Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Jewish Kid from Fürth Makes Good
Jewish Kid from Fürth Makes Good

Jewish Kid from Fürth Makes Good

  • Adam Garfinkle
  • April 13, 2016
  • Center for the Study of America and the West

Kissinger 1923-1968: The IdealistFerguson, Niall. Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist.
New York: Penguin Press, 2015. 1008 pp. Hardcover. $39.95.


Rabbinic tradition has it that it was King Solomon himself who lamented, “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12;12) In the contemplation and reading of Niall Ferguson’s epic first volume of Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist, one cannot help but think that Solomon was really onto something. The book seemed never to end, and a wearied flesh is not too extreme a description of the feeling that came over me, say, ‘round about page 800 and persisted to the end of a volume that, together with notes and index, comes to 986 pages.

The book is too long, and its attention-grabbing counterintuitive assertion of Henry-the-Idealist inscribed in the subtitle is not so much mistaken as it is beside any useful point. If it has any other obvious flaw, it lies in Ferguson’s introduction, which is not really about Henry Kissinger at all, but reads as a rapidly spinning kaleidoscope describing more than half a century’s worth of pop-cultural images, splenetic criticisms, and assorted wild exaggerations about the subject.

But as we would hope that others will forgive us our own authorial trespasses over the years, we should forgive Ferguson his. Yes, most of us do not need the contextual padding about Harvard, the Battle of the Bulge, and plenty more besides, where Kissinger goes missing for pages on end; but some readers today and plenty more in the future may well need them, or at any rate benefit from them. To establish that Kissinger was never a believer in or a purveyor of coldblooded Machtpolitik does not make him an idealist in the common, garden-variety neoliberal sense of the term; but that says more about the poverty of the Manichean idealist-realist dichotomy than it does about anything else. As for the introduction’s reminders about the rich epiphenomena of Kissingeralia, those old enough to have been of age when all this happened mostly hope to, as Dylan once put it, “get out of going through all these things twice.” But again, those young enough to have missed them probably deserve a sense of their scale and diversity to fully appreciate what comes next.

And what comes next is impressive; the book’s merits outweigh its (one hesitates to use the term) shortcomings. For one thing, Ferguson had access to Kissinger’s personal papers and frequent enough access to Kissinger himself over an expanse of maturing time. This is an authorized biography, though no softball hagiography. Ferguson has also had the luxury of spending chunks of an entire decade on just the first half of the two-volume project. None of the several other biographies of Kissinger published over the years shares any of these characteristics, and a comparison of texts shows the difference in consequent quality.

It probably also helped the effort that Ferguson is neither a native-born U.S. national nor a Jew, and so brings some useful perspective to his subject. Readers will argue, no doubt, as to whether Ferguson’s own sharply formed ideological views represent a blessing or a curse brought to the effort. I find them mostly comfortable, comforting, and useful in what I imagine to have been Ferguson’s protracted struggle to understand Kissinger on his own terms.

In any event, the result is a compelling narrative that skillfully integrates what is personal with what is universal, what is philosophical with what is political, and what is contemporary with what is historical. As I gradually recover full use of my knees, hips and lower back, I suppose my weariness of flesh will wane sufficiently for me to welcome volume two, if I’m still around when it appears.

Ferguson’s part-one biography has been previewed and reviewed like few books ever are. The dust-jacket pre-pub-gathered blurbs run from George Shultz to James Baker through Condoleezza Rice, John Lewis Gaddis, Robert Zoellick, and Joseph Nye. There have already been so many reviews published that no point is served by listing or even counting them, let alone trying to characterize them. Besides, my assigned task is simple: Never mind the globe-spanning implications of the foundations of Henry Kissinger’s professional life, never mind the implied arguments over great-man versus structural interpretations of historical causality, and never mind how Kissinger got passed on from Nelson Rockefeller to Richard Nixon as volume one comes to a close. All I am asked to do is ponder one simple question: So what about Henry and the Jews? Very well, come a-pondering with me

Ferguson spends a great deal of time and ink on Kissinger’s upbringing and family. We meet his parents Louis and Paula, his brother Walter, his grandparents, his friends and teachers, and others besides. Ferguson knows enough about the German-Jewish milieu of the late-19th and early 20th centuries even to distinguish between the strains of modern Orthodoxy developing at that time, and to link the Kissinger household and Henry’s early education to the anti-Zionist skein of Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. Given Ferguson’s earlier historical work on the Rothschilds, (also a two-volume effort) published in 1998, he was in a vastly superior position, even for a somewhat peculiarly motivated Scot, to grasp the inner life of Fürth and environs in and around 1923. Not that Ferguson could have appreciated Rav Hirsch’s towering genius; for that he would have had to read Hirsch’s Hebrew commentaries. That he tellingly uses the phrase “Hilchatic law” on a couple of occasions, which I assume is a slightly dyslexic approximation of “halachic,” suggests that such a task is very understandably beyond his training. Still, if any Scotsman deserves to be an honorary yekke, it’s Niall Ferguson.

