Historiography of Germany

The historiography of Germany deals with the manner in which historians have depicted, analyzed and debated the History of Germany. It also covers the popular memory of critical historical events, ideas and leaders, as well as the depiction of those events in museums, monuments, reenactments, pageants and historic sites, and the editing of historical documents.

Medieval and early modern

Diarium Europaeum was a journal on the history of the German-speaking lands founded by Martin Meyer (Philemerus Irenicus Elisius) and published between 1659 and 1683 in 45 volumes.

Very precise editing of historic documents was a main concern in the 19th century, as exemplified by Monumenta Germaniae Historica. It published many thousands of documents, both chronicle and archival, for the study of German history (broadly conceived) from the end of the Roman Empire to 1500. The MGH was founded in Hanover in 1819. The first volume appeared in 1826. The editor from 1826 was Georg Heinrich Pertz (1795 to 1876); in 1875 he was succeeded by Georg Waitz (1813-1886) . Many eminent medievalists participated in the project, searching for and annotating documents.[1]

The Die Deutschen Inschriften project begun in 1934 collects and redacts medieval and early modern inscriptions in Germany.

Justus Möser (1720 - 1794), was a German jurist, best known for his innovative history of Osnabrück (1768) which stressed social and cultural themes.[2]

19th century

Hegel and Marx

Another important German thinker was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose theory of historical progress ran counter to Ranke's approach. In Hegel's own words, his philosophical theory of "World history... represents the development of the spirit's consciousness of its own freedom and of the consequent realization of this freedom.".[3] This realization is seen by studying the various cultures that have developed over the millennia, and trying to understand the way that freedom has worked itself out through them:

Hegel's main historical enterprise was to study the emergence of the idea of freedom. Starting with China and India, which gave a very limited scope to freedom, he moves to ancient Persia and Greece, which had much more sophisticated views, and then to Rome, which added a policy of rule by law. Christianity added a positive spirit to the Roman idea of freedom, but during the Middle Ages, according to Hegel, tight Church control led to stagnation. The breakthrough for freedom came during the Renaissance, and especially during the Reformation. Hegel concludes that the constitutional monarchy of the Germanic and Scandinavian states, and Britain, represents so far the highest stage of freedom. He dismisses democracy is a step backward. His uses a three-stage approach: the status quo is the "thesis", the challenge to it (as represented by Socrates, Christianity, and Luther) is the "antithesis" with the outcome being a synthesis at a higher stage of development of freedom.[4]

Karl Marx followed the Hegelian dialectic method, but inverting it to make material factors (especially economic factors) superior to virtual forces.[5] Marx introduced the concept of historical materialism into the study of world historical development. In his conception, the economic conditions and dominant modes of production determined the structure of society at that point. In his view five successive stages in the development of material conditions would occur in Western Europe. The first stage was primitive communism where property was shared and there was no concept of "leadership". This progressed to a slave society where the idea of class emerged and the State developed. Feudalism was characterized by an aristocracy working in partnership with a Church and the emergence of the Nation-state. Capitalism appeared after the bourgeois revolution when the capitalists (or their merchant predecessors) overthrew the feudal system and established a market economy, with private property and Parliamentary democracy. Marx then predicted the eventual proletarian revolution that would result in the attainment of socialism, followed by Communism, where property would be communally owned.[6][7]


Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776 – 1831) became Germany's leading historian of Ancient Rome and a founding father of modern scholarly historiography. By 1810 Niebuhr was inspiring German patriotism in students at the University of Berlin by his analysis of Roman economy and government. Niebuhr was a leader of the Romantic Era and symbol of German national spirit that emerged after the humiliating defeat Of the German Army by Napoleon at Jena in 1806. But he was also deeply rooted in the classical spirit of the Age of Enlightenment in his intellectual presuppositions, his use of philological analysis, and his emphasis on both general and particular phenomena in history. He emphasized use of the techniques that philologist had used to study ancient documents, stressing that historical research had to be based primarily on primary sources.[8]

