Hereditas Historiae

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George Iggers – Historiography in the Twentieth Century (1997)


Leopold von Ranke, portrait by Adolf Jebens (1875). As George Iggers, an expert on Von Ranke's work and methods, explains: Ranke was very much a child of the age of restoration that followed the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. 


‘Over twenty years ago I published a small book about the state of historical studies in Europe at that time, in which I showed how the traditional forms of scholarship were replaced by newer forms of historical research in the social sciences.* Historians in all countries were largely in agreement that research as it had been practiced internationally since the beginning of historical studies as a professional discipline in the early nineteenth century corresponded neither to the social nor to the political conditions of the second half of the twentieth century nor to the demands of a modern science. Meanwhile ideas about history and historiography have again undergone a profound change. This volume should therefore not be seen as a continuation which, so to say, would bring my publication of 1975 up to date. Instead, it is mainly concerned with a select number of basic changes in the thinking and in the practice of historians today. Although there are many continuities with older forms of historical research and historical writing, a basic reorientation has taken place.

Increasingly in the last twenty years the assumptions upon which historical research and writing have been based since the emergence of history as a professional discipline in the nineteenth century have been questioned. Many of these assumptions go back to the beginnings of a continuous tradition of Western historiography in Classical antiquity. What was new in the nineteenth century was the professionalization of historical studies and their concentration at universities and research centers. Central to the process of professionalization was the firm belief in the scientific status of history. The concept science was, to be sure, understood differently by historians than by natural scientists, who sought knowledge in the form of generalizations and abstract laws. For the historians history differed from nature because it dealt with meanings as they expressed themselves in the intentions of the men and women who made history and in the values and mores that gave societies cohesion. History dealt with concrete persons and concrete cultures in time. But the historians shared the optimism of the professionalized sciences generally that methodologically controlled research makes objective knowledge possible. For them as for other scientists truth consisted in the correspondence of knowledge to an objective reality that, for the historian, constituted the past “as it had actually occurred.” The self-definition of history as a scientific discipline implied for the work of the historian a sharp division between scientific and literary discourse, between professional historians and amateurs. The historians overlooked the extent to which their research rested on assumptions about the course of history and the structure of society that predetermined the results of their research.

The transformation of history into an institutionalized discipline must not, however, lead us to overlook the continuities with older forms of historical writing. The historiography of the nineteenth century stood in a tradition that went back to the great historians of Classical Greek antiquity. They shared with Thucydides the distinction between myth and truth, and at the same time, despite their stress on the scientific and hence nonrhetorical character of historical writing, proceeded in the classical tradition of historical writing in presupposing that history is always written as a narrative. The problem with historical narrative, however, as Hayden White and other recent theorists of history have pointed out, is that, while it proceeds from empirically validated facts or events, it necessarily requires imaginative steps to place them in a coherent story. Therefore a fictional element enters into all historical discourse.

Hence the break between the “scientific” history of the nineteenth century and the older literary traditions of history was by no means as great as many nineteenth-century historians had assumed. “Scientific” historical discourse involved the literary imagination while the older literary tradition also sought truth in the reconstruction of a real past. The “scientific” orientation since Leopold von Ranke shared three basic assumptions with the literary tradition from Thucydides to Gibbon: (1) They accepted a correspondence theory of truth holding that history portrays people who really existed and actions that really took place. (2) They presupposed that human actions mirror the intentions of the actors and that it is the task of the historian to comprehend these intentions in order to construct a coherent historical story. (3) They operated with a one-dimensional, diachronical conception of time, in which later events follow earlier ones in a coherent sequence. These assumptions of reality, intentionality, and temporal sequence determined the structure of historical writing from Herodotus and Thucydides to Ranke, and from Ranke well into the twentieth century. Precisely these assumptions have gradually been questioned in recent historical thought.

