Popular Science Monthly/Volume 63/September 1903/Karl Lamprecht and Kulturgeschichte


By Professor WM. E. DODD,


DURING the last ten years a fierce war of words has been waged in Germany concerning the nature and scope of history. It is known as the ‘Kampf um die Kulturgeschichte’ and almost every historical scholar in the Empire has been forced to take either the one side or the other. This ‘Kampf’ which seems to mean so much for history and its writing began in 1893 with the appearance of the first volume of ‘Deutsche Geschichte’ by Karl Lamprecht, professor of history in the University of Leipzig. Leipzig and Berlin have been the centers of the opposing forces, and seldom has a learned controversy been conducted with so much animus. The question at issue is: Is history a science or an art? Lamprecht boldly asserts that it is a science, while his opponents maintain that it is and must always remain an art. The adherents of Lamprecht have been dubbed ‘Lamprechtianer,’ while the enemies of the new movement call themselves ‘Jungrankianer.’ It will thus be seen that the name and fame of the great Ranke have been enlisted on the conservative side of the dispute.

American scholars have troubled themselves but little about a contest both sides of which are supported by so much of truth. In fact little has been said or written in this country about Lamprecht or Delbrück, the leading champion of the Ranke school. Only one article and one review have come to the attention of the writer; the article appeared in the American Historical Review, of April, 1898, the review in the same publication of July, 1903. Yet the word ‘Kulturgeschichte’—Lamprecht's slogan—is not unfamiliar to most of us, and quite often in addresses and papers on history and its teaching the principles laid down in the works of the Leipzig professor are given no little prominence. In some quarters, however, the unconscious Ranke influence has found expression in slurs on the claims of ‘Kulturgeschichte’—history as a science, as Lamprecht insists. Still it is safe to say that the ideas advanced by the new school of German historians find a more general acceptance in our country than in any other, and this without our knowing just how it comes about. The cause of it is, perhaps, the reasonableness of the tenets of the Lamprecht school, the practical cast of mind of American scholars and our comparative freedom from the trammels of tradition and class prejudice.

Karl Lamprecht was born near Wittenberg in 1856; received his earlier training at Pforta, the celebrated Prinzenschule, and won his Doctor's degree from the University of Leipzig in 1879. The student was father of the scholar; his thesis was of such extraordinary character that the department of history to whose head it was offered refused to accept it. So the present head of the same department was compelled to take his degree as a political economist. Young Lamprecht was scarce hopeful of entering upon the professorial career, so scant were his means and so expensive it was and now is in Germany to become an instructor in a university. He engaged himself to teach in a private family in Köln, but while employed in this capacity he unexpectedly attracted the attention of a wealthy burgher of that city named Mevissen, who supplied him with the means of entering the University of Bonn as a docent—usually the first step to a professorship. Lamprecht's initial work, the investigation of the condition of the peasantry of the Rhineland at all stages of German history, brought him into disagreement with most of his seniors in the university faculty. He continued his studies in this direction, however, without interruption until he had founded The West German Magazine of History and Art, the ‘Society for the Advancement of Rhenish History’ and had laid the foundations for his famous 'Deutsche Geschichte' in his first important work, ‘Economic and Social Conditions in Germany during the Middle Ages,’ in four volumes. All this was done during the years of 1880 to 1886 and while he was only a docent—an activity which bespoke the astonishing energy of the present professor. A year or two after the appearance of ‘Social and Economic Conditions in the Middle Ages’ Lamprecht was called to Marburg as ordentlicher professor, very much to the surprise of the wiseacres, who had opposed him at every turn at Bonn. In 1890, when only thirty-six years of age, he was made full professor of history at Leipzig, where he has been the directing spirit in the faculty of modern history ever since; his co-workers and assistants in this department number about a dozen and his students each semester average 350 to 400; in the historical seminars there are from ninety to one hundred men taking special training in Kulturgeschichte. These students come from all parts of the civilized world. It is not difficult then to understand what an immense influence Lamprecht is exercising on the present generation of historical students. Such is, briefly, the lifework of the man who has excited so much opposition in Germany. Let us examine more closely the main features of the new history and its methods.

Lamprecht divides all knowledge into two classes: the one dependent on mechanics, the other on psychology, Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften. History is a science—a Geisteswissenschaft—dependent on psychology. It deals with the acts of men just as botany, for example, deals with the manifestations of plant life. In neither ease can we determine the nature of the inner, the motive-essence. The difference in the two sciences, however, consists in the fact that the historian deals with the activities of men and peoples long since passed beyond the reach of his personal knowledge. He relies upon more or less accurately attested depositions given by contemporaries or by the persons themselves, while the botanist, having the object of his investigations before him in most instances, is relieved of the task of rehabilitating extinct existences or species. The historian reconstructs the social and political characters of the past, masters the different intellectual movements, and then places each in its proper relative position, according to the most exacting methods of judgments and interpretations. The rules of accepting and rejecting evidence, of interpreting and classifying great historic events and tendencies which guide the historian in his reconstruction of the past entitle him to the rank of a scientist. The naturalist places a given animal in a certain class because of certain outward manifestations—the expression of the inner unknown forces; the historian places the historic character, whether statesman or peasant, in a certain class, by reason of the same kind of manifestations. In both instances the scientist is dealing with unknown quantities; but in both the outward activities are observed, interpreted, classified and made the basis of future judgments.

