Review of Ideas: The Secret of World History, Selected Writing on The Art and Science of History, Leopold Von Ranke (Author), Roger Wines (Editor)


As stated in the title above, this paper is not a book review in the traditional sense, rather a review of ideas that I have come to attribute to Ranke through the reading of the anthology, “The Secret of World History”. I am not a German speaker and confess with deep regret not possessing the ability to delve deep into the intellectual psyche or the richness of Ranke’s work. To repeat here the sentiments of Roger Wines, editor of this anthology, “for the English speaking reader of today, Ranke is surprisingly inaccessible; indeed, he has become something of a patron saint, more praised than read. Many of his of books, whether in German or in English, are no longer in print, and the modern reader is less likely to bear up with the four or six volume works which are.”

Despite the linguistic handicaps, that have limited by endeavors reasonably, I seek to work with the riches and vastness this anthology holds. Its emphasis is on Ranke as an historian, with translations of essays and addresses, which lay down his program for research, politics, and the relationship between and historian’s values and his work. I relied on the following secondary resources as a frame work of thought to articulate my ideas, George P. Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed. (1952), that treats in detail the position of Ranke in the development of historical thought and the modern science of history, Theodore H. von Laue, Leopold Ranke: The Formative Years (1950); and Helmut Berding, Leopold von Ranke (1971; in German). Many of the ideas relayed here are not solely mine, but are composites from the discussions and ideas expressed in the graduate seminar at Yale titled, “Classic and New Approaches to International History”. Any misunderstanding or misinterpretations of these sources are solely the results of my shortcoming.


“The world is, not a system, but a history” – Friedrich Schlegel

Ranke famously said that every age is next to God, but in the preface to his un- finished Universal History he wrote, “a sort of heirloom” that “the human race has won for itself,” including “those immortal works of genius in poetry and literature, in science and art.”1 Whatever importance one grants Ranke in the history of historical thought, all studies of Ranke betray the same unease. Yet continued interest in the historiographical impact of Ranke is a measure of the scholar’s stature. The political implications of Ranke’s historiographical assumptions have been extraordinarily potent. During the Bismarckian- Wilhelmine empire some of his key concepts were enlisted in or adapted to the service of Germany’s bid for world power. However over the years he as been more revered and less read. Ranke’s work have been re-discovered and opened up for the edification of the present generation. Particularly instructive is the focus on the question of how the celebrated founder of national history could be simultaneously an advocate of universal history. On this Leonard Krieger writes about Ranke’s as follows:

“When the whole corpus of Ranke’s historiographical principles is taken into account, he appears no longer the father of the definite scientific, scholarly, professionalized history . . . but rather as an ambiguous Ranke who emerges from the recent scholarship of reassessment reflecting the ambivalence of his early nineteenth century age, at once romantic and science minded, and bequeathing to posterity a more encumbered inheritance than the deceptively simple method he seemed to settle upon it.”2

A process through which Ranke arrived at his conception of universal history and how he thought it should be practised may shed light on his ‘legacy’. But such an exercise needs to be prefaced by an outline of Ranke’s theory of knowledge since, as Helen Liebel has pointed out, Ranke’s conception of knowing and cognition in general and his application of it to historical knowledge really constituted the essence of his contribution to modern historical scholarship. It can be agues that early in his scholarly training Ranke had come to grips with the central problem of how the historian made valid judgements from the mass of empirical data at his disposal3.

Ranke understood by a priori that element in the human capacity to make judgements, which was independent of experience and of the impressions of the senses.

And the certain signs of an a priori judgement were a necessity and of universal validity because experience allowed only for contingent and particular kinds of knowledge. If all judgements attributable to experience were discarded, there would remain certain original a priori concepts and the judgements they made possible. A priori judgements were the mathematical elements and principles of pure understanding as was, for example, the law of causation, ‘everything that happens has a cause’. In further elaborating Ranke’s theory of perception, his doctrine of ideas, Zdeenlehre or conception of notions, needs to be spelt out.

