Meeting celebrated historians can be an intimidating experience that requires careful premeditation, planning, and extraordinary courage. Youtube has brought the leading historians to our living rooms and although following taped lectures isn’t quite the same as participating in the live events, seeing them talk, discuss, debate, and pose at different occasions and locations has made them familiar figures to us. They are no longer just names on title pages and in hundreds of footnotes in their followers’ articles. Whether the online presence corresponds with reality, is of course another matter, but at least there is a chance for recognizing the often-cited scholars at a busy conference venue. We take this visual information for granted, but when our nineteenth-century predecessors travelled abroad to meet their colleagues, they were not equipped with similar knowledge. Photographing and improving printing technology helped to increase the circulation of reprints of historians’ portraits, but they did not necessarily reach the more remote locations such as Finland. Surprises were unavoidable when young enthusiastic historians from Finland travelled to foreign universities and the famous historians looked quite different than what they had pictured them to look like when reading their work back at home in Helsinki.
Berlin was the hub of history studies in nineteenth-century Europe and young historians from all over the world travelled there to improve their knowledge and skills in source criticism and other novel methods of their rapidly developing discipline. Berlin maintained its position throughout the century, but before it was 1900, Leipzig had established itself as a serious alternative destination for historians who were skeptical about the Rankean political history. In Leipzig, Karl Lamprecht rejected the traditional history writing that focused on politics, war, diplomacy, and powerful individuals, and instead insisted on a need to adopt a broader historical perspective that would embrace social and economic history, art, culture, traditions, ordinary people, emotions and so forth. Enthusiastically he devoted his life for searching the all-embracing socio-cultural forces that explained historical change and published the results of his venture in the 22-volume History of Germany (1890-1900). Equally enthusiastically the members of the traditional history school committed to shoot holes to Lamprecht’s admittedly weak methodology, dubious conclusions, and careless research practices.
Roger Chickering has concluded in his biography of Lamprecht that the German historians was, in all his complexities and happy-go-lucky mentality towards the nitty-gritty details of historical research, a totally wrong man to lead a change in historical scholarship in Germany. Notwithstanding his indifference to the scholarly virtues of accuracy and diligence, or his complicated methodological constructions, his popularity grew steadily outside Germany. Soon Lamprecht found himself preaching about social and cultural history, positivism, and alternative source materials for an enthusiastic and highly international audiences. Lamprecht’s quickly growing international popularity did not go unnoticed in Germany and the scholarly establishment followed with deep concern the development in Leipzig.
Lamprecht also appealed to young historians in Finland. His ideas fell into a fertile soil among the first generation of Finnish-speaking university students. They were looking for a historical narrative that would help them strengthen their national identity and aid them to respond to the challenges of the rapidly modernizing Finnish society. These historians were the sons and daughters of small farmers, countryside parishes, and village tradesmen, who, now for the very first time, had a right to gain education in their native language. They were ambitious and eager to improve the standing of the Finnish-speaking population, but the histories written by the Swedish-speaking scholars gave them little tools to achieve their goal. The traditional national narrative was either political history in the Ranken sense or cultural history of a small elite who represented the small Swedish-speaking political, economic, and cultural elite. It is not a surprise that Lamprecht’s writings circulated among Finnish-speaking students who found in him the necessary theoretical backing for their call for more varied subject matters and a broader scope to the national past. Lamprecht showed them that historians could treat topics that corresponded with the social background of the Finnish-speaking population. In no time, many of these young historians began to make plans to travel to Leipzig to learn more about this new kind of history from the master himself.
One of Lamprecht’s proselytes was Gunnar Suolahti, who was to become the founding father of the school of cultural history in Finland. He headed to Leipzig in 1898 and planned to spend an entire academic year there following lectures and participating in Lamprecht’s seminars. Suolahti had read Lamprecht’s studies and theories and he was – in theory – well-prepared to meet the famous scholar. In practice, however, he was appalled by the first impression the German historian made on him. As Suolahti did not have Google to help him to search for images of Lamprecht, he was totally unaware that Lamprecht was a portly man with a thick beard. This was not at all how he had pictured in his mind Lamprecth to look like, and hence he wrote to home about his astonishment:
He is a middle-aged man, gentle and stout, he talks with his hands like a Russian, and he has a somewhat Russian appearance. He speaks rather freely, his voice is ordinary like in an ordinary conversation, and many a time he surprises his hearers with good jokes. The audience, naturally, shows immediate delight to him. It was curious to see him for the very first time. For one expects – I don’t know why – something else from celebrities like him and it feels so peculiar to see them as they are.
Suolahti did not let his surprise disturb his studies and diligently he listened different lecturers and joined in several seminars during his stay in Leipzig. But it was Lamprecht and his ideas that made a lasting impact on Suolahti. He concentrated so carefully on what the eminent German had to say, that following the lectures was a mentally as well as a bodily exhausting experience:
I come from Lamprecht’s lecture, but not directly from there. My restless mind forced me to walk the streets back and forth. I felt my cheeks hot, my mind and body elevated. And I knew what it was. I had concentrated on each and every word of Lamprecht with the greatest intensity, constantly I had fixed my gaze at him. I listened to him like one listens to a prophet, I got excited as I got excited back at home out in the nature. It was the same feeling. I knew I grasped something, something that was not trivial, it was something more. And even more, as I felt how I heard it put so clearly what I had only contemplated before. I noticed peace around me and it shook me like the silence of deep forests had shaken me before.
Suolahti, in spite of his heightened enthusiasm during his visit in Leipzig, did not subscribe to all of Lamprecht’s ideas. He particularly criticized his mentor’s rejection of political history. In his later work Suolahti chose topics that fell into cultural and social history, but he never ruled out the political events and their impact on the history of agrarian villages. He also distanced himself from Lamprecht in a sense that he did not discard the study of influential individuals, but in line with Lamprecht, his biographical studies grew into broad analyzes of an individual as a representative of his time.
All in all, learning to know Lamprecht was a transforming experience to Suolahti. He is a prime example of the many young historians who left Finland around the turn of the century to study and conduct research abroad as well as to enjoy a moment of freedom from the politically oppressing situation at home. The numerous encounters these historians experienced with the leading scholars of their field had a lasting impact on their scholarly and private lives. These were the moments that they continued to remember decades later and to pinpoint them as formative moments in their academic careers. It became essential for a proper historian to leave his private study and to go out to the world, and not just to read fragile manuscripts in archives, but also to meet colleagues, leading historians and controversial scholars in order to learn what was really going on in historical research at the moment.
The excursions of late-nineteenth-century historians to foreign universities as well as international experiences of other Finnish scientists will be the topic of a seminar “The University – An International Meeting Arena” organized by The Finnish Society for The History of Science and Learning and the University of Helsinki Museum on 3 September at the University of Helsinki.
Chickering Roger, Karl Lamprecht: A German Academic Life (1865–1915). Leiden: Brill, 1993.
Karttunen Kalle, ”Henry Biaudet och andra arkivforskare vid Vatikanen.” Romerska år och minnen. En bok om Finland i Rom. Ed. Torsten Steinby, Tampere: Söderström, 1945.
Suolahti Eino E., Gunnar Suolahti. Ihminen ja tutkija. Porvoo: WSOY, 1947.
Pictures: Wikimedia Commons