Following such a method of investigation one is prepared to appreciate, if not to accept, the second claim Lamprecht has put forward, viz., that history has not so much to do with great personages of the past as with the currents of thought, feeling or passion which produced those personages. He looks upon social, political and industrial leaders as exponents of popular or economic movements and deals with them as such in his writing. This relegates the kings and ministers of the present and past to quite insignificant positions and places the masses of the people in the forefront—a method not a little distasteful to the crowned heads of Europe.

Our new historian goes still further in his readjustment of historical method. Every people has gone through a certain more or less well-defined series of stages of evolution, e. g., the Germans have passed through the following: symbolism, or the earlier and medieval history of the race; individualism, modern times to the French revolution; the age of the subjective soul-activity, or the nineteenth century to Wagner and Darwin, who introduce the present age of excitement and nervosity, if such a word may be used. It is the soul-life, das Seelenleben, of the people which determines the direction of national life, and this soul-activity is to be understood only as one fully comprehends the every-day life of the peasant, the artisan and the trader. This necessitates a minute study of the hitherto neglected records of town and country life, the contracts, deeds, marriage bonds, parish lists, folklore and song, in fact everything down to the names of villages and the houses of the Bauern. Nothing has escaped Lamprecht's attention; and the results of twenty years of such investigation are recorded in his ‘Deutsche Geschichte’ (in six volumes) already mentioned. The ‘common man,’ who Alexander v. Humboldt had declared in 1809 could never be anything but a minute particle of the material of history, becomes with the Leipzig historian a guiding force in society, the very corner-stone of the building.

According to this method ‘the making of history’ which the politicians so often conceive to be their role in life is a very misleading term. History is not made, but it unfolds itself as a resultant of the thousand and one forces of which our leaders are but the humble exponents. The great influences which give a people their character and determine the direction of their development arise from climatic and geographical conditions, race antecedents and the reaction on these of economic forces, which forces are themselves in large measure the resultants of the above-mentioned conditions. Economic advantage and industrial aptitude determine the character of a people, not the will of leaders or leading classes.

To be sure this is not altogether a new view of history. Voltaire, suggestive in so many lines of thought, boldly proclaimed such to be the true historical method. Buckle spent twenty years in the attempt to elevate history to the rank of a science, and certainly succeeded in calling attention to the neglected influences in ‘history-making’; but not in relegating governments to the positions of social machines, not in dethroning the long-worshipped heroes and martyrs of the past. Moreover, Buckle's work was in no way so intensive as that of the German Kulturhistoriker, and what Buckle attempted for English history, Karl Biedermann accomplished for Germany in his monumental ‘History of German Civilization in the Eighteenth Century.’ Biedermann was one of those liberal thinkers whose dream for the Vaterland was so rudely disturbed by the all-conquering Bismarck spirit in the early seventies. The influence of both Buckle and Biedermann was swallowed up by the idea-and hero-worship of Ranke and his followers. And this tendency was in full harmony with the prevailing political opinions. The same influence is found in England in the works of Freeman and Gardiner and Stubbs.

The appearance of the ‘Deutsche Geschichte’ was a challenge for opposition of which its author must have been conscious. German history writing, since 1860, as has been suggested, has been a constant imitation of the great Berlin professor, Ranke. And to understand the Kampf um die Kulturgeschichte it is necessary first to review briefly the Ranke method.

Leopold von Ranke's first great service to accurate scholarship was his practical discovery of the Venetian relation. From this time on he was a most tireless student of European archives; his books are all most faithful interpretations of the contents of these store houses of history. From the time of the appearance of his ‘Roman Popes’ and the ‘German History in the Time of the Reformation,’ 1834 to 1847, a sort of ideology has prevailed in almost all historical writing not only in Europe, but in our own country. With Ranke great ideas not dissimilar to those of Plato's philosophical system furnished the motif according to which all his work was done. These ideas were the state, the church, the reformation, the counter reformation, etc. The individual had but to adjust himself to the greater almost God-given idea of the time; he was not the author of the idea or one of the makers of movements, as Lamprecht would have him. In truth Ranke's history deals almost exclusively with politics and political heroes, representatives of certain ideas. This idealism was a part of the prevailing philosophy, an application in history of Fichte and Hegel and Schelling in philosophy. Now the followers of Ranke, instead of adding to and broadening the Ranke method as times changed and new Weltanschauungen took the place of the older idealism, considered themselves fortunate if the world called them successful imitators and pupils. Great works they produced, indeed, such, for example, as Curtius' ‘Greece,’ Trietschke's ‘Germany in the Nineteenth Century’ and Mommsen's ‘Roman History’; but they were all of essentially the same nature—page after page of accurate history bridged up on tiers of learned notes. A statement of Ranke or of Mommsen is capable of mathematical demonstration. Aside from those greater Rankianer, who are all dead except Mommsen, we have a whole brood of Jungrankianer, writing biographies, Staatengeschichte and theses on isolated ideas. These fill to-day the majority of German professor-and docent-ships; and history in their hands has reached a scientific accuracy never dreamed of by Gibbon or Niebuhr.