The steps by which he arrived at the ‘idea’ of an object under contemplation were as follows: One proceeded from the representation of a thing to perceiving it consciously, relating it to something through sense perception – which is, of course, a subjective process. Next, in cognition of it, one came to know it as something objective, as existing outside one’s self. Such a perception may be empirical or abstract. If abstract it led to pure understanding of the object or a notio. This, in turn, produced the conception of all notions or the ‘idea’. Recognizing the unique ‘idea’ that informed each individual historical phenomenon was the purpose of this procedure. Ranke assumed these ideas to exist objectively. It was the historian’s task to perceive or grasp them. This conviction of Ranke’s of the metaphysical explanation of historical reality led him to make a series of methodological demands. It is these which distinguish his theory of knowledge from that of the pure empiricists, and it was precisely in Ranke’s lectures on universal history that he explained what his theory was about and how he went about clarifying it. And in an exposition of these fragments we learn from him the process of application of his theory of knowledge and see just how consistent he was.

By the time Ranke was born in 1795, the academics of western Europe had already an industry of thought around ‘universal history’ or histories of humankind. These were undoubtedly the result of missionary activity, navigation, commerce and colonization of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which disclosed remote parts of the Earth, to the curious minds of the Enlightenment. Especially, the news of French Jesuits about the antiquity and significance of China had the effect of re-evaluating the prevalent Old Testament chronology of world history in western Europe. Traditional conceptions as to the range and content of world history had to be radically revised and rethought. While status quo of the day – a Bible-based chronology was still adhered to with unease. Nevertheless, this disjointed series of national histories sparked off a new wave of critical scholarship in Germany. Not only ‘salvation history’, but also Church- and-state history was superseded by a portrayal of the customs and spirit of the civilized nations.

It was in the university of Gottingen that Johann Christian Gatterer founded Germany’s first historical institute, to embark on the new history of humankind. It was he who initiated a course of development that culminated in Ranke.4 So Ranke was the end-product of a line of German eighteenth-century scholars of ‘world history’, each of whom advanced the study of the subject a step further with methodological innovations and new theories of periodization’.5

The first genuine philosophy of world history was, of course, that evolved by G. W. F. Hegel on the question of how one culture or civilization overwhelmed and superseded its rivals. It is ultimately this question which is the point of departure for Hegel’s monumental theory on the course of world history, and it led him to a position which Ranke later emphatically rejected, namely, the identification of the will of Almighty God with that of the most powerful state. It was around the time when Hegel had developed his philosophy of history that the young Ranke was beginning to turn from his classical and theological studies to ancient history. And here the three components in Ranke’s upbringing that were the essential pre-conditions for his universal conception of history need to be emphasized. The first is the nature of Ranke’s theology.’ Paradoxically, it was by virtue of Ranke’s intensive investigation of the Old Testament that he finally came to reject the Biblical chronology of world history as well as the Judaic claims to ‘chosenness’. In other words, without the discovery damaging Ranke’s faith, he came to see the Old Testament as essentially saga and not history.” This step, though, cleared Ranke’s path to develop ideas on the history of the human condition much along the lines of Herder, and also Friedrich Schlegel, both of whom affirmed that the Creator’s will informed the course of world history.

The second component in Ranke’s training was his profound knowledge of Greek and Roman historians such as Thucydides, Herodotus and Tacitus, acquired precisely at the time of Napoleon’s campaigns in Germany and their aftermath. The parallels between the struggles of small states against the hegemonic tendencies of imperialistic powers in ancient times and Ranke’s own world made a deep and lasting impression upon him and became a fixed component of his historiographical presuppositions.

A third contributing factor in the moulding of Ranke’s concept of universal history was, undoubtedly, Luther, the founder of the ‘protestant principle’, who exploded forever the universalist pretensions of the Church of Rome. Luther’s theological, literary and indirectly political, impact on the course of European and ultimately world history, caused Ranke to wrestle with the problem of relating the historically individual and particular to the general, universal and absolute. His question was, what was Almighty God’s position in a world history which, from a religious point of view, now focused on so-called individualities and their relation to each other-a kind of history which was neither the realization of a divine plan of salvation for humanity, in the sense of Christian universal history, nor the history of human progress in the sense of the Enlightenment?”

