John Bew on the Origins of Realpolitik

“Realpolitik is not, as is often assumed, as old as statecraft itself.”


Realpolitik: A History by John Bew (2015, Oxford University Press)

Realpolitik – in the most basic of terms – is a word used to describe a kind of politics or diplomacy that is concerned more with immediate practical matters than with moral duty. Usually, I find this “dark” concept linked either to the Italian Renaissance politician and writer Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) or the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (born 1923). And sometimes, yes, to Thucydides (c.460-c.400 BC), the Athenian general and historian who wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War

For John Bew (@JohnBew) – Professor of History and Foreign Policy at the War Studies Department of King’s College London – though, “realpolitik” is not really part of a seamless creed stretching back to ancient Greece. In Realpolitik: A History, Bew writes that the actual concept is “not to be discovered by dusting off the great tomes of statecraft from the Ancient or Renaissance worlds, or retelling the stories of sagacious statesmen of yesterday, in search of some form of timeless wisdom.”

Real Realpolitik, Bew asserts, was born in mid-nineteenth-century Europe from the collision of “the Enlightenment” with the bloody process of “national state formation and great power politics.” This was a world experiencing the quintessential problems of modernity – among them, rapid industrialisation and increasing international rivalry. Bew explains:

In the first instance, the creation of the concept of Realpolitik, was an attempt to answer a domestic political conundrum: how to build a stable and liberal nation-state in an unsteady and rapidly changing environment, without recourse to violent convulsion or repression. Realpolitik held that it was the first act of statecraft to identify the contending social, economic, and ideological forces struggling for supremacy within the state. The second act of statecraft was to attempt to achieve some equilibrium and have balance among these forces so that they would not hinder the development of the nation-state. To be successful, the statesman had to understand both the historical circumstances in which he operated and the conditions of modernity in an era of rapid economic, political, and intellectual development.

He adds a little later:

The birth of Realpolitik was inextricably linked to the European revolutions of 1848. In some respects, the 1848 revolutions were nineteenth-century Europe’s equivalent of the Arab spring. A revolutionary wave began with uncoordinated revolts in Sicily and Paris in January and February 1848, respectively. By March, the “contagion” had spread to Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Denmark, and the tremors were soon felt in Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland, Poland, and modern-day Romania.

Over the course of the next two years nearly all the 1848 revolutions (with the arguable exception of the Swiss) failed on their own terms.


A caricature of the defeat of the 1848 revolutions across Europe by Ferdinand Schröder (published in Düsseldorfer Monatshefte, August 1849), Wikimedia Commons


Learn more in his lecture given at the Library of Congress:


Featured Image: Pixabay

Preview Realpolitik: A History by John Bew

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