The Suabian Poets
The Realistic Novelists
Socialism In Literature
Read More Articles About: German Literature
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Of the great historians of Germany Leopold von Ranke is the most distinguished. Born in Saxony in 1795 he began his historical studies under Niebuhr and Savigny. In 1825 he was called to Berlin and nine years later was made full professor. He retired from his professorship in 1871, and undertook the revision of his numerous books. Many honors had been conferred upon him. In 1865 he was raised to knighthood; in 1882 he was made a privy councilor, and in 1895 his ninetieth birthday was celebrated amid general rejoicing. He died in the following year. Ranke's first work was a "History of the Romanic and Germanic Nations," published in 1824. The first volume covered but twenty years, from 1494 to 1514, the beginning of modern history. The author declared his purpose to show the fundamental unity of modern European civilization, and to trace the mingling of the Romanic and Germanic elements. Throughout his long career he remained faithful to his method of thoroughly sifting the primary authorities and carefully examining original documents. The Prussian government aided him in making researches in Rome and other foreign capitals. His second volume (1827) treated of the Turks and Spain in the Sixteenth Century. Then his great work on "The Roman Papacy : Its Church and State" (1834-37) gave the author fame throughout Europe. When translated into English it was reviewed by Macaulay in a memorable article. The reviewer justly characterized the spirit of the history as "admirable . . . equally remote from levity or bigotry; serious and earnest, yet tolerant and impartial." The whole work was a new revelation to Protestant Christendom of the greatness and power of the Roman Catholic Church. Particularly was attention directed to that counter-reformation by which that church recovered one-half of the countries which it had lost in the Sixteenth Century.
In 1841 Ranke was made historiographer of Prussia. The great historian turned from Southern Europe, in which Catholicism remained unshaken, to Northern Europe, where the Reformation had been successful. First the history of Germany in the time of the Reformation was presented; then Prussian history in three volumes (1847-48), which were revised and enlarged after the new German Empire was organized in 1871. Mean-time there had been issued histories of France (1852-61), and England (1859-67, afterward enlarged). Altogether nearly fifty volumes of conscientiously elaborated works testified the diligence of the veteran. But amply learned and still vigorous, the old man looked abroad for new oceans to cross, and continents to discover. At the age of eighty he ventured to undertake the history of the world from the dawn of civilization. He lived to complete twelve volumes, bringing his great work down to the Middle Ages. Of course there was not in this universal history the same diligent investigation of original sources, nevertheless in regard to interest of the narrative and correct presentation of facts there was no apparent diminution of the writer's intellectual force. As historiographer of Prussia, it became Ranke's duty to edit several important works. He published treatises on important epochs in German history and a volume of "Biographical Studies" (1877).
Ranke in his first work announced a new method of history and adhered to it during his long career. He declared that the proper aim of history is not to support any preconceived notions, but to relate the facts without regard to moral lessons. History is not to be regarded as the handmaid of any other science, but is mistress in its own domain. The aim therefore of the historian should be to ascertain the exact facts in regard to which he gives evidence. He should discard, as far as possible, his own views and prejudices. The result will be an objective presentation of the truth. As previous writers, even when contemporary, had not followed this plan, but had recorded events as distorted by their own feelings, their histories should not be accepted as authorities. The only safe method of ascertaining the truth is to examine genuine primary sources of information, diplomatic correspondence and State papers. Not only did Ranke carry out this method faithfully, but in the discharge of his duties as professor he trained a number of others in the same patient examination of documentary evidence, so that all recent historical writing has been largely affected by him.
The most popular of his works is generally known in English as the "History of the Popes." It sketches the rise of the Papal power, shows its characteristics in different stages of development, and exhibits the benefits it conferred upon Europe in the Middle Ages.
Theodor Mommsen, the great historian of ancient Rome, was born at Garding in Schleswig, in 1817. He graduated at the University of Kiel in 1844, and spent two years in further study of archaeology in France and Italy. In 1848 he was made professor of Roman law in the University of Leipsic, but his political activity as a Liberal caused his dismissal. In 1852 he was made professor of law at Zurich; two years later he was called to Breslau, and in 1858 to Berlin. His careful study of Italian antiquities had borne fruit in several works on the early languages of that peninsula, its coins and inscriptions. He is the chief editor of the great "Corpus" of Latin inscriptions, the greatest memorial of German classical scholarship. But the greatest work of his own labors is his "Roman History," which began to appear in 1854, and has been brought down to the time of the Empire. The Imperial Government of the Provinces has been treated in volumes intended to form part of the completed work. Mommsen's thorough scholarship, the basis of his history, is not displayed in notes, but is shown in many monographs on particular points. He has gathered into one continuous narrative the results of life-long investigations. In regard to the better known portions of his subject he has taken positions at variance with the common judgment. Thus for Cicero, as a politician, he has nothing but censure, and for Caesar nothing but eulogy. He is ready to cite modern parallels and illustrations for his judgment of these and other public men of ancient times. His history has been well translated into English by W. P. Dickson.
Another distinguished historian of the objective school is Heinrich von Sybel, who was a pupil of Ranke. He was born at Düsseldorf in 1817, and chiefly educated at Bonn. His first work was a "History of the First Crusade" (1841), which exposed various popular errors in regard to that movement. Then came his "Origin of the German Kingdoms." From Marburg, where he was professor of history, he was called in 1856 by Duke Maximilian II of Bavaria to the University of Munich. There he introduced Ranke's method, training his pupils in original research. On the death of his patron he went to Bonn as professor, and was soon active in political affairs. In 1875 he was made director of the State archives at Berlin. His edition of these important historical documents began to be issued in 1878. Von Sybel's great work is a "History of the Revolution Period from 1789 to 1795" (1853-67). Based upon faithful study of State papers in all the capitals of Europe, it is the most accurate account of the French Revolution. Nor is it deficient in graphic presentation of the facts, though it is free from the poetic glamour of Carlyle's prose epic. Von Sybel has published many historical essays and "The Rising of Europe Against Napoleon" (1860).
Heinrich von Treitschke also takes high rank among the German historians. He was born at Dresden in 1834, studied there and at Leipsic, and in 1858 became an assist-ant in government publications at Berlin. For three years he was professor in the University of Freiburg, and in 1866 passed to Heidelberg, and thence in 1874 to Berlin. He was active in the German Parliament as a National Liberal, and supported Bismarck's efforts for German unity. Treitschke's early work comprised two volumes of "Patriotic Poems" (1856), but his later work was confined to history and politics. In "Der Socialismus und Seine Gönner" (Socialism and Its Protectors) (1875) he attacked the professors who were giving aid to socialism by their lectures. In "Zehn Jahre Deutscher Kämpfe" (Ten Years of German Conflict) (1875) he rehearsed the movements by which the new German Empire was formed. But his most important work is "Deutsche Geschichte im 19 Jahrhundert" (German History in the 19th Century). The value of von Treitschke's labors is admitted by every historical student of the period. His sagacity and industry are equal to those of Ranke; his style is more sprightly, and his judgment of men and events is impartial.