Looked at from one point of view, one would have expected these students and writers to endorse heartily Lamprecht's claim that history is a science. All their efforts, since Ranke's latter years at any rate, had been directed toward that goal; but the author of the new ‘Deutsche Geschichte’ took them off their feet by cutting asunder all connection between history and its supposed ‘makers,’ princes and heroes, by putting first and above all the great masses of the people and by making havoc with the Ranke tradition. Instead of seeking the sources of historical information in the greater or smaller European state archives, Lamprecht had diligently studied the Stadt and Dorf records, the very store accounts of the people. What could have been more revolutionary? In addition to this, history embraces, according to the new comer, all phases of intellectual and physical activity, and not, as the Rankianer believe, only the political side of things. This was not only a sharp reflection on the older school, but a second very practical, if unspoken, declaration that the aristocratic portion of the country should occupy relatively only a few of the pages of history.

Still another cause for complaint of Lamprecht's ‘history as a science’ is to be found in the latter 's approval of the work of the Rankianer as a basis for Kulturgeschichte, for a true Weltgeschichte which was declared to be a necessary result of the new method. The idea that Ranke and Mommsen had been preparing the way for still greater historians was distasteful enough to the Berlin professors—the wearers of the Ranke mantle. Another of Lamprecht's disagreeable claims is that a full and complete list of authorities may be omitted and that the historian's page need not always be securely underpinned with double columns of notes and references. The text itself should embrace the results of the works of individual scholars who have preceded him, should show that the author has compassed the whole field and garnered the fruits of others, but he is not necessarily required to give the names of all the sowers. ‘Too many compilations of this kind we have already,’ says the Leipzig professor.

Again, Lamprecht's history is based on Darwinism, i. e., it views every element of our present culture world as a result of evolution. Now every follower of Eanke believes in the correctness of Darwin's principal conclusions, and a history which applied these conclusions would have met with their approval but for the fact that it appeared as a sort of criticism of themselves. Emerson's saying that we distrust our own best thoughts until another gives them expression might fitly apply here if he had but added ‘but we are usually angered at the one who announces them if they prove popular.’ Schopenhauer's protest against idealism, his violent destructiveness, seriously affected the Weltanschauung of Ranke historians; then came the Englishman's revolutionary teaching completely superseding the traditional German philosophy, but all to no effect so far as history-writing was concerned. Lamprecht believes the theory of evolution has ceased to be a theory, that it is really the basis of modern thought, and consequently he holds that history must be rewritten, if it is to meet the demands of the time. His ‘Deutsche Geschichte’ reestablishes the connection between history and philosophy.

A work of such revolutionary character must necessarily meet violent opposition rather than fair criticism. The question which the unbiased student of history asks is: Does the book satisfy the demands of history while answering the requirements of philosophy? Delbrück, Lenz and Bülow, all of the strictest Ranke sect, answer this question in the negative, and in support of their position they have successfully shown that numerous errors of detail have been made, that in many instances Lamprecht has used the writings of his predecessors without making the customary acknowledgment. Errors of detail in such a work covering, as it does, two thousand years of German history, are to be expected, and they are, if not too serious, readily excusable. This seems to be the case with the ‘Deutsche Geschichte’ even if we accept all that the Berlin critics claim. The second objection, the use of the writings of his predecessors without making the usual acknowledgments, is not so easily explained away unless one admits Lamprecht's theory, referred to above, that a historical writing of any pretension should embody the best works of the past and interpret them to the reader in the forms of present-day thought, and that it is not incumbent on the historian to give his authority for everything he states. Admitting this, Lamprecht's book meets every requirement of historical criticism and at the same time advances history-writing a long step forward.

One thing is evident, the Rankianer have of late years carried their methods to great extremes, to such extremes that many American students have manifested a disposition to revolt. And their position in Germany is still more untenable. A new man and a new method were needed; Lamprecht met the demand. On the other hand, a better style, a more attractive form of history-writing has long been the prayer of the general public. No one denies that Lamprecht is master of a brilliant style; he is not surpassed in the use of idiomatic German by the celebrated v. Treitschke himself, perhaps the best stylist of the Ranke school.

On the whole, Lamprecht has done a notable work. He has gathered about him more students of history than any other teacher in Europe; he has called into serious question the prevailing methods of studying and writing history; he has given us a book which is exceedingly interesting, which does not seriously violate the rules of the best criticism; and finally, he has almost convinced us that history is a science.