Given Ranke’s unshakable Lutheran commitment, it is clear that his point of departure had to be the doctrine of the fatherhood of Almighty God and his redemptive work through Christ. But Ranke did not take his theology from Luther but rather from the new school of Biblical criticism which was a product of the Enlightenment. Revelation, for Ranke, was not confined to the Christian scriptures; rather the entirety of world history was revelation. Consequently there was a divine plan for world history, and Ranke dedicated his long life to contemplating its many What is curious, though, about


Ranke, is that despite the chain of catastrophe that makes up the human record, he never abandoned his essentially optimistic attitude towards power. He retained throughout his long life a naive confidence that world history was somehow working itself out for the good under the benevolence of Almighty God.6

Profession as and of an universal historian?

Ranke’s first specific and cohesive statement on this subject was in the form of an introductory lecture held in 1831 or 1832, a fragment which was first published by Eberhard Kessel in 1954. In this text Ranke set out to explain the principle of history as opposed to philosophy and theology, and further to erect the framework and identify the content of universal history. Ranke asserted, that the philosophers claimed to be able to reconstruct all of human history on the basis of his arbitrarily devised ‘truth’. The philosopher was not prepared to test his theory empirically, but rather selected those facts of history which supported his theory.

This was totally unsatisfactory for Ranke because history would lose its right to be an independent discipline, having to rely on a philosophical doctrine. It would either stand or fall with the validity of that doctrine. Such a history would not be worth pursuing because what was worth knowing was only that which reinforced the philosophical principle. Ranke made the same objections about theology in that it imposed upon the entirety of human phenomena a concept of history that was based variously on the concepts of sin and redemption, millenarianism or a few mystical Biblical texts.7

He argues, that history as employed by both philosophy and theology would lose all scientific credibility, and the true historian must oppose their claims. Indeed, Ranke denies to philosophy the possibility of providing a concept that adequately explained the manifold phenomena of life. While philosophy was concerned to advance a sublime idea, history was concerned with the actual conditions of existence. The one considered progress the essential factor of life, the other preferred to deal with individual questions; the one rejected everything except the circumstances of which it approved, and projected its principles beyond the present. Indeed, by its nature philosophy was prophetic and faced the future; history saw good and benevolence in what already existed and sought to preserve them. History’s view was always directed to the past8. So Ranke was asserting that in the historical view of things there was a principle which stood in active opposition to any philosophic view of the world 9.

Indeed while the philosopher contemplating history from his particular standpoint see infinity merely in the forward movement, the development of the totality, history recognizes in every circumstance in every entity, something eternal deriving from God- and that is its vital principle. How could anything be without the divine reason for its existence?10 For this very reason history Ranke preferred to investigate the individual phenomena of life and the conditions of existence. Interest focused therefore on the particular for the purpose of discovering the permanent. History resisted capricious selectivity, and even acknowledged the element of truth in error. And for this reason it was even prepared to concede that aspects of the eternal verities were present in previously rejected philosophical systems. Ranke, of course, regarded as self-evident the immanence of the eternal in the individual. This was in fact the religious basis of his enterprise. “We believe that there is nothing without God and nothing lives except by God; while we reject the claims of a certain limited theology we affirm our belief that all our efforts well up from a religious source”.11 And Ranke seeks to drive home his conviction that the divine power of the Creator was present in all historical phenomena by denying emphatically that historical enterprise was essentially a search for that higher principle in the world. Rather, it was the individual phenomenon in and for itself-that was important, indeed sacred. History was thus concerned with the concrete and not solely with the abstract that might be contained in it.12 In this way Ranke sought to vindicate his highest principle, and then went on to outline the implications of it for the practising historian. The first prerequisite was a love of truth. Whatever the object of research, in it resided a higher principle, and this demanded respect. Any temptation to embroider research with imagination or impose theories upon it had to be resisted. One had to concern oneself exclusively with the phenomenon, not just with the ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’, but to seek to identify its interior meaning by application of the historical principle. This made a profound, detailed study of the documents mandatory as a first step in identifying the essence and content of all phenomena. And because, as indicated, all phenomena were of spiritual origin, then their essence and content could only be ascertained by virtue of spiritual perceptively.

