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Leopold von Ranke: Excerpts from Selected Works (1824-1881)

Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) was one of the most important and prolific German historians of the 19th century. His introduction to The History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations (1824), his notes on history and philosophy (1881-1888), and an excerpt from his lectures on world history (1854) are reprinted below. Most significantly, Ranke advocated, in contradiction to Hegel's unity of knowledge, the detailed analysis of primary sources and argued that general themes could only emerge from such empirical studies. Ranke valued each historical era on its own terms; he doubted the notion of history as "progress" and attempted to find out "how it really was."

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I. Introduction to Ranke's The History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations (1824)

THE PRESENT BOOK, I must confess, appeared more perfect to me before its printing than after. Nevertheless, I rely upon kindly readers who will pay attention less to its deficiencies than to its possible values. So as not to entrust it solely to its own powers, let me begin with a short explanation of its purpose, its material, and its form.

The purpose of an historian depends upon his point of view. About my viewpoint in this volume, two things must be said. First, I regard the Latin and Germanic peoples as a unit. This notion differs from three analogous concepts: the concept of a universal Christendom (which would include even the Armenians); the concept of Europe (for the Turks there are Asiatics, and the Russian empire embraces the whole of northern Asia and cannot be understood without investigating and penetrating a complete range of Asiatic affairs); and, the most analogous concept, the concept of Latin Christianity (for Slavic, Lithuanian, and Magyar races belonging to the latter have their own special and peculiar nature which I shall not include here).

By touching upon what is foreign to this unity only where necessary and only as a passing and subordinate matter, the author will remain close to the racially kindred nations of either purely Germanic or Latin-Germanic origin whose history forms the heart of all modern history.

In the following Introduction I shall try to show—by tracing the threads of international affairs—how these peoples have developed in unison and along similar lines. This is one aspect of the present book. The other is manifest from the contents: that it includes only a small portion of the history of those same nations, which we could call the beginning of the modern age. It contains only histories, not History. It comprises, on the one hand, the founding of the Spanish monarchy and the collapse of Italian freedom; and, on the other, the formation of a double opposition: political opposition by the French and religious opposition by the Reformation—in short, that division of our nations into hostile camps upon which all modern history is based. It begins at the moment in which Italy was still enjoying at least external freedom, and, if the position of the papacy is taken into consideration, perhaps even a predominance. The narrative then describes the division of Italy, the invasion by the French and Spanish, the destruction of freedom in some states and of self-determination in others, and, finally, the victory of the Spanish and the beginning of their domination. Starting with the political insignificance of the Spanish kingdoms, it proceeds to their unification and to the crusade of the united kingdoms against the infidels and for the inner renewal of Christianity. The book seeks to make clear how this crusade led to the discovery of America and the conquest of its great empires, and how, above all, it led to the Spanish domination of Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands. Thirdly, the work proceeds from the moment when Charles VIII went forth as a defender of Christendom against the Turks, through all the fortunes and misfortunes of the French, to the time 41 years later when Francis I called upon those same Turks for aid against the emperor. Finally, by following the beginnings of a political opposition in Germany against the emperor and of a religious opposition in Europe against the pope, it attempts to open the way toward a complete view of the history of the great schism caused by the Reformation. The first phase of that schism itself will be considered. The book seeks to comprehend all these and other related events in the history of the Latin and Germanic nations as a unity. History has had assigned to it the office of judging the past and of instructing the present for the benefit of the future ages. To such high offices the present work does not presume: it seeks only to show what actually happened [wie es eigentlich gewesen].

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