I believe we can distinguish two very different orientations in historical thought in the twentieth century. The first dealt with the transformation of the kind of narrative, event-oriented history characteristic of professional historiography in the nineteenth century into social science-oriented forms of historical research and writing in the twentieth century. Fundamental assumptions of the traditional historiography were challenged, but the basic assumptions outlined above remained intact. The various kinds of social science-oriented history spanned the methodological and ideological spectrum from quantitative sociological and economic approaches and the structuralism of the Annales-School to Marxist class analysis. In different ways all these approaches sought to model historical research more closely after the natural sciences. While traditional historiography had focused on the agency of individuals and on elements of intentionality that defied reduction to abstract generalization, the new forms of social science-oriented history emphasized social structures and processes of social change. Nevertheless they shared two key notions with the older historiography. One was the affirmation that history dealt with a real subject matter to which the accounts formulated by historians must correspond. Admittedly this reality could not be grasped directly but, like all science, must be mediated by the concepts and mental constructs of historians who nonetheless still aimed at objective knowledge. The new social science approaches criticized the older historiography on several counts: They argued that it too narrowly focused on individuals, especially “great men,” and events as making up the subject matter of history and that it neglected the broader context in which these operated. (…)

On a second point there was also agreement between the older tradition and the social science approaches. Both operated with a notion of unilinear time, with the conception that there was continuity and direction in history, that in fact there was such a thing as history in contrast to a multiplicity of histories. This conception of history took a different form in the older conventional historiography than in the later social science approaches. Ranke had rejected the notion of a philosophy of history that presupposed a scheme of universal history, but nevertheless presupposed that history possessed an inner coherence and development, and assigned a privileged position to the history of the West. Social science historians tended to believe that there at least the history of the modern age moved in a clear direction. While few would accept an idea of progress that endowed this direction with a beneficiaI character, most operated with a notion of “modernization” or progressive “rationalization” that endowed historical development with coherence. Here too the history of the modern Western world had a privileged status. The history of the world coincided with Westernization.

These assumptions have been increasingly challenged in philosophic thought since the late nineteenth century. It is, however, only in the last quarter century that the doubts this challenge has produced have seriously affected the work of historians. This reorientation of historical thought reflected fundamental changes in society and culture. In a sense the paradigm of professional historiography initiated by Ranke had already been out of tune with the social and political realities of the time when it became the standard for historical studies universally. Ranke was very much a child of the age of restoration that followed the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. His concept of the state rested on the political realities of pre-1848 Prussia, prior to the establishment of representative institutions and prior to industrialization with its social concomitants. Hence the emphasis on the primacy of politics relatively isolated from economic or social forces and the almost exclusive reliance on official documents of state. By the time in the late nineteenth century when this paradigm became the model for professional historiography in France,  the United States, and elsewhere, the social and political conditions it presupposed had already been fundamentally transformed.

By the turn of the century, historians in France, Belgium, the United States, Scandinavia, and even Germany began to criticize the Rankean paradigm and to call for a history that accounted for social and economic factors. (…) Particularly after 1945 the systematic social sciences began to play an increasingly important role in the work of historians. It is this transformation that my book of twenty years ago portrayed.’

‘In many ways the 1960s were a turning point at which the consciousness of a crisis of modern society and culture, long in preparation, came to a head. Only then did the conditions created by World War II become obvious, among them the end of the colonial empires and a greater awareness that non-Western peoples also had a history. (…) The shift from an industrial to an information society further affected consciousness. For the first time there was an intense awareness of the negative sides of economic growth with its threat to a stable environment. The full impact of the Holocaust sank into public awareness, not immediately at the end of the World War II, but only at a distance when a new generation acquired a critical stance. The destructive qualities of the civilizing process increasingly moved into the center of awareness. For the historian this transformation of consciousness had several consequences. It marked for many the end of a “grand narrative.”’