This particular facility was available to all, though of course in varying degrees, as ‘spiritual perceptivity’ operated in conformity with the laws according to which the contemplative spirit functioned, and through which the object under contemplation was comprehended. And here Ranke asserts that all genius rests upon a rapport between the individual (historian) and the phenomena under investigation. The efficacy of a so called productive principle is assumed, a principle which formed nature and which emerged in individuals and enabled them to recognize, see clearly and understand the truth. Anyone could accomplish this provided one had an impartial or unbiased soul. And this impartiality required what Ranke saw as an essential component of his principle, universal interest. Ranke here voices his dissatisfaction with those historians who confined themselves to special fields, such as constitutional history, history of science, history of art or political history. One could not assume that each area was hermetically sealed off from its neighbours. Each exerted some influence on the other, so the historian had t o take cognizance equally of all components. If not, he would be unable to understand any of them, and his one-sided concern with one element would be counter-productive to the objective of achieving true cognition. This is what Ranke meant by impartiality. It is not a lack of interest but a concern for true cognition uninfluenced by preconceived ideas. In the process of understanding would not the historian end up by dissecting each component and finally have nothing but a series of isolated fragments? (Paraphrasing from seminar discussions)

The answer to this, is knowing how to establish causal connections. Ranke accepts the pragmatic understanding of cause and effect only conditionally. Certainly, there was a process of cause and effect but one which Ranke understood according to his concepts. The assumption by most historians was that the actions of individuals could be accounted for on the basis of readily observed human propensities (Hobbes and Human nature). But this was far too superficial for Ranke. There were more complex driving forces in history than mere passion. And to recognize and perceive this pattern it was necessary to examine causation by exhaustive proofing of the available evidence. By this means the perceptive historian would be enabled more confidently to give rein to his intuition. Indeed, the more the relevant documentation was examined the more freedom of manoeuvre did the historian acquire to practise his art of re-construction. Only with the elements of the immediate and undeniable truth could the art of the historian come to full effect. The really dry history was that which was imagined; the truly documented history was always rich, profound and fresh. To this extent, then, was Ranke’s search for causal connections pragmatic?

Next, Ranke advances his concept of impartiality. Since history was largely concerned with warring factions, the outcome of their struggles was always judged by posterity. However, these judgements were seldom impartial. For too often would the past be judged according to current concerns and interests. Can tendencies of looking at history, the past, through the prism of the present ever be discarded from the partiality of the historian? (Paraphrasing seminar discussion). These were perhaps political judgements, but certainly not historical. Wherever two parties were locked in conflict each must be observed on its own ground, in its environment, not judged in terms of good or evil and error or truth. Indeed, they must be comprehended rather than judged. An observer may under no circumstances do violence to the terms of existence of any object under consideration. If this principle were upheld it would be possible for any historian, regardless of personal political or religious biases, to maintain impartiality. The historian was not to judge the ideological or religious position of the protagonists; the historian was concerned only with its existence. Further, in the struggle between two historical entities it was only necessary to acknowledge the principle of movement and resistance in history because that was the pre-condition of human progress. Indeed, the protagonist forces must complete their struggle, but the historian is not there to evaluate the quality of the result, simply to illustrate how the result was arrived at. In any case, the historian, Ranke believed, knew that the struggle would be decided by the will of God.

It is at this point that Ranke introduced his notion of universality. As indicated, the individual historical entity existed within a context of innumerable interrelated entities which in some measure exerted influence on each other. So, within the overall complex, the individual element, be it a person, an institution, or nation, existed in its own right. It is this totality which demands the attention of the historian. For example, if it were an individual nation, it was not simply the individual instances of its vitality that warranted the attention of the historian but the ‘idea’ of that particular nation itself that gains expression in the totality of its development, of its deeds, institutions, literature, and so on. To encompass all these factors, Ranke acknowledged, was very difficult because here everything had to be researched as exactly as possible in order to achieve, step by step, an approximation of the total picture.