Leopold von Ranke

The modern academic study of history and methods of historiography were pioneered in 19th-century German universities, especially the University of Berlin and the University of Göttingen. Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) at Berlin was the pivotal influence in this regard, and was the founder of modern source-based history.[9][10] According to Caroline Hoefferle, "Ranke was probably the most important historian to shape historical profession as it emerged in Europe and the United States in the late 19th century."[11][12][13]

Specifically, he implemented the seminar teaching method in his classroom, and focused on archival research and analysis of historical documents. Beginning with his first book in 1824, the History of the Latin and Teutonic Peoples from 1494 to 1514, Ranke used an unusually wide variety of sources for a historian of the age, including "memoirs, diaries, personal and formal missives, government documents, diplomatic dispatches and first-hand accounts of eye-witnesses". Over a career that spanned much of the century, Ranke set the standards for much of later historical writing, introducing such ideas as reliance on primary sources, an emphasis on narrative history and especially international politics (aussenpolitik).[14] Sources had to be solid, not speculations and rationalizations. His credo was to write history the way it was. He insisted on primary sources with proven authenticity.

Ranke also rejected the 'teleological approach' to history, which traditionally viewed each period as inferior to the period which follows. In Ranke's view, the historian had to understand a period on its own terms, and seek to find only the general ideas which animated every period of history. In 1831 and at the behest of the Prussian government, Ranke founded and edited the first historical journal in the world, called Historisch-Politische Zeitschrift.


Across Europe, the nationalization of history took place in the 19th century, as part of national revivals in the 19th century. Historians emphasize the cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic roots of the nation, leading to a strong support for their own government on the part of many ethnic groups, especially the Germans and Italians Italians. It had a profound impact on Germany, providing strong widespread intellectual support for the unification achieved in 1870-71.[15] An especially influential German historian was Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896).[16]

Other historians

Johann Gustav Droysen (1808 – 1884) moved from his original interest in Rome to the history of Prussia, He was perhaps most influential for his consideration of the nature of historiography, making a strong case for the autonomy of history regardless of the growing prestige of the sciences.[17][18]

Karl Lamprecht (1856- 1915) was the most controversial historian in Germany around 1900. His great goal was to fashion on all-embracing, scientific cultural history of the German nation, challenged the Rankean policies that had become governing tenets of German historiography.[19]

Wilhelm Dilthey (1833 – 1911) was a historian, psychologist, sociologist, and philosopher, who held Hegel's Chair in Philosophy at the University of Berlin. Is best known for his philosophy of history, whereby he distinguished the humanities from the physical sciences. A lifelong concern was to establish a proper theoretical and methodological foundation for the "human sciences" (e.g. history, law, literary criticism), distinct from, but equally "scientific" as, the "natural sciences" (e.g. physics, chemistry). He suggested that all human experience divides naturally into two parts: that of the surrounding natural world, in which "objective necessity" rules, and that of inner experience, characterized by sovereignty of the will, personal responsibility for one's actions, an ability to subject everything to reasoning and to protect one's own autonomy. Historians used his approach to rebuff arguments that history was not fully "scientific."[20]

In religious history, Adolf von Harnack (1851 – 1930) and Ernst Troeltsch (1865 – 1923) were highly influential well beyond Germany. Harnack's history of early Christianity gave a liberal Protestant interpretation. Troeltsch's explored the sociology of Christian believers, which he based on the sociology of Max Weber.[21][22]


A major historiographical debate about the German history concerns the Sonderweg, the alleged "special path" that separated German history from the normal course of historical development, and whether or not Nazi Germany was the inevitable result of the Sonderweg. Proponents of the Sonderweg theory such as Fritz Fischer point to such events of the Revolution of 1848, the authoritarianism of the Second Empire and the continuation of the Imperial elite into the Weimar and Nazi periods. Opponents such as Gerhard Ritter of the Sonderweg theory argue that proponents of the theory are guilty of seeking selective examples, and there was much contingency and chance in German history. In addition, there was much debate within the supporters of the Sonderweg concept as for the reasons for the Sonderweg, and whether or not the Sonderweg ended in 1945. Was there a Sonderweg? Winkler says:

For a long time, educated Germans answered it in the positive, initially by laying claim to a special German mission, then, after the collapse of 1945, by criticizing Germany's deviation from the West. Today, the negative view is predominant. Germany did not, according to the now prevailing opinion, differ from the great European nations to an extent that would justify speaking of a 'unique German path.' And, in any case, no country on earth ever took what can be described as the 'normal path.'[23]

Debate on World War One

Fritz Fischer (1908 – 1999) was best known for his analysis of the causes of World War I. In the early 1960s Fischer published Germany's Aims in the First World War. He put forward the controversial thesis that responsibility for the outbreak of the war rested solely with Imperial Germany. That set off a long debate that reverberates into the 21st century. He has been described by The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing as the most important German historian of the 20th century.[24]

Fischer argued that Germany had a policy of deliberately provoking war during July 1914 and that during the war Germany developed a set of annexationist war aims similar to those of Adolf Hitler during the Second World War.[25] On publication, the book caused controversy in West Germany as it challenged the view that Hitler was an aberration by emphasising the continuity in German foreign policy in 1914 and 1939.[26] The book was also controversial for challenging the established view that Germany did not bear the primary responsibility for outbreak of the war, the so-called "war guilt lie". Fischer also claimed that German elites had wanted war since as early as 1902.[27]

Historian John Moses stated in his 1975 work The Politics of Illusion that "No serious German historian today can venture to pit himself against the evidence compiled by the Fischer school."[28] Fischer inspired several disciples, including the historian Imanuel Geiss.[27] However, Fischer was ridiculed by conservative German historians who created a backlash against his ideas.[27] The most notable critic was conservative historian and patriot Gerhard Ritter. Fischer's ideas were welcomed by historians in communist East Germany where Fritz Klein considered Fischer's views to be uncontroversial.[29]

Prominent historians

Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936) published The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), in two volumes in 1918 and 1922, covering all of world history. The book was widely translated and carried the pessimistic implication that Western Civilization was now in irreversible decline, a timely theme in the aftermath of the horrors of the Great War. It had an enormous impact on intellectuals across the world in the 1920s, but its unusually broad sweeping interpretations of all of past history had little direct influence on the scholarship of working historians in Germany.[30][31]

Bielefeld School of social history

The Bielefeld School is a group of German historians based originally at Bielefeld University who promote social history and political history using quantification and the methods of political science and sociology.[32] The leaders include Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Jürgen Kocka and Reinhart Koselleck. Instead of emphasizing the personalities of great leaders history, as in the conventional approach, it concentrates on socio-cultural developments. History as "historical social science" (as Wehler described it) has mainly been explored in the context of studies of German society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The movement has published the scholarly journal Geschichte und Gesellschaft: Zeitschrift fur Historische Sozialwissenschaft since 1975.

Social history developed within West German historiography during the 1950s-60s as the successor to the national history discredited by National Socialism. The German brand of "history of society" — Gesellschaftsgeschichte — has been known from its beginning in the 1960s for its application of sociological and political modernization theories to German history. Modernization theory was presented by Wehler and his Bielefeld School as the way to transform "traditional" German history, that is, national political history, centered on a few "great men," into an integrated and comparative history of German society encompassing societal structures outside politics. Wehler drew upon the modernization theory of Max Weber, with concepts also from Marx, Otto Hintze, Gustav Schmoller, Werner Sombart and Thorstein Veblen.[33]

Historikerstreit and Nazi Germany

The Historikerstreit ("historians' quarrel") was an intellectual and political controversy in the late 1980s in West Germany about the crimes of Nazi Germany, including their comparability with the crimes of the Soviet Union.