More important than the general background that Ferguson brings about Kissinger’s upbringing is the insight he provides about his personality. Not only was Kissinger raised in an Orthodox family in an Orthodox shul in a town that had over centuries developed a highly institutionalized Orthodox community, he apparently also was a serious adept. We see a young Heinz Kissinger admonishing his younger brother Walter not to walk past the boundary of the eruv on Shabbat; so the boys tie their handkerchiefs to their wrists rather than carry them. We see, in a preserved document, Kissinger teaching other, slightly younger boys about the types of mukseh—objects that should not be touched on the Sabbath—in a remarkably sophisticated analysis for a young teenager. We see him scoff at news of the 1937 Peel Commission’s proposal to partition Palestine, viewing it essentially as a violation of God’s will.

At the same time, we see Kissinger as a boy who, according to his mother, kept his innermost feelings locked up, a boy whose emotional bonds with his father were shallow—and a boy who displayed a strong liking for soccer and blonde-haired girls not of the Jewish community. In other words, a more normal 20th-century German-Jewish kid than some people might think.

As Ferguson charts times passing, we also hear Kissinger’s own reminiscences about the segregation of Jews from the general community after 1933. We know that he, like most Jewish boys of the time in Germany, avoided clots of non-Jewish youth so as to escape being taunted and beaten up—not that avoidance always afforded protection. Ferguson is downright chilling as he takes the reader from the onset of the Nazi regime in March 1933 through to Kristallnacht in November 1938 and beyond. It is one thing to read generally about such developments, knowing as we all do what was to follow. It is another to experience them as a family, and as a young boy within that family, living them as they were happening, with only premonitions and clouded fears about what it all might come to mean. Just as some truths about human social and political nature are best told in fiction, so some truths that feel like fiction can only be told as personal history.

With this experience weighing upon him as an impressionable youth, what remains to be explained is Kissinger’s subsequent repeated claim that none of this defined him as an intellect or as a person in adulthood. Not only did his youth before escaping Germany in 1938 not define him, he has claimed, but the same goes for Kissinger’s still Jewish-cloistered life in the New York area, and, more remarkably, his experience during and after World War II back in Germany. As Ferguson describes in detail, after the fall of the Nazi regime Kissinger’s language skills, high intelligence, and relentless work ethic propelled him to high office within the U.S. military’s de-Nazification program in occupied Germany.

It is clear from Ferguson’s narrative that Kissinger had forsaken his Orthodox observance and rabbinic mindset for a vaguely Spinozistic sense of religious cosmology before heading off to war. He also bonded strongly with his mid-American soldier colleagues, and it becomes clear that just as his father had once felt himself much too German to become a Zionist, now the son wished to become so American that nothing about his Jewishness could displace that allegiance. In postwar Germany, Kissinger became Mr. Henry so as to obscure his Jewish origins. This may have made good tactical sense for the purposes to hand, but, more importantly, it seems to have helped Kissinger restrain himself from any urges for revenge. Those urges would not have been hard to understand. After the war Kissinger searched for family members who had been left behind in Fürth and elsewhere; he found none.

That restraint shows as Kissinger writes to his parents back in New York, telling them that besides right and wrong there are many shades in between, and it is within those gray areas that serious and responsible people must dwell. He even admits to the stress of seeing the wives of arrested Nazis weep at the departure of their husbands, whom he himself has ordered arrested as he tries to distinguish post hoc between true-believing Nazis (those who had joined the party before 1937), mere opportunists, and other, common thugs. Kissinger dwelled deeply amid the gray even as the blood and ashes of European Jewry lay strewn about him. But what comes through it all is the power of Kissinger’s will; his prodigious capacity for self-discipline; his ability to control if not repress his emotions for the sake both of justice and, presumably, his own sanity.

