Hans Joachim MorgenthauHans Joachim Morgenthau

Hans J. Morgenthau is credited as one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the realist school which came to dominate theoretical and practical understanding of International Politics in the 20th Century. Morgenthau was most associated with his ‘American’ works published after his move to the United States from Europe, even though he was forty at the time and had already written several books on the subjects of international law and the political relations between countries. Hans J. Morgenthau was born on the 17 February 1902 in the town of Coburg, Germany.  He was born into a Jewish middle class family, his father a doctor and mother the daughter of a successful businessman. Despite his relatively privileged background Morgenthau spent an unhappy childhood partly due to his father’s authoritarian parenting skills and amplified by the growing anti-Semitism engulfing Germany following the end of the First World War. These early experiences have seen to be fundamental in fashioning Morgenthau’s outlook on the world and consequently his intellectual writings.

Morgenthau first gained an interest in public and international law while attending the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin in 1925. While writing his dissertation on international law under the supervision of Karl Strupp Morgenthau became enthusiastic about his studies and begun to seriously consider an academic career. In 1929 Morgenthau completed his dissertation The International Judicial Function. Its Nature and Limits which was very well received. Unable to secure a teaching position in Germany, partly due to anti-Semitic attitudes in German society, Morgenthau took a position teaching German Public Law at the University of Geneva. In the summer of 1933 he confidently submitted his habilitation on La Réalité des Normes (The ‘reality’ of legal norms) only to hear back that it was not considered adequate based on the negative evaluations of Professor Walter Burckhardt and Morgenthau’s supposed friend, Professor Paul Guggenheim. After an exhaustive battle Morgenthau succeeded in having his habilitation submitted to a new commission, comprising of the highly influential Hans Kelsen, which gave Morgenthau full satisfaction, duly awarding him his habilitation-qualification.

Following the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the imminent conclusion of his contract in Geneva Morgenthau moved to Madrid where he had been offered a part time position at a newly established research institute for international studies. Morgenthau enjoyed his time in Madrid where he married his long-time friend Irma Thormann; initially intending to remain in Madrid their stay was cut short by the outbreak of the Spanish civil war while they were on holiday in Italy.
Morgenthau had originally hoped to remain in Europe but the scarcity of opportunities meant that he eventually turned to America. He arrived in New York at the end of July 1937 and again struggled to find work even making applications for non-academic jobs. Through good luck and perseverance he managed to secure a position covering a professor on sick leave. His wife worked full time as a hat saleswoman and they relied on the support of their friends and financial assistance from charitable organisations.

After seventeen months in New York an opportunity arose for Morgenthau as an Assistant Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Kansas City. His initial enthusiasm wore off as he was loaded with additional work without reimbursement. The conditions came to the attention of the American Association of University Professors in 1941 which led to an investigation with Morgenthau elected to the committee. The report was a scathing review of the leadership of the University President Clarence Decker. With America entering into the Second World War Morgenthau was fired under the guise of budget cuts, although he successfully appealed it came too late to remain in Kansas. After countless rejections Morgenthau was offered and accepted a post at the University of Chicago in the political science department. The reputation and environment of the University stimulated him and once his temporary position was no longer needed he was offered a teaching position.

Morgenthau’s move to Chicago marked the beginning of his well-known illustrious academic career. Between 1946 and 1951 he published six books including his now infamous Politics among Nations in 1948 and by spring 1949 it had adopted by over ninety colleges in America and later that year he was made a full professor of political science and contemporary history at the University of Chicago. The following year he founded the Center for the Study of American Foreign and Military Policy which during the 1950s produced some outstanding alumni although Morgenthau lost interest and it began to flounder eventually closing in 1971 when he left Chicago, due to Illinois state law requiring him to retire from being a full time professor.

On leaving Chicago he took up a position as a professor at City University of New York. During his academic life in America he undertook a considerable number of guest professorships in the US and abroad returning to both Madrid and Geneva. Although after 1951 Morgenthau only published three more monographs he wrote over four hundred articles finding these easier to fit into his busy schedule. The influence that Morgenthau on those both within and outside his discipline was considerable with his acquaintances including Golda Meir, Robert Kennedy, Henry Kissinger and Walter Lippmann among others. Hans J. Morgenthau died at the age of 76 on the 19th July 1980.


  • Frei, C. Hans J. Morgenthau: an intellectual biography (Louisiana State University Press, 2001).
  • Koskenniemi, M. The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law 1870-1960 (Cambridge University Press, 2002).


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