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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.1 (2003) 165-167

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Christoph Frei, Hans J. Morgenthau: An Intellectual Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. 236 pp. $49.95.

Christoph Frei's intellectual biography of Hans J. Morgenthau is thought-provoking and stimulating. Two features of it are especially striking: the paramount role Frei ascribes to Friedrich Nietzsche's skepticism as a source of Morgenthau's realism, and the strong element of idealism he finds in Morgenthau's thinking despite the Nietzschean influences. Morgenthau's Politics among Nations (1948), the epitome of realist theory of international relations, had its roots in German philosophy, and his The Purpose of American Foreign Policy (1960), which could be seen as an idealist or even moralist book, also had a German background. Morgenthau became famous in the United Sates and was widely viewed—both in the United States and abroad—as a distinctively American thinker linked with American Cold War policy. However, both his realism and his idealism were fully developed when he arrived in the United States from Europe in 1937, and he believed that his way of thinking was opposed to what he considered American.

Frei bases his study on diaries and letters as well as on Morgenthau's European writings. The book's emphasis on Nietzsche is original, so far as I know. In the 1920s, Morgenthau's formative decade, Nietzsche remained a zeitbeherrschendes Elerbnis in Germany, as Frei puts it—an "overwhelming contemporary experience by which few intellectuals went entirely untouched." For Morgenthau, however, Nietzsche was even more important. Young Hans Joachim, who was exposed to radical anti-Semitism already in school but whose father deemphasized the family's Jewishness and was a German patriot in the first instance, saw himself as "neither a German nor a Jew, born at the wrong time in the wrong country, a man without a country" and felt "lonely and misunderstood" (quoted from diary entries in October 1927). Nietzsche was to him a fellow-sufferer, "the greatest outsider of them all" and "the god of my youth."

Nietzsche's philosophy inspired Morgenthau to try to ascertain what things are really like behind a veil of ideals and social conventions—the essence of the skeptical realism he came to epitomize in the United States two decades later. Man, Nietzche argued, was not rational but enmeshed in a web of drives, most basically the impulse of self-preservation and self-assertion. Morgenthau developed this idea into a theory of politics as an autonomous realm of life rooted in the human psyche and its inherent drive for power. [End Page 165]

What he thought he found in the United States was different: historical optimism, reliance on reason, confidence in enlightenment and education, and the idea that everything is knowable, learnable, and feasible. He was profoundly critical not only of this view of international relations, but also of the "scientific" outlook of his colleagues in Chicago, including Charles Merriam, Harold Lasswell, Herbert Simon, David Truman, David Easton, and Gabriel Almond—the behavioralists of the "Chicago school." His first American books, including Politics among Nations, were written in opposition to what he believed was the American mentality.

So much for Morgenthau the realist and for his adaptation of Nietzschean skepticism to the American debate. As Frei makes clear, Morgenthau parted company with Nietzsche on the question of the relativity of values. Morgenthau believed that an urge arising from "the moral dimension of the human soul" made it impossible to banish value judgments from the social sciences. He developed what Frei calls a transcendent idealism, which presupposed the existence of a set of supreme values that are objective, independent, and timeless and that served as ultimate goals and standards for evaluating thought and action. Tolerant relativism was possible only as long as all sides accepted it: "Relativism would forfeit its very existence by agreeing to the opponent's relative right to implement absolute demands." Hans Kelsen's Pure Theory of Law, highly significant in the world of Morgenthau the law student, represented a "withdrawal from reality."

Frei explains Morgenthau's...