Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub
[graphic]

IV.-MODERN GERMAN HISTORIANS. The admirable work * in which Mr Gooch surveys the historiography of the 19th century reminds us not only of the extent to which the thought and knowledge of the world is indebted to the labours of historical students, but also of the catholicity and interconnexion of the historical movement. No country can claim a monopoly. Every country has made contributions corresponding to its wealth of scientific equipment and reflecting the characteristics of its peculiar genius. It cannot even be said that the primacy goes unchallenged; for, if in the fifties and sixties, when Sybel, Mommsen, Hausser,

roysen, and Giesebrecht were at the height of their powers, the pride of place unquestionably belonged to the Germans, in the last decade of the century the most brilliant galaxy of historical talent was undoubtedly to be found on the banks, not of the Spree but of the Seine. Here the student might listen to Renan on the Hebrew Text of the Old Testament, to Sorel on European diplomacy, to Paul Meyer and Gaston Paris on the medieval literature of the Romance nations, to Viollet on the history of law, and to Aulard on the annals of the French Revolution. Taine was completing his brilliant historical work in the Origins of Contemporary France. Vandal, Houssaye, and Masson were illustrating the Napoleonic age in a style which suffered little from the rich abundance of material. Luchaire was already famous as the most finished exponent of French municipal antiquities. Rambaud and Anatole Leroy-Beaulieu were established authorities on Russia. Hanotaux and Lavisse were widely known, the one for an unfinished fragment of high quality on the age of Louis XIV, the other for a series of valuable contributions to Prussian history as well as for his general powers as a teacher. Among the younger generation Langlois and Bémont were attracting notice for the solidity of their medieval studies; and, when a

Soutenance de thèse' was held at the École des Chartes, the great Léopold Delisle would preside over the jury,

[ocr errors]

*

· History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century'; Longmans, 1913. Cf. Fueter, 'Geschichte der neuern Historiographie'; Munich, Olden. burg, 1911.

6

6

bringing from the Bibliothèque Nationale such a sum of minute and exact medieval scholarship as can seldom have been gathered in a single brain.

There is, however, a sense in which the 19th century may be claimed for the German historians, for not only was the critical treatment of authorities greatly developed in Germany, but in sheer volume of printed matter the Germans easily distance their competitors. It is, however, important to observe that the competence of the Germans in historical study is a fact of comparatively recent date. No English contemporary of Charles James Fox would ever have thought of Germany as a source of historical illumination. No German of that age would have looked to his own countrymen to furnish him with a history in the grand style. Read Burke,' wrote Stein to Gneisenau, 'it is the breviary of all wisdom'; and again, English literature especially deserves to be known because it furnishes us with the best historians.' Even if we take account of the preliminary work of editing and publishing chronicles and documents, in which the Germans have now acquired so great a mastery, there was in those days nothing anywhere comparable, for the imposing mass of its achievement, with the patient labours of the French Benedictines, • Your bold progress,' wrote Ranke to Waitz in 1838, 'evokes my greatest sympathy and joy. You are treading the paths of Baluze and Mabillon.' That is a significant compliment.

The true historical awakening of Germany sprang out of the Napoleonic wars; and the movement has never lost all traces of its origin. German historians have been what the political history of their country has made them. They have been opposed to doctrinaire radicalism because it is the creation of the French Revolution. They have been liberal because they hated the French despot and saw in the development of constitutional liberties a guarantee for national power. Fervent advocates of Prussian expansion, they favoured the exclusion of Austria from the German confederation, facing such ridicule as might attach to the label of 'Little Germans,' and losing no opportunity of exposing the waste of national power involved in the political disunion of their country. Since a military monarchy

6

6

[graphic]

was a distinguishing mark of Prussia, they combined with their constitutional liberalism a strong faith in the Hohenzollern dynasty, whose services to the German cause they depicted with romantic enthusiasm.

The patriarch of all this historical movement was a Danish administrator, who being called to Berlin a little before the battle of Jena was entrusted with the direction of the Bank of Prussia. Niebuhr was a competent financier, a master of twenty languages, and the most profound and various scholar of his age. It is customary (though not entirely exact) to speak of him as a pioneer in critical method, and as, in a sense, the founder of scientific history as that term is now understood. But the real importance of Niebuhr in the intellectual development of Germany does not consist in his learning or in his critical acumen or in his application of philological tests to decide historical problems; for in the generation of Wolf, Boeck, Savigny and Grimm there was no lack of learned scepticism in Germany, and the Homeric poems had suffered violence before Niebuhr laid sacrilegious hands on Livy. It consists rather in his political spirit. He was the first of the Germans to approach history from the angle of a modern statesman and to discover in the past a discipline for character and a guide for public action. Thus the learning which gave to Niebuhr's Roman history an authoritative place in our English Universities until it was deposed by Mommsen is not really its chief title to be remembered. The learning commended but did not constitute the message. For Niebuhr the true interest of the history of Latium was that, presenting as it did 'a model of national development,' it served as an example to his adopted country of the methods by which a small people may achieve greatness. Even as Rome had gathered all Italy under her sway by a resolute exercise of prudence and courage, so might Prussia, shaking off the foreign tyrant and incarnating all that was valiant and manly in the German spirit, unite the scattered fragments of the German Federation under her rule.

