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Thursday, 16 June 2011

A little question about Von Ranke

For any of you who are either native German speakers or at least have better German than I do.

Leopold von Ranke: wie er
eigentlich gewesen
In last week's Higher there was a review by Richard Evans during which he referred to the famous quote by Leopold Von Ranke about history being about telling it 'wie es eigentlich gewesen': 'how it essentially was' (however you understand that 'eigentlich').  This is how the quote is frequently rendered (as throughout Fritz Stern's Varieties of History, etc.) and I can't imagine that Evans would get it wrong.

What puzzles me, with my very imperfect German, is this.  Shouldn't there be an auxiliary verb at the end?  Shouldn't it be 'wie es eigentlich gewesen ist' ('how it essentially was') or 'wie es eigentlich gewesen war' ('how it essentially had been')?  I don't have access to the German text, so I am wondering if any Germanophones can lay this to rest for me as it has bugged me for some time.  I did once ask Walter Pohl who seemed to think that the phrase didn't make sense without an auxiliary.  Am I missing something very obvious?

It's a minor point but it has niggled me for some years.  Thank you.


  1. I've seen this quoted with auxiliary verbs (I thought `war', but a quick Google search, which also threw up a Crooked Timber thread where people were asking the same question, makes `ist' seem much more common). Nonetheless, Ranke's actual German has none. Everyone seems agreed that this is not grammatical but it's checkable on Google Books, so we have to choose between one sort of accuracy or another I guess.

  2. It is a form of old, literary German, of the kind Goethe would have written. I am not entirely sure whether this would have been something to say in spoken German as well, but it certainly was in written form. They would omit the auxillary verb or even put the form into the conditional. Today, you would indeed say - or write - 'wie es eigentlich war', however, even the 'eigentlich' would be somewhat old-fashioned, and you would put it 'wie es tatsaechlich war', in its best translation, of both the old and the contemporary phrase, i.e. 'how it actually was'. I hope this helps!

  3. The auxiliary verb is self-evident, so the elision is sort of an abbreviation.
    You see it from time to time, as for example in the phrase "Ohne Spesen, nichts gewesen," which means: I'm not going to go on the business trip unless you pay my expenses.

  4. Hmmm I always think of it as "really" rather than "essentially". But also, what James Mitchell said. It's understood. Irritating, oder? If one were to add the conjugated part, though, it would be "ist".

  5. 'How it really was' is now widely regarded as a mis-translation, or at least a misleading translation. My next comment would have been that I am not sure that the new translation (as Evans) of 'how it was, in its essence' necessarily follows from the passage in question. But who am I to say. I will say that saying that the auxiliary is simply understood sounds colloquial at best, and like a lazy student's excuse at worst! ;-)

  6. Oh, I agree on the "understood" part. But why not "how it really was"?

  7. *Apparently* ... what it really meant* was 'how it essentially was in the context of its own times'. That's not me, that's the Regius Chair of Modern History at Cambridge speaking (but I'm sure I read it elsewhere - in one of John Arnold's books for one - although since I don't *think* (and I hope I'm not doing him a disservice) John reads German I assume he took that from someone else. As I said though (and you might have nticed that the absent question mark was 'understood'), who am I to say?

    * - See what I did there? ;-)


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