The Historikerstreit pitted right-wing against left-wing intellectuals. The positions taken by the right-wing intellectuals were largely based on the totalitarianism approach which takes a comparative approach to totalitarian states, while left-wing intellectuals argued that fascism was uniquely evil, referred to as the Sonderweg approach, and could not be equated with the crimes of Soviet communism. The former were accused by their critics of downplaying Nazi crimes, while the latter were accused by their critics of downplaying Soviet crimes.[34] The debate attracted much media attention in West Germany, with its participants' frequently giving television interviews and writing op-ed pieces in newspapers. It flared up again briefly in 2000 when one of its leading figures, Ernst Nolte, was awarded the Konrad Adenauer Prize for science.[35]

Prominent scholars

Past scholars in Germany

20th-21st century scholars in Germany

Historians outside Germany

Holocaust historians

See also


  1. David Knowles, "The Monumenta Germaniae Historica'." in Knowles, ed, (1963): 63-97. in JSTOR
  2. W. J. Bossenbrook, "Justus Möser's Approach to History," in Medieval and Historiographical Essays in Honor of James Westfall Thompson (Chicago, 1938), pp 397-422.
  3. Lectures, p. 138.
  4. Marnie Hughes-Warrington, Fifty key thinkers on history (Routledge, 2007) pp 135-43.
  5. Sidney Hook, From Hegel to Marx: studies in the intellectual development of Karl Marx (1994).
  6. Gerald Allan Cohen, Karl Marx's theory of history: a defence (2nd ed. 2000) online
  7. Hughes-Warrington, Fifty key thinkers on history (2007) pp 215-24.
  8. Peter Hanns Reill, "Barthold Georg Niebuhr and the Enlightenment Tradition." German Studies Review (1980): 9-26. in JSTOR
  9. Frederick C. Beiser (2011) The German Historicist Tradition, p.254
  10. Green and Troup (eds.), The Houses of History, p. 2: "Leopold von Ranke was instrumental in establishing professional standards for historical training at the University of Berlin between 1824 and 1871."
  11. Caroline Hoefferle, Essential Historiography Reader (Pearson, 2011) p. 68.
  12. Georg G. Iggers, "The image of Ranke in American and German historical thought." History and Theory 2.1 (1962): 17-40. in JSTOR
  13. Hughes-Warrington, Fifty key thinkers on history (2007) pp 256-63.
  14. E. Sreedharan, A textbook of historiography, 500 BC to AD 2000 (2004) p 185
  15. Leonard Krieger, The German idea of freedom: History of a political tradition from the Reformation to 1871 (1957).
  16. H.W.C. Davis, The political thought of Heinrich von Treitschke (1915). online
  17. Arthur Alfaix Assis, What Is History For? Johan Gustav Droysen and the Functions of Historiography (2014)
  18. Thomas Burger, "Droysen's defense of historiography: a note." History and Theory (1977): 16#2 168–173. in JSTOR
  19. Roger Chickering, Karl Lamprecht: a German academic life (1856-1915) (BRILL, 1993).
  20. Michael Ermarth, Wilhelm Dilthey: The critique of historical reason (1978).
  21. Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teachings of the Christian Church (2 vol. translation, Harper Row, 1960)..
  22. Wilhelm Pauck, Harnack and Troeltsch: Two historical theologians (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015)
  23. Heinrich August Winkler, Germany: The Long Road West (2006), vol 1 p 1
  24. John Moses, "Fischer, Fritz," in Kelly Boyd, ed., The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing (1999) 1:387.
  25. Matthew Stibbe, "The Fischer Constrovery over German War aims in the First World War and its reception by East German Historians 1961-1989," Historical Journal 46#3 (2003), pp. 649–668
  26. "The Causes of the First World War: The Fritz Fischer thesis". Blacksacademy.net. 1912-12-08. Retrieved 2009-11-15.
  27. "WWI Origins". Uweb.ucsb.edu. Archived from the original on 2009-10-14. Retrieved 2009-11-15.
  28. John Moses, The Politics of Illusion (1975) p 127
  29. Joll James and Gordon Martel, The Origins of the First World War (3rd ed, 2007) p 6
  30. John Farrenkopf, Prophet of Decline: Spengler on World History & Politics (2001)
  31. Hughes-Warrington, Fifty key thinkers on history (2007) pp 284-91.
  32. Lorenz, Chris "Wehler, Hans-Ulrich" pages 1289–1290 from The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, Volume 2 page 1289
  33. Roger Fletcher, "Recent Developments in West German Historiography: the Bielefeld School and its Critics." German Studies Review 1984 7(3): 451-480. in JSTOR
  34. Pakier, Małgorzata; Stråth, Bo (2010). A European Memory?: Contested Histories and Politics of Remembrance. Berghahn Books. p. 264.
  35. Cohen, Roger (June 21, 2000). "Hitler Apologist Wins German Honor, and a Storm Breaks Out". New York Times.

