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Only a Guideline

To the Editors:

I am certain that E.H. Gombrich [“Portrait of the Artist as a Paradox,” NYR, January 20] would wish to do full justice to Leopold von Ranke, that great stylist, master of historical writing, and author of fifty-four volumes. He slightly misquotes Ranke’s much-misunderstood, marvelously modulated phrase “how it actually happened” (wie es eigentlich gewesen). This, moreover, was not intended as “an injunction to the historian.” Rather it was his youthful, modest assertion in his very first book, written when he was still in his twenties, that his work was aspiring not to the “high offices” that had previously been assigned to history: “It wants only to show what actually happened” (er will blos zeigen, wie es eigentlich gewesen).

Fritz Stern
University Professor Emeritus
Columbia University
New York City

E.H. Gombrich replies:

I never doubted that Ranke’s proverbial remark (to which Iadded a redundant, but harmless, “ist“), was originally intended to describe his own aim. Perhaps I should have written that later historians regarded it as a guideline, rather than an injunction. Mea culpa, mea minima culpa.