‘This fragmentation of the subject matter of history did not in itself constitute a repudiation of historical interest. In many ways the scope of historical writing has expanded enormously in the past thirty years. The newer histories indeed challenged the traditional historiography, which had concentrated on political and social elites, and demanded the inclusion of those segments of the population that had long been neglected. They offered “a history from below,” which not only included women but also introduced a feminist perspective. They also challenged the social science approaches, which had placed great impersonal structures at the center of history and in doing so had no more questioned the existing power relationships than had the older political history. If the social science-oriented history had sought to replace the study of politics with that of society, the new history turned to the study of culture understood as the conditions of everyday life and everyday experience. From this perspective, the Marxist emphasis on the central role of politics and economics as the locus of power and exploitation remained too impervious to the real interests and concerns of live human beings. Rather than a decline in historical interest, the past three decades have seen a veritable explosion in historical writings as various segments of the population have sought to establish their identities apart from the larger, traditional, national wholes.’

‘The radical critiques of accepted methods of historical inquiry that have dominated theoretical discussions of history from the 1970S to the present have had an important but nevertheless limited impact on the writing of history. Were one to accept the premises of this critique, meaningful historical writing would be impossible. (…)’

‘The tenor of recent discussions, such as the panel on “Fictionality, Narrativity, Objectivity” at the International Congress of Historical Sciences in Montreal in 1995, was to occupy a middle position, to recognize, as Roger Chartier formulated it, that while “one among many forms of narration, history is nevertheless singular in that it maintains a special relationship to truth. More precisely its narrative constructions aim at reconstructing a past that really was. This reference to a reality pre-existing the historical text and situated outside it, of which the text has the function of producing an intelligible account . . . is what constitutes history and keeps it different from fable or falsification.” This distinction between truth and falsehood remains fundamental to the work of the historian. The concept of truth has become immeasurably more complex in the course of recent critical thought. To be sure the postulate of “an absolute objectivity and scientificity of historical knowledge is no longer accepted without reservation.” Nevertheless the concept of truth and with it the duty of the historian to avoid and to uncover falsification has by no means been abandoned. As a trained professional he continues to work critically with the sources that make access to the past reality possible. The distinction between rationality and irrationality in historical investigation rests not on an abstract concept of truth or objectivity but on "the idea of history as an interpretive community, a practicing discipline with professional standards.”’

‘The postmodernist challenge has had a significant impact on historical thought and writing without, however, destroying the continuities with older conceptions and practices. Postmodernism reflects a society and culture in transformation in which old certainties regarding industrial growth, rising economic expectations, and traditional middle-class norms have been shaken. (….)’

‘Yet the hermeneutics of the new history differed from that of the Rankean school. The latter not only dealt with a different subject matter, that of leading personalities within the framework of great political institutions, but also assumed that the texts contained a clear meaning that could be reconstructed through philological analysis. Ranke and his school still believed that history was a strict science, even if different in subject matter and methods from that of the explanatory sciences. For the new cultural history, the central institutions of state, church, and the world market had crumbled, and the meaning of the texts was no longer transparent but was marked by contradictions and ruptures.’

‘History continued to be a learned craft. The historians of the 1970s and 1980s learned from the anthropologists the significance of culture in the understanding of political and social behavior. (…)’ ‘While the work of the I970s and I980s frequently emphasized the significance of culture at the expense of polities and of broader social processes, the events since 1989 have made it clear that the latter cannot be ignored. (…) The collapse of the Soviet empire has shown the inadequacy of an exclusive reliance on political, economic, or cultural analysis, while the persistence of older nationalistic and religious attitudes and their transformation under modern conditions, as manifested in the ethnic conflicts and outbursts of religious fundamentalism of recent years, have further exposed the limits of modernization theory. What is needed in its stead is a broad historical approach that takes both cultural and institutional aspects into consideration. The postmodern critique of traditional science and traditional historiography has offered important correctives to historical thought and practice. It has not destroyed the historian’s commitment to recapturing reality or his or her belief in a logic of inquiry, but it has demonstrated the complexity of both. Perhaps we can see in the history of historiography an ongoing dialogue that, while it never reaches finality, contributes to a broadening of perspective.’

‘The three parts of this book will deal with the establishment of history as a scholarly discipline, the challenge of the social sciences to the traditional scholarship, and finally the critique of social science approaches by postmodernist thought and its effect on the work of the historian.’