Further reading

  • Berger, Stefan. The Search for Normality: National Identity and Historical Consciousness in Germany Since 1800, (Berghahn Books, 2007). in JSTOR
  • Berghahn, Volker R., and Simone Lassig, eds. Biography between Structure and Agency: Central European Lives in International Historiography (2008)
  • Biesinger, Joseph A. Germany: a reference guide from the Renaissance to the present (2006)
  • Bithell, Jethro, ed. Germany: A Companion to German Studies (5th ed. 1955), 578pp; essays on German literature, music, philosophy, art and, especially, history. online edition
  • Boyd, Kelly, ed. Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writers (2 Vol 1999), 1600 pp covering major historians and themes from all countries
  • Buse, Dieter K. ed. Modern Germany: An Encyclopedia of History, People, and Culture 1871–1990 (2 vol 1998)
  • Daum, Andreas. "German Historiography in Transatlantic Perspective: Interview with Hans-Ulrich Wehler" GHI Bulletin (2000) online edition
  • Evans, Richard J. Rereading German History: From Unification to Reunification, 1800–1996 (1997) online edition
  • Hagen, William W. German History in Modern Times: Four Lives of the Nation (2012) excerpt
  • Iggers, Georg G. The German Conception of History: The National Tradition of Historical Thought from Herder to the Present (2nd ed. 1983)
  • Iggers, Georg G. "The decline of the classical national tradition of German historiography." History and theory (1967): 382-412. in JSTOR
  • Jarausch, Konrad H., and Michael Geyer, eds. Shattered Past: Reconstructing German Histories (2003); covers older nationalist, socialist, and liberal master narratives; includes newer themes of annihilationist warfare, complicity with dictatorship, the taming of power, the impact of migration, the struggle over national identity, womanhood, and the development of consumption & popular culture.
  • Lehmann, Hartmut, and James Van Horn Melton, eds. Paths of Continuity: Central European Historiography from the 1930s to the 1950s (2003)
  • Mah, Harold. "German Historical Thought in the Age of Herder, Kant, and Hegel" in Lloyd Kramer and Sarah Maza, eds., A Companion to Western Historical Thought (2002), pp 143–66
  • Mattheisen, Donald J. "History as Current Events: Recent Works on the German Revolution of 1848." American Historical Review (1983): 1219-1237. in JSTOR
  • Norton, Mary Beth, ed. The American Historical Association's guide to historical literature (Oxford University Press, 1995) vol 1 online pp 941–997,
  • Penny, H. Glenn. "The fate of the nineteenth century in German historiography." Journal of Modern History 80.1 (2008): 81-108.
  • Perkins, J. A. "Dualism in German Agrarian Historiography, Comparative Studies in Society and History, (1986) 28#2 pp 287–330,
  • Rüger, Jan, and Nikolaus Wachsmann, eds. Rewriting German history: new perspectives on modern Germany (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). excerpt
  • Schulze, Winfried. "German historiography from the 1930s to the 1950s" in Hartmut Lehmann, ed., Paths of continuity (German Historical Institute. 1994) pp 19–42. online
  • Sheehan, James J. "What is German history? Reflections on the role of the nation in German history and historiography." Journal of Modern History (1981): 2-23. in JSTOR
  • Sperber, Jonathan. "Master Narratives of Nineteenth-century German History." Central European History (1991) 24#1: 69-91. online
  • Stuchtey, Benedikt, and Peter Wende, eds. British and German Historiography, 1750–1950: Traditions, Perceptions, and Transfers (2000)
  • Watson, Peter. The German Genius (2010). 992 pp covers many thinkers, writers, scientists etc. since 1750; ISBN 978-0-7432-8553-7
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. "Historiography in Germany Today." in Jürgen Habermas, ed., Observations on The Spiritual Situation of the Age (1984) pp: 221-59. online