When he returned to the United States in 1947, Kissinger told his parents that he had, even at his young age, “done great things”—and by reasonably objective standards he was not exaggerating. He had been part of a cause greater than himself and even much greater in his estimation than klal yisrael, than the Jewish people. It is as though Kissinger believed, whether explicitly or not is hard to know, that to self-identify as a believing and observant Jew would be to turn himself into an eternal victim, and as such someone incapable of being an effective part of that larger universal cause.

Ferguson does not miss much in the telling, but it is exactly in this context that one would have liked to know Kissinger’s reaction when he realized—it had to have been sometime in late 1945 or 1946—the full scope of what came to be known as the Holocaust, the Shoah. After all, Kissinger’s milieu was Germany and German Jewry. He was present for the liberation of a satellite concentration camp near Hannover, and Ferguson’s description is spellbinding. But Kissinger had never been east, to the core of the genocide among the millions of Yiddish-speaking Jews of Central and Eastern Europe—he could not have readily intuited the scale of the enormity from his limited local perspective. Yet apparently, Kissinger left no written testimony of his initial reaction; Ferguson did not ask, and Kissinger did not offer. Why?

Again, the reason seems to have been defensive in a deeply psychological sense: “I must say I was so shocked by the human tragedy,” Kissinger once said many years later, “that I did not put it immediately into direct relationship to myself. . . . When I came back of course I experienced aspects of the Holocaust in a way that were unimaginable when I was a child, but those were then from the point of view of a member of an army of occupation and so I insisted . . . on allowing me to develop my own thinking, rather than presenting myself as some traumatized victim.” (p. 173).

Even more revealing, perhaps, is the language Kissinger used in a late 1945 letter to the aunt of a concentration camp survivor. He wrote bluntly that the image of a survivor in the United States was very distorted. These were not people in need of or wanting anyone’s pity, he wrote. Ferguson quotes the letter at length, and rightly so; suffice it to repeat here Kissinger’s insistence that survivors “were not within the ordinary pale of human events anymore. They had learned that looking back meant sorrow, that sorrow was weakness, and weakness synonymous with death.” I get the sense that the 22-year old who could write such words believed them not only for camp survivors, but also in a way for himself.

Let us posit, then, that as a defense against victimhood and the paralysis it promised, Henry Kissinger tried almost desperately never to look back, which meant a further distancing from his Orthodox rearing. It cannot be because of a poor memory; we know that high emotion brands human memory indelibly. And as David Brooks reports in The Human Animal, empirical research suggests that children who experience emotional trauma between the ages of 9 and 11 frequently become prematurely adult in temperament, single-mindedly driven, and professionally successful. That description fits Henry Kissinger to a tee.

So Kissinger’s years at Harvard go by with his looking always ahead, with his throwing himself into study—and his keeping mostly apart from the social ramble associated with college life—with a ferocity that impressed his faculty advisers as well as his peers. It is here that Ferguson seeks to make his case in support of his Kissinger-as-idealist argument, by showing how indebted Kissinger was to Kant in his senior thesis, over and above the rejected Spengler and Toynbee.

Kissinger does not explicitly relate his personal life, and his relentless effort to numb his backward-directed thoughts in service of a sane and purposeful personal future, with the key question he tries to tackle in that thesis: What can freedom mean in a world tethered mercilessly to necessity. And, probably wisely, Ferguson does not speculate about it. But it’s obvious: A group of human beings cannot murder millions of innocents without the rest of the sentient world ascribing moral responsibility to them for it. Kissinger elides a flaw in Kant’s logic into a conclusion in favor of freedom, as he had to—ironically enough—or else nothing that had happened in his own life, and particularly nothing he did in Germany after the war, would have made any sense in terms of moral logic. Absent freedom, everyone becomes a victim even as no one is responsible for anyone else’s plight. Perhaps Kissinger’s early reading of Spinoza returned here—though, as Ferguson notes, he barely mentions Spinoza in the thesis. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that to keep on living purposefully and productively, Kissinger needed to believe in freedom—and if he no longer could find faith in freedom via the Abrahamic route that he may or may not have properly understood as a child, he needed to find it in a different way.