The Challenge of Postmodernism

‘In conclusion: Linguistic theory, as it has been developed in French literary theory from Barthes to Derrida and Lyotard, contains an element that in my opinion must be taken very seriously and that has applications to historical thought and writing. The participants in this discussion have rightly raised the point that history taken as a whole contains no immanent unity or coherence, that every conception of history is a construct constituted through language, that human beings as subjects have no integrated personality free of contradictions and ambivalences, and that every text can be read and interpreted in different ways because it expresses no unambiguous intentions. Foucault and Derrida have with good justification pointed out the political implications of language and the hierarchical relations of power inherent in it. These contradictions, which permeate all of human life, force the observer to “deconstruct” every text, in order to lay bare its ideological elements. Every reality is not only communicated through speech and discourse but in a very fundamental way is also constituted by them.’

‘Nevertheless this philosophy of language lends itself better to literary criticism than to historical writing. For historical accounts, even if they use forms of narrative that are closely patterned on literary models, still claim to portray or reconstruct an actual past to a greater extent than is the case in fictional literature. (…)’  

‘The renewed turn to politics and to the social sciences in the Annales and elsewhere does not represent a repudiation of older interests and concerns but rather a broadening of the scope of historical studies. Important aspects of the postmodernist critique of historical reason remain in place. The faith in the grand narratives focused on the modernization of the Western world as the culmination of a coherent historical process is irredeemably lost.’

‘Finally, postmodernism had raised important epistemological questions that radically challenged the possibility of objective knowledge, Not only was the coherence of history questioned but also the coherence of the author and of the text. The immediacy of historical knowledge was denied; this, however, was nothing new but went back at least to Kant. Hayden White’s assertion that history always assumed a narrative form and thus shared the qualities of literary texts, was generally accepted, but not his conclusion that history, like all literature, is therefore essentially a “fiction-making operation.” Roger Chartier commented in 1993 that “even if the historian writes in a ‘literary manner,’ he does not produce literature.” His labor is dependent on archival research and, while his sources do not present themselves in an unambiguous form, they are nevertheless subject to criteria of reliability. The historian is always on the outlook for forgery and falsification and thus operates with a notion of truth, however complex and incomplete the road to it may be.’  

All this points not to a new paradigm but to an expanded pluralism. It is apparent that the “Ioss of history” so widely noted after World War is not characteristic of the present mood. In Germany the sense of loss is attributable to the discrediting of national traditions; elsewhere, it stemmed from the belief that the modern world spelled the end of traditional values and forms of community. Temporarily in the early 1970s history course offerings in the United States, Great Britain, West Germany, and elsewhere, but certainly not in France or Poland, were replaced by social studies courses, and at least in the English­speaking world the social sciences frequently took a strongly ahistorical stance. The number of history students declined drastically in the United States. But this trend was reversed in the 1980s. History offerings at the universities became more diversified, particularly in the United States, to include gender and ethnic studies as well as the study of non-Western societies and cultures. Historical journals, books, and TV presentations proliferated. The commemorations of the fiftieth anniversaries of the liberation of the concentration camps and the end of World War were indicators of the intense concern with history. Thus the cataclysmic changes in Europe since 1989 appear to have strengthened rather than weakened interest in the past.’

Concluding Remarks

The “End of History”?

Repeatedly in recent years the opinion has been expressed that we are living in a posthistorical age, that history as we have known it has come to an end. What is meant is obviously not that time will hence stand still, but that there is no longer the possibility of a grand narrative that gives history coherence and meaning. The idea that has been central to Judaeo-Christian faith since Biblical antiquity has been questioned, namely, that history has a transmundane purpose and direction. The Enlightenment secularized this faith and placed the eschaton of history into the process of human history itself. It celebrated the civilization of the modern West as the high point and the approaching fulfillment of a desirable social order in which human freedom and culture would be guaranteed. Most recently Francis Fukuyama has reiterated this optimistic belief. (…)

Yet the recognition that it is no longer possible to find a grand narrative that gives direction to history does not mean that history, as has often been lamented, has lost all meaning. History continues to be a powerful means by which groups and persons define their identity. In the place of one meaningful process there is now a pluralism of narratives touching on the existential life experiences of many different groups.