The impetus, once given, continued through the century, gaining volume as it went and bringing to the academic prophets of German unity and Prussian

power an influence over public opinion which no prodigies of cold science could have secured. It was not so much the political doctrine which mattered, as the patriotic feeling and the stimulus to national self-respect. From the historians Germany gained a loving, perhaps exalted, sense of her former greatness. She learned how in the distant past the Germans had broken down the Roman Empire, founded dynasties in France, Italy, England, Africa and Spain, and refashioned the face of Europe. This people, laid helpless at the feet of Napoleon, had once been the great conquering and imperial nation of Europe. A German Emperor had ruled in Arles, and the Netherlands too had been part of his domain. The old epics and songs, the old chronicles and legal customs, were made the framework for an infinite labour of affectionate embroidery. In Giesebrecht's eloquent and learned pages young people could read the romance of the Medieval Empire, of that great and tempestuous effusion of German chivalry which for many centuries filled Europe with its noise, and ultimately suffered the ruinous check which fate administers to those who chase shadows.

All this exuberant stirring of national sentiment, though it often led to the expression of unripe opinion, was quite consistent with scrupulous workmanship. For the greater part of the century Ranke, that discreet and disinterested servant of the Prussian monarchy,' provided an admirable exemplar of historical impartiality. His governing idea of the individuality of_peoples grew out of a temperamental opposition to the French theory of a Universal Republic or Empire; and it was his main interest in history to define the distinctive character of each national group and then to describe their mutual action and interaction at the moments of universal history. The spirit of those alert and lively Venetian relazione, the importance of which he was the first to discover, seems to have entered into this gentle and curious Saxon aristocrat. Wherever he moves—and he moves everywhere—he is always elegant, dexterous, wellmannered. Even the tempest of 1870 did not discompose him; and, while the guns were booming at Gravelotte and Sédan, Ranke was describing the origins of the Seven Years' War with the sobriety of a judge. The

6

[graphic]

6

hotter tempers of Germany did not appreciate this Olympian detachment.

Ranke, however, lived to be a miraculous survival of an earlier age. The dynamic forces during the later half of the century were men of a very different type from that band of patriot scholars, of whom Dahlmann may be taken as a conspicuous example, whose life hopes had been crushed by the failure of the constitutional movement of '48. Mommsen, the greatest of all the new professors of Real-politik,' had begun life as a journalist, was even concerned in the disorders of the revolutionary period, and never ceased to manifest a fiery interest in the politics of the day. Always a liberal, and even after 1870 a vigorous opponent of Bismarck in the sphere of domestic policy, Mommsen was at the same time a convinced and passionate imperialist. Whereas Niebuhr had regarded the foundation of the Roman Empire as 'one of the most afflicting spectacles in history,' for Mommsen it was the salvation of the world, and its creator was the only man of genius produced by Rome. The • Römische Geschichte' was first published in 1854, and took the world by storm, not merely for its vigorous eloquence, its hard firm outline and massive knowledge, but also as a brilliant incarnation of the spirit of Prussian imperialism. An apology for Cæsarism so thoroughgoing and confident had never been pronounced by a scholar entitled to a hearing. The old idols of Republicanism were swept down with a contemptuous gesture, Cato as a vain and tragical fool, Cicero as a despicable charlatan of the journalist tribe. The ideals of the aristocratic Republic were treated as beneath observation, for, as M. Guilland aptly remarks, le vaincu pour Mommsen a toujours tort.' The great scholar was on safer ground when in later life he evolved the history of the Empire from the inscriptions, for here his survey was unblotted by the clouds of passion. But the earlier and more famous work is another illustration of Lessing's witty saying that nobody ever writes the history of any age but his own.

A younger contemporary of Mommsen brought historical studies into more intimate relations with German politics. Heinrich von Sybel, a Westphalian by birth but a Prussian by adoption, was primarily a

« VorigeDoorgaan »