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Famous scholars from Kiel:

Johann Gustav Droysen

A historian, publicist and politician, Droysen was Professor of History at Kiel University from 1840 to 1851 and a deputy in the Frankfurt National Assembly.

Johann Gustav Droysen is one of Germany's greatest historians. His biography of Alexander the Great and his history of Hellenism are among the historical works of the 19th century which have almost never been out of print. He coined the term "the Hellenistic age" for the period between Alexander and the Roman Empire. As a historical theorist Droysen laid the basis for the methodology of modern historical studies.

Johann Gustav Droysen was born in Treptow on the river Rega in Pomerania on 6th July 1808 and grew up in modest circumstances due to the early death of his father in 1816. His father had been a Lutheran military pastor and later superintendent in Treptow, while his mother was the daughter of an ironmonger. After completing his Abitur (university entrance qualification) in Stettin he began studying philology and philosophy at the University of Berlin in 1826. His most important teachers were the classicist August Boeckh and the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Droysen passed his senior teacher's examination in 1829, took his doctorate in 1831 and was appointed as a teacher at the Berlin upper secondary school "Zum Grauen Kloster" in the same year. Droysen qualified as a lecturer in classical philology in 1833 and began teaching his subject at the University of Berlin, initially as an associate professor and from 1835 onwards as an unpaid associate professor. During this period he completed his translation of Aeschylus as well as his first major work "Die Geschichte Alexanders des Großen" (History of Alexander the Great), which was preparatory to his two-volume "Geschichte des Hellenismus" (History of Hellenism).

After his appointment as full professor in Kiel in 1840 the focus of his work shifted to modern history and the high period of his political activity began. Droysen campaigned in particular for the independence of Schleswig-Holstein from Danish influence. He took part in the Schleswig-Holstein revolt of March 1848 and represented the provisional government of Schleswig-Holstein in the Frankfurt National Assembly, where he was also a member of the constitutional committee. When the parties were formed in the parliament Droysen joined the moderate liberal Casino party. However, the hopes he placed in Prussia as the guarantor of the unification of a liberal Germany were disappointed when Frederick William IV of Prussia turned down the imperial crown offered to him by the Frankfurt parliament. Droysen thereupon withdrew from politics.

After the failure of the Schleswig-Holstein revolt Droysen feared that he could lose his position and as a result took up an appointment in Jena in 1851. Droysen had held classes on source criticism in Kiel in 1846 for the first time and repeated these from 1857 onwards in regular lectures on "Enzyklopädie und Methodologie der Geschichte" (Encyclopaedia and Methodology of History). This series of lectures was first published in full in 1937 as "Historik" and is considered as his most important academic legacy. "Historik" deals with the fundamentals of the subject, for example methodology, the study of sources and textual criticism. Droysen's aim as a historian and philosopher of history was to find ways and methods of producing a historical perspective through the prism of the present. "The data of historical investigation are not past things, for these have disappeared, but things which are still present here and now, whether recollections of what was done, or remnants of things that have existed and of events that have occurred", wrote Droysen in "Grundriss der Historik" (Principles of the Outlines of History) in 1867. (For more on source criticism see the biography of Georg Waitz in the journal "unizeit" ed. 38).

Droysen returned to Berlin in 1859, teaching at the university until the end of his life. His admiration of Prussia remained undimmed and from 1855 onwards he worked on a history of Prussia in 14 volumes ending in 1756. This work develops his conception of the political nature of historical studies. He saw a continuity in the German policies of the Hohenzollern from the 15th to the 19th centuries and therefore attempted to supply a justification, if not even a legitimation, for the German national unification process under Prussian dominance. Johann Gustav Droysen died in Berlin on 19th June 1884.

Kerstin Nees

Key word: Friendship with Mendelssohn

After the early death of his father in 1816 and his mother in 1828 Johann Gustav Droysen attempted to provide for his three younger sisters by giving private lessons. From 1827 to 1829 one of his pupils was Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847), who was almost the same age as Droysen and with whom he was to have a lifelong friendship. The young Droysen studied music intensively, even wrote texts for compositions by Felix and his sister Fanny and wrote newspaper articles in support of Mendelssohn's efforts to stage the St Matthew Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach in Berlin in 1829. "A nineteen-year-old philologist imbued with all the freshness and lively, active sympathy typical of his age, with knowledge beyond his years and a pure poetic sensibility and healthy kind nature" was Fanny's assessment of her brother's friend (quote based on Eberhard Fromm: "Zwischen Emanzipation und Tradition". Johann Gustav Droysen. Berlinische Monatsschrift, 7/1998).

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