That is to say, advances in knowledge came through induction from what is well researched, not through divinations from scanty evidence such as philosophizing: making universal history infinitely difficult. There was an infinite mass of material and many varying movements which compound the difficulty in comprehending the individual factors. And because there is so much that is not known, says Ranke, we want to comprehend at least the causal connections. There is simply no chance of comprehending the essence of the ’totality’. To him the solution to this problem was impossible. Only God knows the history of the world: “ What is free will? If all goes according to Gods plan”. The harmonious whole was known only to God and remained unknown to men by whom it could only be surmised. But what Ranke affirms is that there is a unity, a forward movement, a development. Clearly, it is appropriate to call Ranke’s concept of universal history a teleology without Telos 13 . It remained now for Ranke to define the extent of world history. In discussing the continuum of world history Ranke believed that ideally it should include everything in human life from the very beginning, but acknowledged immediately that too much had been hopelessly lost or remained unknown. And this leads Ranke to impose his first criterion of selection.

 World history would have to exclude prehistoric ages of people since there was no documentary record on which to reconstruct it.

 Mythology was also disqualified although it may contain historical elements, and the most important aspect of this was that it often expressed the self perception of a people. Indeed, the so-called subjective element of a people, its ‘ideas’, could be recognized in it.

Further, world history could not be centrally concerned with primitive people’s (ones still in a state of nature). Even ancient cultures such as India and China scarcely qualified to be included because all they had managed to produce were chronologies, and the record of their antiquity belonged to the realm of fables. Ranke commented: ‘I hold it to be a malpractice, which has in recent times crept into general history to place China and India in the foreground of world history [. . .] The description of their mores and institutions belongs to ethnography, out of which history creates, without however losing itself in it.’ Their condition was relegated to the sphere of Natural history and ethnography14, a curiosity significant in itself but without implications for world history.15 By contrast the Greek and Roman worlds exerted far-ranging influences on the West. Even the Roman Empire in decline had a cultural impact that was quite indelible. It had transmitted the idea of law, Christian religion and rational political organization. And, asks Ranke rhetorically, what fruits were borne through the spread of Christianity over the Germanic world? It had created the basis from which everything else has emerged, all that in modern times was great and noble. This he regarded as self-evident; all of world history proved it. In summing up his ideas on universal history, Ranke affirmed his conviction that the historical discipline, as he conceived it, had the task of producing knowledge about individual entities in as much detail as possible with a view to locating them in a general overview of historical developments, or ‘to highlight them in relief within their context16 Consequently, the historian must not only have an eye for detail but also for the general pattern. He will not approach the material like a philosopher with a previously thought out conception, but in the process of investigating individual phenomena, the course [of history] will itself reveal the development which the world in general has taken.17 And here Ranke, the ‘Prussian by choice’, comes to the essential factor in his notion of world history. We have seen that he emphasizes that each individual factor in history, especially nations, exerts influence upon each other. Indeed, he writes, There is no nation on earth which has existed without contact with And the character of this inter-relationship between nations was determined by the peculiar nature of each individual nation. This ‘peculiar nature’ was what determined the extent of the ro1e which an individual nation would play in world history. It was this role which had to be highlighted in the framework of world history.

Finally, Ranke lets us know the key to his understanding of universal or world history.

 A few nations in contrast to others in the world have been endowed with power; they above all have exerted an effect on the others. And it is from these chiefly that derive the changes which the world, for good or evil, has experienced.18 Ranke’s optimistic notions about political power and acceptance of and resignation to evil which remains unresolved.

  The historian’s task, then, was to observe these nations which have emerged as active in history and to examine the influence they have exerted upon each other, whether in war or peace. It would, of course, be entirely wrong to be concerned with the effects of brute force alone because one would simply be observing evanescent phenomena.

  But, affirms Ranke, no state had ever existed without a spiritual basis or content. Indeed, in power itself resided a spiritual element, an original genius which enjoyed a unique life which fulfilled peculiar conditions and formed its own sphere of activity. ‘The business of history was the perception of this life’.19Much of the foregoing will be recognized as containing more than just hints of ideas that appear elsewhere in his later works.

