Bloch and Ranke on History
Historians have presented many opinions about what the study of history is, with a wide range of differences. In The Historian’s Craft, Marc Bloch, who lived in 1940’s France during the German occupation, explains where he thought history fit in among the disciplines and how best to use sources. Leopold von Ranke, a German historian in the 19th century, took a quite different approach to defining history and examining how history should be written in The Theory and Practice of History, a compilation of his lecture notes. Both works were published posthumously – Bloch’s unfinished and unedited and Ranke’s not in a form to be published. Despite this, the theories of Bloch and Ranke are clearly delineated, illustrating their similarities and differences.
Marc Bloch was born in 1889 in France to the children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father, Gustave Bloch, was himself a historian at the University of Lyon and “believed firmly in the then-radical notion that history should be framed as a series of investigative questions.” Thus, Bloch was exposed to the historical profession, the debates about how to do history, and concepts of how the study of history should change in the future from a young age. It is not surprising that he became a historian and especially one at the forefront of new ways of studying history. An important moment that inspired Bloch’s view on history, according to biographer Carole Fink, was the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish army captain was wrongly accused and convicted of committing treason by passing information to the Germans. Bloch was a Dreyfusard, a supporter of Alfred Dreyfus, and the way that “even the apparently objective searches for ‘factual’ information could result in dangerous distortions” marked his opinions on truth and history. Once Bloch became a historian, he worked as a Professor of Economic History, specifically focusing on feudalism at the Sorbonne, where he was able to practice doing what is known as “history from below.” In 1929, along with fellow historian Lucien Febvre, Bloch founded the Annales school of history and a periodical on economic and social history. In The Historian’s Craft, Bloch lays out his historiography. The context in which he wrote the book is unusual. Bloch fought in both World Wars, receiving the Légion d’honneur for World War I, and starting his book in 1941 soon after France’s quick defeat in World War II. As a Jew, he lost his job, but as a Frenchman refused to leave France, claiming that “he did not think he could breathe freely in another country.” He soon joined the Resistance, where he delivered and decoded messages. Unfortunately, Bloch was captured by the Germans in 1944. The Gestapo interrogated and tortured him until June 16th, 1944, when along with twenty-five other members of the Resistance, “he was taken from his cell and shot in an open field.” For this tragic reason, his book on how history should be studied remains unfinished.
Leopold von Ranke was born in 1795 in what would become Germany to “a devout family of Lutheran pastors and lawyers.” His religion was an important factor in the development of his historiography later on, as he connects history to God. Similar to Bloch, because of his parents’ background, he had a nice upbringing, attending a “renowned Protestant boarding school” and later attending the University of Leipzig to study “theology and the classics.” However, he was not immediately drawn to history, teaching at a high school in Frankfurt before becoming a professor at the University of Berlin. There, he became famous for his seminars, where he lectured on his way of doing history. Ranke did not write a book on his historiographical methods, but his lectures were compiled and published after his death. He believed that all lectures should begin by framing the lecture in its historiographical context. In his own lectures, he indicated “the point of view which he maintains” and “defined the position he occupies in the conflict of the leading opinions” of his discipline. Thus, his lecture notes clearly outline his historiography. By the 1830’s, following France’s July Revolution in which France overthrew one monarchy for another monarchy ruled by a different family, Ranke “sought to prove that the French revolutionary developments could not and should not be repeated in Germany” in his writings. This illustrates how fundamentally different his personal beliefs were from Bloch, who seemed to support the ideals of the French Revolution to the end. Additionally, Ranke claimed that “those who still believed in freedom and democracy came to realize that humans were not so free from the hand of the past,” once again demonstrating his contempt for French Revolutionary ideals. Even as Ranke got older and his eyesight worsened, he continued to write history, beginning a nine-volume set on European history as a whole at the age of 82. Ranke passed away in 1886, but his ideas lasted, dominating “German historiography up to World War I and even after.”
The experiences that Bloch and Ranke had in their lives shaped the way they studied history. Similar to their backgrounds, there are aspects of their historiographies, such as the type of history they are interested in, that are in opposition to each other, as well as viewpoints that are quite similar.
