities? Doesn’t insistence on the particularity of everything reduce the past to meaningless chaos? If history were particularity and nothing else, this would indeed be the case. But, again following Herder, Ranke held that the emphasis on particularity found its coherence, not in where it was all going, but in where it all came from—which is to say, for Ranke, the Mind of God, of which the individual ideas of people and nations were the thoughts. Like most nineteenth-century conservatives, Ranke regarded Christianity as a foundation from which to work, not a proposition to be attacked or defended. Nevertheless, the distinction between history in its consideration of unique entities, and philosophy/theology of history, which considered the sum of all such entities, meant that the emphasis on particularity could be (and later was) detached from the larger theoretical assumptions.
This view, sometimes called “historicism,” and expressed in Ranke’s dictum “all ages are equally near to God,” had a number of important consequences. It was politically conservative in that it defined progress in terms of the development of the individual and the nation toward its own unique form of self-realization, rather than, as Condorcet and the Enlightenment had thought, toward a single goal common to all mankind. According to Ranke there is no universal standard toward which progress can occur. If this view is correct, it means that each nation (but not the individual, who belongs to the nation) can only be judged according to its own idea—which is to say, by itself—although success or failure in war was its own, and ultimately more important, form of judgment. Armed with this doctrine, Prussian conservatives could argue that there was something commendable about the Prussian monarchy because it was _Prussian_, and that, however praiseworthy French Enlightenment ideals might be, they could only ever be _French_ Enlightenment ideals. In short, they belonged on the other side of the Rhine, and liberal-democratic reformers who tried to import them simply didn’t understand the national spirit. On the other hand, since war was the final arbiter between nations, it also meant that the military was the central national institution, and that it did not exist so much for the defense of the state as for the realization of its idea (i.e, conquest.) This was an idea, by no means unique to Ranke, with a big future ahead of it.
Methodologically, it meant that a historical entity, in order to be understood, could not be approached by way of a general theory of history, such as that provided by Hegel, or by way of literature, such as the novels of Sir Walter Scott (which thrilled Ranke as a youth), which simply imposed the present on the past with their top-down approach. Neither could it be understood by way of mechanistic science, since history dealt with living things, not dead matter (German thought takes this distinction far more seriously than Anglo-American.) History, Ranke argued, occupied a place between art and science—it was, as we would say, one of the humanities. It was an art in so much as it required intuition, creativity, and empathy to achieve the understanding that historians sought, but it was also science in the sense that it was based on the correct interpretation of physical evidence (documents), not the aesthetic vision of the historian.
In order to put this methodology into effect, one needs documents—the more the better. The collection and analysis of these documents (“archival research”), and government documents in particular (as expressing the development of the national rather than the merely individual idea), is therefore the principle business of historians. This approach, which, if not exactly unknown to pre-Rankeian scholars, was not nearly as universal or obvious as one might suppose either, is called “the Archival turn” (c. 1850), and it is absolutely central to the modern historian’s sense of vocation. On this model only a person who conducts archival research counts as a historian; a person who does not cannot, no matter what they might know or write about the past. This is because their knowledge is not based on a firsthand analysis and critical interpretation of the evidence (Quellenkritik), but on somebody else’s. Just as we expect an astronomer to know how to use a telescope, or a paleontologist to know how to examine a fossil, we expect a historian to know how to handle documents produced at or near the time of the events they describe (primary sources.) Similarly, this is why historians must master the language in which documents are written, rather than relying on translations; they need to be able to examine them, and understand them, for themselves.
Ranke’s influence on the historical professions can hardly be overestimated. It was not seriously challenged in Germany until after 1945, a period of—needless to say—profound self-examination. His influence on American scholarship was somewhat peculiar. The first generation of professional American historians took up their positions in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when a wave of university-building turned a previously negligible system of higher education into the massive bureaucratic enterprise we have today. They were largely trained in Germany, by von Ranke’s former students, but because they were inexperienced and had no real tradition of scholarship behind them, they often misunderstood what they were supposed to be learning. Thus Ranke’s “only say how it essentially was” entered American historical thought as “only say how it really was,” which was close, but erroneously suggested that Ranke was a positivist who wanted historians to confine themselves to a factual description of the past. As we have seen, what he wanted was for them to see the idea (“essence”) behind the facts, not simply act as human video recorders.
Nevertheless, his insistence that accounts of the past be based on archival research and a careful analysis of the documents rapidly became the orthodox position, not only among American and German professional historians, but for the profession throughout the world. Even though many of his specific views have since been discarded as reactionary or naive, the primacy of archival research has, despite repeated challenges, stood the test of time. In that sense, he is probably one of the most influential scholars who ever lived.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.