Ranke’s methodology might have little or no relevance today, and that a tangible distance exists between Ranke’s approach to history and current understandings of historiography. Most crucially the role of the historian in politics has changed today, it is no longer the case that historians are the political mentors of the nation as they once were. Methodology aside, the more ethnocentric aspects of Ranke’s position would be untenable today, but his division in the study of the past between history and prehistory is seldom questioned. In his critique of nineteenth-century German historicism, Gadamer, whose view I agree with, argues that “even the ‘historical school’ knew that fundamentally there can be no other history than universal history, because the unique significance of the detail can be determined only from the whole.”20 In that sense, “th self-evident assumption of historical research is that history constitutes a unity.”21 Gadamer notes Ranke’s “methodological naivet ́ ” in dealing with the assumption of an uninterrupted continuity in the development of world history. He also shows how Ranke marvels at the fact that “something unique finally emerges from the vast and multifarious whole of historical development—namely the unity of Western civilization which, produced by the Germanic and Romance peoples, spreads over the whole earth.”22 Gadamer highlights an obvious fact that Ranke does not see: “That world history has produced Western culture in a continuous development is not a mere fact of experience that consciousness acknowledges but a condition of historical consciousness itself.”23 “Nor is it by chance,” Gadamer continues, “that the unity of history depends on the unity of Western civilization, to which belong Western science in general and history as science, in particular.”24 Second, according to Meinecke, (Who also puts forward a much nuanced critique of Ranke’s methods) the most important thing that nineteenth-century historians have in common is “the sovereignty of historical judgment.”25 In Ranke, this sovereignty it is grounded in an implausible timelessness that hides an actual grounding in the pre-judgments of the present. Yet the relationship between past and present need not be one-sided, and may take the form of a dialogue. The past has claims on the present, just as the present has claims on the past.

Ranke’s critical methods have been assimilates, appropriated and surpassed26. His archival discoveries extended by disciples and successors. His philosophy, world view and politics are largely repudiated and disregarded. To conclude with Roger Wines words from the preface to “ The Secret History of the World”,

“ For Ranke, History was not a meaningless process. Ideas did matter; Great men who embodied them did change the course of history; History was free, not determined. … If he thought of critically derived facts, he also thought of dynamically related facts; the contest was never far from consideration of any particular man, idea, nation or event….”


“ To read Ranke is not merely to experience the perceptions of history by the vanished school of German Idealism; it is to review the tangled pattern of events with fresh eyes, from a mountain top, as Ranke once did with King Marx, a divine landscape in which all ages become immediate to Ranke and to us. With him we gaze wonderingly at “humanity as it is, explicable and inexplicable, the life of the individual, of generations, of nations; and at times, the hand of God over them”


2 L. Krieger, Ranke. The Meaning of History, Chicago 1917, p. 8.
3 H . Liebel, ‘Ranke’s Fragments on Universal History’, Vol. 2, 1973, p. 146.
4 Butterfield, Man on his Past, p. 44. On the growth and significance of the Gottingen school see Iggers, New Directions, pp. 10-22
5 ‘The Development of Historical Method in the Eighteenth Century’, in History and Theory. Enlightenment Historiography: Three German Studies, Ann Arbor 1971,pp. 1-23
6 Pieter Geyl gently criticizes Ranke’s attitude to power and evil: ‘Ranke in the Light of the Catastrophe’, in his Debates with Historians, Groningen and The Hague 1955, pp. 1-18.
7 ’ The Secret of World, R. Wines (ed.), New York 1981, p. 249. 8 Wines (ed.), p. 75.
9 Wines (ed.), pp. 75-6.
10 Wines (ed.), p. 77.
11 Wines (ed.), p. 77
12 Wines (ed.), p. 77. Ranke states here that if historians concentrated solely on the search for ‘that higher principle’ they would come more and more t o resemble philosophers who assumed the existence of the principle, i.e., came to their material with preconceived ideas.
13 Attributed to Deleuze
14 See Liebel, p. 155. 15 Ibid.
16 Ibid, p. 88
17 Ibid.
18 Geyl, Debates with Historians, p. 88
19 Ibid, p.89
20 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Crossroad, 1992)
21 Ibid, 208 22 Ibid.
23 Ibid.
24 Ibid.
25 Ibid, 209
26 Wines (ed.), p. 25