Realpolitik: A History | Book Review

realpolitik book

This is one of those books that sounds extremely niche and easy to skip over if you are not interested in the “realpolitik” topic. I went in because I was super-interested in the topic, but got out with so much more than I thought I would. If I had to describe the book in one sentence it would sound something like this: “150-years of history viewed with realpolitik-goggles on”. 

[Realpolitik] Emerged in mid-nineteenth-century Europe […] This was a world experiencing the quintessential problems fo modernity: A combustion of new ideas about liberty and social order alongside rapid industrialization, class antagonism, sectarianism, the rise of nationalism (in both its civic and ethnic forms), and increasing international rivalry” – John Bew

The first part of the book is a breakdown of the failed revolutions throughout Europe in the 1840s and the etymological beginning of the word ‘realpolitik’ itself, its inventor, Ludwig von Rochau, and his theories.

Rochau himself is a fascinating character; he fled  Frankfurt after being sentenced to life in prison for storming police headquarters and spent the next ten years in France. Moving back to northern Germany and working as a political journalist, he witnessed the restoration of power in the form of Otto von Bismarck and fled again (this time to Italy). Towards the end of his life, he became an elected member of the German parliament as a member of the National Liberal Party (more on that later).

The story of Rochau and his ideas lay the groundwork for the rest of the books that take us from Otto von Bismarck to modern-day United States foreign policy. It sounds like a stretch, but John Bew ties it together well and keeps things tight throughout the book.

The liberals and radicals of the varios German states shared many aims and sought to coordinate their efforts. Most of them believed that the liberal political cause was best served by a united Germany rather than a Germany divided into small states and principalities in which the old elites held political power” – John Bell

It is quite fascinating to read about old-times occurrences in political trends. As we live in a time when ‘nationalism’ is used almost as a curse word, or a tag you can put on people that you dislike/despise, the liberals of the 1830s lived in a different reality. There it was seen as a helpful tool for liberation and unity (in their mind). Quite different from the liberal notions of today: “By becoming the champions of German unification, Germany’s liberals had created a political force that conservatives could not ignore.”

In many respects, most of the world progressed into a liberal nation-state over time, but we got less liberation out of it on an individual level. The ‘zeitgeist’, the spirit of the age, has changed. How many of us have noticed? It was very important for Rochau and his work to analyse the world as-is, and we can see it being an important part of global politics today.

Germany’s rulers had to respect the rising power, wealth, and education of the middle class. Liberals and radicals had to acept that monarchy, and the popular attachement to the royal family, could not simply be wished away.” – John Bew

Sovereignity is a term of power and he who treats it as a legal term will always arrive at unsustainable results” – Ludwig von Rochau

If you enjoy history, especially some history that you can trace to our now and that makes you able to put words on hard concepts, ‘Realpolitik: A History‘ should be on your to-read list.



  1. Fascinating. This book dovetails with a book I am reading, The Proud Tower, by Barbara Tuchman. It’s about the world prior to WW1. The first chapter details the English aristocracy and their worldview; the next presents a history of the Anarchists, who arose from the real poverty of a huge chunk of the population. She attempts to account for WW1 by tracing the developments in the 19th Century. History is not about the past. It’s not even past

    Liked by 1 person

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