While this book has argued for the legitimacy of microhistory, it has also shown how the latter has never been able to escape the framework of larger structures and transformations in which this history takes place. As we saw, almost all microhistorians have had to confront processes of modernization through their impact on the small social groupings to which they dedicated themselves. The concept of modernization has lost its normative aspects, yet it continues to denote processes that are operative in the modern world. The historian is aware of the extent to which modernization is not a unitary process but expresses itself differently in differing social settings with different cultural traditions.

At best modernization becomes an ideal type by which concrete changes can be measured against concrete conditions. Nevertheless, the present state of historicaI consciousness, far from having put an “end” to history, has led to increasing sophistication in which both the broader context and the individual diversities have their place.

The End of History as a Scholarly Enterprise?

Our survey of historical studies in the twentieth century has attempted to show that the disrepute into which the “noble dream” of historical objectivity has fallen has by no means led to a decline in serious historical inquiry. Instead it has led to a diversification of approaches and often to an increase in scholarly sophistication. Certain things have become increasingly obvious. The assurance with which professional historians after Ranke had assumed that immersion in the sources would assure a perception of the past that corresponded to reality has long been modified. However, historians have not given up the basic commitment to historical honesty that inspired Ranke and his colleagues. (….) In many ways history as a “craft” has preserved many of the methodological procedures on which the older history rested. The historian is still bound by his or her sources, and the critical apparatus with which he or she approaches them remains in many ways the same. Nevertheless we view these sources more cautiously. We have become more aware of the extent to which they do not directly convey reality but are themselves narrative constructs that reconstruct these realities, not willy-nilly, but guided by scholarly findings and by a scholarly discourse.

Peter Novick has in my opinion rightly maintained that objectivity is unattainable in history; the historian can hope for nothing more than plausibility. But plausibility obviously rests not on the arbitrary invention of an historical account but involves rational strategies of determining what in fact is plausible. It assumes that the historical account relates to a historical reality, no matter how complex and indirect the process is by which the historian approximates this reality. Thus, although many historians have taken contemporary linguistic, semiotic, and literary theory seriously, they have in practice not accepted the idea that the texts with which they work have no reference to reality. To be sure every historical account is a construct, but a construct arising from a dialog between the historian and the past, one that does not occur in a vacuum but within a community of inquiring minds who share criteria of plausibility.’

The End of Enlightenment?

‘The radical doubt in our century about the possibility of rational inquiry into history is, as we have suggested, closely tied to the growing discomfort with modern society and culture. This society has been considered the heir of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment was originally understood as the commitment to liberating human beings through rational reflection from arbitrary restraints, to permit every individual to develop his or her potentialities freely. In postmodernist discussion the Enlightenment has become the whipping boy responsible not only for emptying the world of meaning but also for creating the technological and administrative tools to dominate human beings. Postmodernist thought has built on a tradition of anti-Enlightenment sentiment that goes back to the antimodernism of eighteenth­ and early nineteenth-century conservative and romantic thinkers. From here there is a line leading via Nietzsche and Heidegger to the radical right of the 1920s and 1930s. (…)

The path from the Enlightenment to Auschwitz was infinitely more complex than Adorno or Foucault made it appear and was deeply indebted to the antimodernism of its opponents. The history of this century has taught us a great deal about the ambiguities of Enlightenment conceptions of human rights and rationality. Postmodernistist thought has made a substantial contribution to the contemporary historical discussions by its warnings against utopianism and conceptions of progress. This should lead us, however, not to abandonment and repudiation of the Enlightenment heritage but instead to a critical reexamination of it. This too has been the intent of a good deal of the new social and cultural history examined in this book. The alternative to an albeit chastened Enlightenment is barbarism.’