In The Historian’s Craft, Marc Bloch searched for a thorough definition of history, while also examining history’s uses. Marc Bloch originally posed the idea that history is the study of the past but determined that “the very idea that the past as such can be the object of science is ridiculous.” Continuously, Bloch was holding history up against the sciences to find common attributes, suggesting that history is a science, and, thus, what can be the object of science is an important matter to defining history. According to Bloch, for a science to be legitimate, it must “succeed in establishing explanatory relationships between phenomena,” something that history does when viewed. So, rather than simply studying the past, since “history has to do with beings who are, by nature, capable of pursuing conscious ends,” history can be thought of as the study “of men in time.” This definition places importance both on the human aspect of history but also the change and the movement that occurs over time. However, Bloch argues that human actions “elude mathematical measurement,” emphasizing how history is more than just science. The social sciences are also an area that history can fit into. Bloch’s definition focuses on the similarity of history to psychology, by emphasizing that the testimony of a witness through historical sources “tells us not what he actually saw but what his age thought it natural to see,” placing each human in his/her era and taking into account historical context. He posited that it is difficult to classify history into one field, writing that history is “in some definitive way, yielded up by one discipline to another.” Bloch even demanded that his colleagues take “not just a broader approach but an awareness of what they could learn from other disciplines.” Although Bloch had a clear view on what history is, it is unclear what utility Bloch credited to history. Bloch accepted that due to the “unquestionable fascination of history,” the study need not have function other than providing “entertainment value.” Studying history for the sake of history did not undermine his reasons for studying history. For him, it did not have to be about a bigger purpose. Yet, Bloch claimed the undefined uses of history did not impede on its “strictly intellectual legitimacy.” Thus, even without utility, history stands on its own among the sciences as an endeavor worth pursuing. Ultimately, Bloch landed on history as studying humans in their historical context, which is enough of a reason for it to be studied.
Bloch’s method of doing history focused on the evidence – what kind of sources to use and how to use them. Bloch differentiated between unintentional evidence and narrative sources. In The Pursuit of History, Tosh stated that Bloch’s “‘evidence of witnesses in spite of themselves’” were the “most revealing sources.” These are the sources in which there was “the least desire to influence the opinions either of contemporaries or of future historians.” Because the authors did not intend their writings to be read, they were less likely to skew the facts for their audience. In this way, these sources were the best windows into the minds of the past because some bias was removed. On the other end, what Bloch referred to as narrative sources are “accounts which are consciously intended to inform their readers.” Bloch claims that these were more and more often rejected in favor of unintentional sources. However, the movement away from deliberate historical sources came with consequences for how one should read history. According to Bloch, historians had to go further than “weighing the explicit assertions of the documents,” to analyzing them for “further confessions which they had never intended to give.” By going beneath the surface of the sources, historians could better understand the people of that time in their own context and, thus, get an idea of what was in their minds. By examining the motive of the author in writing a source and trying to read what was not written outright, historians can critically select their sources, which is how Bloch believes history should be written.
On the other hand, Ranke’s theory on history and its practice came from a compilation of his lecture notes. He had his own perspective on what history is and what purpose it serves. In his work from the 1830’s, Ranke argued that “history is distinguished from all other sciences in that it is also an art,” a similar view to Bloch but with more emphasis on history’s artistic aspect. For Ranke, history was about the union of “collecting, finding, penetrating” with “recreat[ing] and portray[ing] that which it has found and recognized.” History is more than just examining the sources but involves creative processes of synthesizing the evidence into a coherent narrative. However, Ranke was not willing to do this simply for the sake of history. The utility of history was “to reveal the hand of God in human history” because in addition to being a science and an art, “history recognize[d] something infinite in every existence: in every condition, in every being, something eternal coming from God.” The study of history was all about God because rather than studying the human role in history, as Bloch does, Ranke perceived behind each human role, a spiritual power. He still believes that history is an art and a science, but on top of this sees history in general as “the history of a developing God,” based in his personal belief in “the one who was and is and will be.” In history, Ranke saw “‘every deed attest[ed] to Him, every moment preach[ing] His name.’” Hence, religion factors into his theory, in a way that is very different from Bloch, where religion is absent. Because of this belief, Ranke could not study history just for its fascination, as Bloch was willing to do. Rather, Ranke believed history had an undoubted utility to not just historians, but to all of mankind. His religious views, which come from his Protestant background, drove him to study history and to combine scientific and artistic methods to search for truth.