Germany since 1870

  • Chickering, Roger, ed. Imperial Germany: A Historiographical Companion (1996), 552pp; 18 essays by specialists
  • Craig, Gordon. " The War of the German Historians." New York Review of Books, February 15, 1987, 16-19.
  • Eley, Geoff. "Nazism, Politics and the Image of the Past: Thoughts on the West German Historikerstreit 1986–1987." Past and Present, (1988) #121: 171–208. in JSTOR
  • Evans, Richard. In Hitler's Shadow: West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape the Nazi Past (1989).
  • Evans, Richard J. "From Hitler To Bismarck: 'Third Reich' and Kaiserreich in Recent Historiography." Historical Journal 26#2 (1983): 485-497. online
  • Jarausch, Konrad H. (1988). "Removing the Nazi stain? The quarrel of the historians". German Studies Review. 11 (2): 285–301. doi:10.2307/1429974. JSTOR 1429974.
  • Kershaw, Ian. The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretations, (1989)
  • Klessmann, Christoph. The Divided Past: Rewriting Post-War German History (2001) online edition
  • Liebersohn, Harry. "German Historical Writing from Ranke to Weber." in Lloyd Kramer and Sarah Maza, eds., A Companion to Western Historical Thought (2002), pp 168–184.
  • Lorenz, Chris. "Beyond Good and Evil? The German Empire of 1871 and Modern German Historiography." Journal of Contemporary History 1995 30(4): 729-765. in Jstor
  • Moeller, Robert G. "War stories: the search for a usable past in the Federal Republic of Germany." American Historical Review 101.4 (1996): 1008-1048. online
    • Moeller, Robert G. War stories: The search for a usable past in the Federal Republic of Germany (U of California Press, 2001).
  • Moses, John Anthony. The politics of illusion: the Fischer controversy in German historiography (1975), on causes of WWI
  • Wehler, Hans-Ulrich. "A Guide to Future Research on the Kaiserreich?" Central European History 1996 29(4): 541-572. ISSN 0008-9389 Fulltext: Ebsco

Social history

  • Denecke, Dietrich, and Gareth Shaw, eds. Urban historical geography: recent progress in Britain and Germany (Cambridge UP, 1988).
  • Fletcher, Roger. "Recent developments in West German Historiography: the Bielefeld School and its critics." German Studies Review (1984): 451-480. in JSTOR
  • Hagemann, Karen, and Jean H. Quataert, eds. Gendering Modern German History: Rewriting Historiography (2008)
  • Hagemann, Karen. "From the Margins to the Mainstream? Women's and Gender History in Germany," Journal of Women's History, (2007) 19#1 pp 193–199
  • Hull, Isabel V. "Feminist and Gender History through the Literary Looking Glass: German Historiography in Postmodern Times." Central European History 22#3-4 (1989): 279-300.
  • Lees, Andrew. "Historical perspectives on cities in modern Germany: recent literature." Journal of Urban History 5.4 (1979): 411-446.
  • Lees, Andrew. "Cities, Society, and Culture in Modern Germany: Recent Writings by Americans on the Großstadt." Journal of Urban History 25.5 (1999): 734-744.
  • Pulzer, Peter. "New Books on German-Jewish History" Central European History (1991) 24#2-3 pp: 176-86 online

Primary sources

  • Barraclough, Geoffrey, ed. Medieval Germany, 911-1250: Essays by German Historians, Translated with an Introduction by Geoffrey Barraclough (Blackwell, 1967)
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