On Henry Kissinger

This absurd character with horn-rimmed glasses, beside whom James Bond becomes a flavourless creation. He does not shoot, nor use his fists, nor leap from speeding automobiles like James Bond, but he advises on wars, ends wars, pretends to change our destiny and does change it. 

So wrote the Italian writer, Oriana Fallaci, over 50 years ago after interviewing Henry Kissinger who has passed away at the age of 100. In 1972, Kissinger was at the height of his fame — and the media dubbed him ‘Superman, Superstar, Superkraut’ — the ultimate diplomatic fixer and the subject of satire, songs and novels. Yet for many who wrote about him in depth, the diffuse undertone was always ‘ Kissinger the closet Jew’. 

Heinz Kissinger — as he was then known — was born into the troubled Weimar Republic and witnessed Hitler’s dramatic rise in his home town of Fürth. His family finally left in August 1938, spending a week in Golders Green before travelling on to New York. Thirty years later he emerged from academic obscurity to become the Dr. Strangelove of President Nixon’s administrations. 

Kissinger’s family were orthodox Jews and German patriots, brought up on Goethe and Heine but who were distant from Zionism. Kissinger joined the youth group, ‘Ezra’ of the non-Zionist orthodox Aguda. His writings from that time indicate that he could write in Hebrew. 

Kissinger’s distancing himself from his background occurred during his teenage years and his integration into American society.

Kissinger was a complex character, not exactly a Republican, sometimes a liberal, sometimes a conservative, but at all times someone who embraced reality — as he saw it — and disdained moralising. He brought the Vietnam war to a close and forged a relationship with Mao’s China but also instigated the carpet bombing of Cambodia and the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government in Chile in favour a brutal military dictatorship.

When Israel was beleaguered at the onset of the Yom Kippur war, he and Nixon authorised an urgent airlift of arms. American pressure subsequently froze the war and prevented a further advance of the IDF. Kissinger subsequently brought the warring parties together in Geneva in the hope of securing a meaningful peace but his shuttle diplomacy was an unproductive failure. The Israel Right held demonstrations against Kissinger’s visits to Israel, labelling him as ‘a Jew boy’ who was not wanted. 

Some years ago, I was fortunate to have lunch with a few other Israel Studies academics with Henry Kissinger. We could ask just one question to our guest. All my American colleagues addressed him as ‘Mr Secretary of State’ and asked his views on Israel. As the only European present, I decided to ask him a question about Soviet Jewry and his striving to achieve détente with Moscow often at the cost of demoting the cause of Soviet Jews. I also asked him whether the dream of a new Russia of the Nobel Peace Prize Winner and great supporter of Soviet Jews, Andrei Sakharov was now dead and buried.

In replying to me, Kissinger’s teutonic growl became louder and his speech more animated. He implied that Russia today was not Brezhnev’s Soviet Union but that Sakharov’s aspiration of a Russia, based on democracy and the rule of law, was not dead but enfeebled. This, of course, was a time when there was opposition to Putin and the hope that things would change.

Kissinger said that he met Putin a couple of times a year for discussions. Yet he also commented that he got nowhere with him and found him unfathomable. Kissinger’s technique was to use caveats to qualify his last explanation, leaving his listener perplexed as to his actual opinion. But on Putin, Kissinger was unequivocally clear.  

Henry Kissinger’s private life was indeed private and few had access to the inner man including his biographers. How he understood his Jewishness is still difficult to perceive apart from the odd reference to Spinoza’s rationalism. Kissinger would sit silently when Nixon made antisemitic outbursts while US Jewry did not warm to him and regarded him in part as a shtadlan — a court Jew.

Kissinger now belongs to history and he will be listed amongst the great diplomats of the past whose vision shaped the world they lived in.

Jewish News 30 November 2023

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