Despite Ranke’s unique way of defining history, Ranke and Bloch held similar views on how to do history, as Ranke championed the critical use of sources. In his lecture notes, Ranke added more to this view. Because Ranke focused on God rather than the individual, he cautioned against focusing on “only a few peoples in world history while considering the lives of all the rest as nothing.” Although this view would seem to align with social history, rather than the political history that Ranke practiced, it illustrates how Ranke’s definition of the utility of history impacted his method of history. Individual human action was secondary to the underlying spiritual powers of God for Ranke, so studying one man gave humans more credit for the events of history than Ranke would assign to them. Furthermore, Ranke defined “a joy in the particular in and by itself” as a necessity for historians. In doing history, Ranke asserted that historians should focus on the details and history on a smaller scale, rather than universal history. He was not implying that historians ignore the larger context of the universal, but “how infinitely difficult things become with universal history.” To do a thorough examination of universal history and examine all of its sources critically would be too much of a challenge. He even saw this challenge as beyond human, claiming that “God alone knows world history.” Instead, Ranke felt that historians should focus in on the particular, such as the nation, and find happiness in doing so. That way, the written history can express the joy and engage in a full use of “contemplation and imagination.” History, in Ranke’s opinion, should depend on the facts from the sources, but also use ingenuity to reconstruct the past. Thus, the goal of a historical work, according to Ranke, should be to put “forward a new view of what is already known” or to communicate “additional information as to the facts.” The facts are the guide in Ranke’s method of doing history. Historians should not start with conclusions and then try to “find these ideas again in the history of the world.” Instead, Ranke argues for an approach that relies on the evidence first. For Ranke, it is the evidence that reveals God’s role and keeps historians focused on the particular.
In their respective theories, both of which were published posthumously, Bloch and Ranke addressed objectivity, judgment and understanding, and relation between past and present. There are many of these areas where Bloch and Ranke overlapped, but due to the fundamental differences in their definitions of history, Bloch and Ranke sometimes arrived at different conclusions.
Although Bloch strived to achieve objectivity, he acknowledged that this goal might be unattainable, whereas Ranke claimed to have found a system for being objective in the study of history. For instance, Bloch stated that “every historical research supposed that the inquiry has a direction at the very first step,” accepting that humans have preconceived notions that affect their objectivity. Bloch still stressed the importance of searching for truth in historical documents, but that even then, passive observation of them is not possible. The best that historians can do with the sources is “to weigh their authenticity and truthfulness.” Being critical of the sources is important to his method, but cannot lead to the objective truth. His aim was to extract as much truth as possible from the sources, even though witnesses, both intentional and unintentional, had their own biases that affected their account of what happened. Thus, Bloch suggested that historians can only approach objectivity, but never attain it. On the other hand, because Ranke credited God with the flow of history, his faith “protected him from doubts about the objectivity of his labors.” He believed that the task of historian was to “penetrate [the evidences] to the bottom of their existence and to portray them with complete objectivity.” As long as a historian “remain[ed] free of prejudice,” this was possible according to Ranke. Therefore, Ranke’s position on history reflecting God’s work influenced his views on the attainability of objectivity. He presumed that there was a way to remove any prejudice a historian had previously held and extract absolute truth from the documents with the right approach. Bloch agreed on looking to the documents for truth, but Ranke took this a step further in supposing that there was certain truth to be found.
While they had different takes on objectivity, Ranke and Bloch both emphasized understanding over judgment. For Bloch, it was not the historian’s job to judge; instead “when the scholar has observed and explained, his task is finished.” Part of the reason why is because of judgment’s effect on objectivity. Bloch saw fault with passing judgment when writing history because as Montaigne said, “‘whenever judgment leans to one side we cannot help distorting and twisting the narrative in this direction.’” Ranke was concerned with the problems of judgment in history, as well, cautioning against “judg[ing] the past too often by the present situation.” He preferred to “recognize the parties in any historical struggle in their own terms, to ‘understand them before we judge them.’” When historians ignore context and use the present as a means of deciding on the past, they flip the narrative backwards. Instead of examining time as it flows – from past to present – judging leads a historian to misinterpret the past. History’s “aim is merely to show things how they actually were,” which is captured in the phrase wie es eigentlich gewesen that Ranke is famous for saying. Bloch and Ranke agree that historians must understand the differences between the era they are studying and the era they live in to be able to successfully get in the minds of the past. Bloch even claims that the “single word, ‘understanding,’ is the beacon light of our studies.” By analyzing the past and understanding it, historians can get closer to objective truth. Therefore, the study of history is “neither watchmaking nor cabinet construction” but rather “an endeavor toward better understanding.” History is more than just piecing the facts together, but looking at them deeply to understand them and seek out their truth.