All quotations are taken from: George G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century. From Scientific Objectivitity to the Postmodern Challenge  (1997). It is an expanded English version of the book Geschichtswissenschaft im 20.Jahrhundert. Ein kiritischer Überblick im internationalen Vergleich (Gottingen 1993).

Note (*)  Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae: Iggers was  is referring to: New Directions in European Historiography (1975, revised edition 1984/1985). Early versions of the essays were given as lectures at various universities and institutes in West-Germany, France and Poland. The successor of this book, in terms of historiography, was published in 2008: A Global History of Modern Historiography (together with Q. Edward Wang and with assistance of Supriya Mukherjee.  

Statement in A Global History of Modern Historiography (2008):

‘Finally there are two concerns which run through the book and give it a degree of unity; the first is our rejection of Eurocentric approaches to history; the second our defence of rational inquiry. Few would disagree with us today on the first, that all peoples have had a historical consciousness which they expressed in written or other forms. Our book seeks to dismantle the preconception of the superiority of Western historical thought by showing that there were in fact long-standing traditions of historical thought and writing in all the cultures with which we deal.

Our second concern is directed against that part of the postmodern critique of the intellectual heritage of the West that holds that an objective study of history is not possible because the past has no basis in objective reality but is a construct of the mind or of a non-referential language and that therefore all historical writing constitutes a form of imaginative literature lacking clear criteria for establishing the truth or falsehood of historical accounts. We are fully aware of the limits of rational inquiry, of the impossibility of arriving at definitive answers in which many of the professionally trained historians in the nineteenth century still believed. We recognize the extent to which historical accounts reflect different, often conflicting perspectives, which defy convincing proof. It is hardly possible to reconstruct the past with clear certainty, but it is often possible to demonstrate the falsity of historical statements, the distortions which feed into political ideologies. One of our concerns is to show in what ways history in all of the cultural communities with which we deal is abused in the pursuit of political, particularly nationalist, agendas. Because this is the case, we have in all the chapters, in Western and non-Western settings, examined the political and social, and to an extent religious, context in which history has been written. This could lead to the disturbing conclusion that all history is an expression of ideology and thus result in an extreme epistemological relativism. But if there is a real core to history, if human beings actually inhabited the past, as we believe, then there are ways of approaching this reality, imperfect and coloured as the perception of it may be. It is an important task of the historian, which we set ourselves in this book, to dismantle distortions and myths. Because this is only very partially possible, the history of historiography is a continuous dialogue, which does not tell a single story, but offers varying, often conflicting interpretations. These enrich our picture of the past, but nevertheless remain subject to critical examination following standards of inquiry shared the scholarly community as to their factual basis and their logical consistency. Every historian is entitled to ethical and political commitment which colour his or her perception of history, but these do not free her him to fabricate a past for which there is no evidential basis. Here sharply disagree with a great deal of postmodern literary theory. Historical writing has many of the characteristics of literature but at the same time differs from imaginative literature, although the two overlap. Historical writing involves imagination, and serious literature always has a reference to reality. But the latter is not bound by the same standards of inquiry which govern the community of scholars. Without this distinction history would be indistinguishable from propaganda. There is a dangerous conflict between the efforts by postmodern theorists to reject the Enlightenment heritage of rational inquiry at the very time when the precarious condition of today's conflict-laden world requires such inquiry.’  

Postcript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

New Directions in European Historiography (1975, revised edition 1984/1985) was in the 1980s part of the curriculum of “Modern History” at the University of Amsterdam, in the doctoral phase of “Modern History”. It was a classic introductory.

George Iggers is professor at University at Buffalo (State University of New York). All three books were written while Iggers , German born but with a career in the United States of America, was professor at this university. From 1995-2000 he was president of the International Commission for the History and Theory of Historiography. Having fled the Nazi’s as a child, he has been active in the Civil Right movements in the US.

Iggers is the editor of a collection of writings by Von Ranke. Leopold von Ranke, The Theory and Practice of History. Edited with an introduction by George G. Iggers. New translations by Wilma A. Iggers (London & New York 2011).