Checked content

Political history

Related subjects: Politics and government

Background to the schools Wikipedia

SOS Children, an education charity, organised this selection. A quick link for child sponsorship is

Political history is the narrative and analysis of political events, ideas, movements, and leaders. It is usually structured around the nation state. It is distinct from, but related to, other fields of history such as social history, economic history, and military history.

Generally, political history focuses on events relating to nation-states and the formal political process. According to Hegel, Political History "is an idea of the state with a moral and spiritual force beyond the material interests of its subjects: it followed that the state was the main agent of historical change" This contrasts with one, for instance, social history, which focuses predominantly on the actions and lifestyles of ordinary people, or people's history, which is historical work from the perspective of common people.


Diplomatic history, sometimes referred to as "Rankian History" in honour of Leopold von Ranke, focuses on politics, politicians and other high rulers and views them as being the driving force of continuity and change in history. This type of political history is the study of the conduct of international relations between states or across state boundaries over time. This is the most common form of history and is often the classical and popular belief of what history should be.

Diplomatic history is the past aggregate of the art and practice of conducting negotiations between accredited persons representing groups or nations. It is the continuum of events occurring in succession leading from the past to the present and even into the future regarding diplomacy, the conduct of state relations through the intercession of individuals with regard to issues of peace-making, culture, economics, trade and war. Diplomatic history records or narrates events relating to or characteristic of diplomacy.

Aspects of political history

The first "scientific" political history was written by Leopold von Ranke in Germany in the 19th century. His methodologies profoundly affected the way historians critically examine sources; see historiography for a more complete analysis of the methodology of various approaches to history. An important aspect of political history is the study of ideology as a force for historical change. One author asserts that "political history as a whole cannot exist without the study of ideological differences and their implications." Studies of political history typically centre around a single nation and its political change and development. Some historians identify the growing trend towards narrow specialisation in political history during recent decades: "while a college professor in the 1940s sought to identify himself as a "historian", by the 1950s "American historian" was the designation."

From the 1970s onwards, new movements sought to challenge traditional approaches to political history. The development of social history and women's history shifted the emphasis away from the study of leaders and national decisions, and towards the role of ordinary citizens; " the 1970s "the new social history" began replacing the older style. Emphasis shifted to a broader spectrum of American life, including such topics as the history of urban life, public health, ethnicity, the media, and poverty." As such, political history is sometimes seen as the more 'traditional' kind of history, in contrast with the more 'modern' approaches of other fields of history.

Early developments

Although much of existing written history might be classified as diplomatic history - Thucydides, certainly, is among other things, highly concerned with the relations among states - the modern form of diplomatic history was codified in the 19th century by Leopold von Ranke, a German historian. Ranke wrote largely on the history of Early Modern Europe, using the diplomatic archives of the European powers (particularly the Venetians) to construct a detailed understanding of the history of Europe wie es eigentlich gewesen ("as it actually happened.") Ranke saw diplomatic history as the most important kind of history to write because of his idea of the "Primacy of Foreign Affairs" (Primat der Aussenpolitik), arguing that the concerns of international relations drive the internal development of the state. Ranke's understanding of diplomatic history relied on the large number of official documents produced by modern western governments as sources.

Ranke's understanding of the dominance of foreign policy, and hence an emphasis on diplomatic history, remained the dominant paradigm in historical writing through the first half of the twentieth century. This emphasis, combined with the effects of the War Guilt Clause in the Treaty of Versailles (1919) which ended the First World War, led to a huge amount of historical writing on the subject of the origins of the war in 1914, with the involved governments printing huge, carefully edited, collections of documents and numerous historians writing multi-volume histories of the origins of the war. In general, the early works in this vein, including Fritz Fischer's controversial (at the time) 1961 thesis that German goals of "world power" were the principal cause of the war, fit fairly comfortably into Ranke's emphasis on Aussenpolitik.

Modern developments

In the course of the 1960s, however, some German historians (notably Hans-Ulrich Wehler and his cohort) began to rebel against this idea, instead suggesting a "Primacy of Domestic Politics" (Primat der Innenpolitik), in which the insecurities of (in this case German) domestic policy drove the creation of foreign policy. This led to a considerable body of work interpreting the domestic policies of various states and the ways this influenced their conduct of foreign policy.

At the same time, the middle of the twentieth century began to see a general de-emphasis on diplomatic history. The French Annales school had already put an emphasis on the role of geography and economics on history, and of the importance of broad, slow cycles rather than the constant apparent movement of the "history of events" of high politics. The most important work of the Annales school, Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, contains a traditional Rankean diplomatic history of Philip II's Mediterranean policy, but only as the third and shortest section of a work largely focusing on the broad cycles of history in the longue durée ("long term"). The Annales were broadly influential, leading to a turning away from diplomatic and other forms of political history towards an emphasis on broader trends of economic and environmental change. In the 1960s and 1970s, an increasing emphasis on giving a voice to the voiceless and writing the history of the underclasses, whether by using the quantitative statistical methods of social history or the more qualitative assessments of cultural history, also undermined the centrality of diplomatic history to the historical discipline.

Nevertheless, diplomatic history has always remained a historical field with a great interest to the general public, and considerable amounts of work are still done in the field, often in much the same way that Ranke pioneered in the middle years of the 19th century.

Major works of political history

Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in four volumes between 1776 and 1781, was one of the earliest comprehensive works of political history. Gibbon has been described as "the first modern historian of ancient Rome." Leopold von Ranke, often considered the founder of the modern source-based approach to political history, published a number of pioneering works during his lifetime, including History of the Reformation in Germany (published 1881).

Retrieved from ""