Both Bloch and Ranke placed an importance on historical context and seeing the past in terms of the past, not the present. However, they each had slightly different stances on the relation of past and present. For example, Ranke deemphasized the influence of previous generations, and thus, the past on the present. He favored the view that “every epoch is immediate to God” in its own right and historians must “perceive the difference between the individual epochs,” rather than assuming progress from one epoch to the next. This ties into the way he defines history in relation to God, so that God is not favoring certain epochs. Ranke “believed that detachment from present-day concerns was a condition of understanding the past” because he supported the idea that a historian could detach from the present and shed his preconceived notions. Meanwhile, Bloch argued that “it is always by borrowing from our daily experiences…that we derive the elements which help us restore the past.” Since Bloch believed that historians came with biases, it would be impossible to study the past without them. Also, historians, by relating the past to their lives, can better understand the events of history. Bloch did not go so far as to ignore the influence of preceding generations. The study of history itself is changing and building upon previous historical methods. As Bloch says, “the knowledge of the past is something progressive which is constantly transforming and perfecting itself.” However, he did recognize that no society was “completely molded by its immediate preceding periods.” In this Bloch was getting at an idea that both he and Ranke examined – the idea of the causal nexus. Bloch warned against “the use of the causal relationship as a tool of historical knowledge” without being critical while Ranke strived to penetrate the “inner connection of cause and effect.” Both historians were suggesting a need for care in asserting that because one event follows from another, the first event caused the second. By examining the events critically and referring to the sources, a historian can determine if the causal relationship exists or not. It cannot always be assumed. Hence, the relationship between past and present is open to interpretation. For Bloch, historical events can be “linked to a chain which spans the ages” if done carefully. A historian should caution against presentism and assuming cause, but depending on the definition of history, they can hold differing views about the influence of past and present on each other.
The different interpretations of history that Bloch and Ranke supported led them to write different types of historical narratives. Bloch would be considered a social historian, “heap[ing] considerable scorn on the traditional pursuit of political narrative” for its lack of an interdisciplinary approach. He is considered the founder of the Annales school and recognizes the influences of other disciplines, such as the social sciences, on history. Bloch also saw the narrative as a product of the West. Since “the Greeks and the Romans were history-writing people” and “Christianity is a religion of historians,” the narrative has its origins in Western culture and, in a way, is particular to it. So, Bloch recognized the influence of the past on even his historical writing form. Conversely, Ranke would be considered a political historian – the kind Bloch has scorn for. Ranke believed that “‘the spirit of modern times…operates only by political means.’” This idea came from his emphasis on the particular, which in his historical writing he defined as the nation. He believed that all nations wanted “a harmonious and vivid narrative of their own past history.” Thus, historians should fulfill this desire by writing political narratives on the nation, such as his A History of England. Ranke’s form of political narrative is part of his legacy. His way of doing history was followed for years to come and diplomatic history, which falls into Ranke’s specialty, “has been a staple pursuit of the profession ever since” Ranke’s work became famous. However, Ranke insured that “his careful evaluation of contemporary records was seldom allowed to ruffle the surface of his stately narrative,” something which was lost on many American historians in following his methods. Ranke did not tone down the narrative aspect of his writing for analysis, but found a way to unite both styles. Bloch and Ranke, though having many similarities in their theory on history, write stylistically and topically very different historical narratives, much of which can be traced back to their differences in defining history.
Because Ranke lived before Bloch, Marc Bloch has directly addressed Ranke’s methods of history and his critiques of it. In The Historian’s Craft, Bloch summed up Ranke’s approach by stating that “the historian has no other aim than to describe things ‘as they happened, wie es eigentlich gewesen.’” Although Bloch would seem to agree with Ranke on this, he has two problems with this formula. First, there was “a problem of impartiality.” Bloch accepted that true objectivity can be approached, but not attained, and thus, there might be multiple ways to perceive events as they happened. Bloch’s other critique was “history as an attempt of reproduction or as an attempt of analysis,” which he does not expand upon. However, Bloch suggested that writing history can only be an attempt, so portraying history as it happened might fall short of its goals. Due to the generational gap, Ranke could not respond or directly critique Bloch. His theory, though, in its contradictions with Bloch’s, implies that Ranke would criticize Bloch for giving too much free will to humans in the determination of historical events, for failing to drop his prejudices and the influence of the present, and for failing to acknowledge the utility of history, specifically that history reveals God’s role in the past.
Therefore, Bloch and Ranke, by defining history differently from the beginning of their respective works, have created disparate theories on what history should be, supporting opposing types of historical narratives and leading to different legacies. In spite of their differences, there are many things that Bloch and Ranke would agree upon, primarily how to be critical with documents. Together, they accentuated the importance of understanding sources, rather than judging them; viewing evidence in its historical context; and struggling with the documents to let them speak their truth.
 Joseph R. Strayer, introduction to Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (New York: Vintage, 1953), vii.
 Introduction to Part II of Leopold von Ranke, The Theory and Practice of History, ed. Georg Iggers and Konrad Von Moltke (Indianapolis, 1973), 25.
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