That said, Kissinger did marry a Jewish woman and married her in an Orthodox ceremony—something his brother Walter did not do. Whatever the state of his intellectual and spiritual churn at the time, Kissinger apparently was not prepared to either wound his parents after all the family had been through, or to leave the Jewish communal fold. He knew, after all, that Orthodox communities can and do tolerate a wide range of private views; they do not, because they dare not, countenance the unraveling of the communal network of support and generational continuity. Perhaps Ferguson was simply unable to gauge the pull of this generally unspoken force among most Jews. There is at base nothing bloodline-oriented about it; it is a matter of historical memory informing a sense of communal loyalty that can persist powerfully even in the absence of an active belief in the God of the rabbis. When the Kissingers’ son David was born in 1961, he was circumcised on the eighth day in the traditional manner, despite the fact that neither parent had been observant in any way for years. Ferguson offers some pragmatic reasons for Kissinger’s marrying Ann Fleischer in February 1949, but they appear thin to me, and the fact that the marriage ended in divorce in 1964 is of no relevance to its origin. Something ineffably deeper seems to have been at work.

From the start of the Korean War in 1950 until Kissinger’s assignation with Richard Nixon 18 years later, Ferguson takes the reader through the progression of Kissinger’s thinking and career. But any Jewish element pretty much falls away from Ferguson’s narrative, not because Ferguson cannot locate it or cares not about it, but because it simply isn’t there. It has to return in volume two to some extent, because Ferguson will have to deal with Kissinger’s engagement with Israel and his attitude toward Soviet Jewry. In October 1973, for example, it was not Kissinger but a convert from Judaism, James Schlesinger, who first and most effectively rallied U.S. support for Israel in the throes of war. Kissinger’s willingness to abide an occasionally drunken President Nixon’s stock anti-Semitic remarks, and his since well-advertised disavowal of any special personal or U.S. foreign policy interest in the plight of Soviet Jewry, have marked Kissinger for some American Jews as an especially debased kind of Hofjude, a renegade, a selfish and grasping opportunist. The fact that Kissinger was a self-avowed conservative and a Republican obviously made this an easier claim for some American Jews who, in their vast majority, have been and remain partisan Democrats.

We shall see what Ferguson makes of all this in volume two, but my reading is different. I see a 10-year old Heinz Kissinger told he can no longer see or root for his favorite sports team, and a 15-year old in 1938, on the verge of leaving Fürth and everything he has known for an American city he later claimed to “hate.” All this time I see him watching his proudly German father disgraced and humiliated before his own children, and seeing a whole community in quietly terrorized agony. And I see a 22-year old Kissinger at the end of World War II in Germany, experiencing the stench of a concentration camp and unable to locate any of his family left alive as he faces the challenge of de-Nazifying Germany.

In short, I see a deeply shaken young man, sensitive and brilliant, faced with a choice: Go forward, never look back, or be damned. I see a personality constructed through force of will, one scarred with a yearning for order and a preternatural horror of irrational violence and human tragedy, a person driven by a palpable fear of emotion toward refuge in reason. I see a person set on attaining maximal control over his social environment, and hence perhaps Kissinger’s reputation for secrecy and manipulation, as endless compensation for his having lost control over everything he knew as a child and young man.

Some say that for Kissinger God died at Auschwitz, but this is either too simple or simply wrong. The profound instability that pervaded Kissinger’s life from the time he was ten years old began much earlier to erode his faith in the Orthodox rabbinic God; Auschwitz more likely strengthened his commitment to a moral duty devoted to preventing totalitarian madness from ever again wreaking such havoc on humanity. His steely, unemotional determination on this course was not only an expression of what he took to be a moral duty equal in its power to a religious devotion, but also served as his irremovable armor for the duration.

Let me close, if I may, with a personal anecdote. In the year 2000 Henry Kissinger was co-chairman of the editorial board of The National Interest, and I had been named editor, succeeding Owen Harries. It was our custom to convene an annual editorial board dinner at the Hay-Adams Hotel, and somehow the dinner ended up being scheduled for March 20, which happened to be erev Purim.

This put me in a tough spot. I ended up early at Kesher Israel in Georgetown, where the (since fallen) rabbi of that congregation lent me a megillah to read and hence to “hear” in the interstice between sunset and the onset of the dinner. I read it, quickly but not disrespectfully, in the cloakroom of the hotel, and then walked into the room reserved for the dinner about 15 minutes late, megillah rolled securely into its tin canister in my right hand, and took my place at one of the smallish round tables. Seated to my right was Al Haig, and to his right almost directly across from me was Henry Kissinger. (I don’t remember the other two people at the table.) Kissinger saw the canister, made eye contact, and silently mouthed “happy Purim” to me. I thought I saw a very faint smile come crossing down his cheek to the right of his mouth. But, as with so much about the man’s inner life, I’ve never been sure about that.