Book Review

Henry Kissinger: The Idealist?

This is a cross-post by James Snell

Review – Kissinger 1923–1968: The Idealist by Niall Ferguson

Henry Kissinger remains one of the world’s most controversial statesmen. He is a man who is, as Niall Ferguson states at the beginning of this new biography, covering the first 45 years of his subject’s life, both revered and reviled in equal measure. Kissinger is held up by some as a kind of seer, an intellectual without parallel in recent times; others declare – just as fiercely – that he has exercised an entirely corrosive influence on world affairs, that he is a war criminal – and, perhaps most oddly, that he is an agent of the shadowy forces which operate behind supposedly democratic nations to control the way the world really works. (The latter position is obviously ridiculous, but it is worth mentioning – not least because the risible imaginings of David Icke and his ilk can sometimes reflect the more vigorous denunciations of Kissinger which exist in significantly more acceptable circles.) There is one thing, however, on which both sides of this particular debate – which seeks to decide whether Kissinger is a hero or villain, a saint or sinner – appear to agree: that Kissinger was a realist, and a realist par excellence. Ferguson, however, takes a dramatically divergent view, one which is contained within his provocative subtitle. For him, Kissinger is (or at least was) an idealist, which represents the exact opposite of much of the popular and scholarly perception of Kissinger’s life and his work. It appears that everyone else has got the man entirely wrong.


One of the most important aspects of Kissinger’s story is his childhood. But such a statement should not be taken to its logical extent, which would imply that there would be value in subjecting his early life to a minute and exhaustive (and often overly psychological) analysis. This is a trick too many biographers have tried before; and it grows tired in the repetition required to maintain the pretence. Apparently – at least according to other chroniclers – Kissinger as a young boy saw at first-hand the horrors of the perpetually unstable Weimar Republic, where hyperinflation wiped out the nascent middle classes and the nation was rocked by a succession of political crises. It was in reaction to this instability that Kissinger developed – in addition to a supposed suspicion of democracy – the hard-edged pragmatism for which is he famous, the same biographers suggest. (In an apparent irony, the effect of living as a practicing Jew during the early years of the Nazi tyranny and witnessing the many cruelties and indignities meted out to those whom this new regime considered inferior is also widely held to have sparked the cold realism which many consider one of Kissinger’s hallmarks. The fact that this interpretation does not exactly square with the former is of little consequence. After all, such is the strength of received wisdom pertaining to Kissinger that writing about him can often take the form of making the evidence fit this conclusion.)

Ferguson does not do this. Though he expends a fairly significant portion of the book’s opening pages to a description of Fürth, the unlovely town in Germany where the young Heinz Kissinger spent his childhood, this is not in aid of a pseudo-psychoanalytical conclusion hastily drawn; instead this detail constitutes the important act of setting the scene, including the rapid transformation of Fürth, a town which had seemingly rejected the appeals of the NSDAP at the ballot box, into a hotbed of oppression (it must not be forgotten that the town lies barely miles from Nuremburg, which was in many ways the centrepiece of the ostentatious Nazi myth).

That the family fled Germany for America is well known; but it was still a close run thing. Many of Kissinger’s relatives were to perish in the Holocaust, and the pre-war Jewish community of Fürth was to be devastated and shaken to its foundations in the coming conflict. It was as a refugee that Henry Kissinger first set foot in the United States, and his adjustment was not an easy one. The family suffered a decline in their material standards of living; Kissinger had to attend night school while working during the day to keep the food on the table. But despite all of that, he managed to excel, doing well at school in spite of the language gap and finding a home of sorts in the largely immigrant community of New York within which the Kissingers found themselves.

When the Second World War broke out, and after the United States had joined the hostilities, Kissinger soon found himself enlisting. He became a naturalised citizen of the United States and, perhaps surprisingly, seemed to take to military life. After a time studying with the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), Kissinger found that this lifestyle became considerably less comfortable and more dangerous; the programme was cancelled, and he found himself attached to a combat unit and shipped across the Atlantic to Europe, and to war.


It was in the Army where Kissinger first met Fritz Kraemer, a man so influential in the formation of Kissinger’s future life and career that Ferguson employs a favoured literary analogy: ‘It is tempting to call him the Mephistopheles to Kissinger’s Faust’. Indeed, it is not just tempting; it is apt (and so apt that Ferguson returns to the reference repeatedly). An almost comic Prussian officer within the US Army, Kraemer first came to Kissinger’s attention after he delivered an impromptu lecture to the men of G Company, Kissinger’s unit. The younger man was so taken with what he heard that he wrote and sent a note of, in Ferguson’s words, ‘almost naively direct’. ‘Dear Pvt. Kraemer’, the letter read, ‘I heard you speak yesterday. This is how it should be done. Can I help you in any way? Pvt. Kissinger.’

This marked the beginning of Kissinger’s precocious and idiosyncratic intellectual development. This cultivation took place – and was able to take place – because Kraemer noticed something in the way his fellow private solider thought and spoke; he had a certain preternatural intelligence, an analytical skill which marked him out as talented and different, which Kraemer lost no time in telling him; and he was a willing learner, one who could be both a companion and counterpart for Kraemer. Kissinger possessed ‘the urgent desire not to understand the superficial thing but the underlying causes. He wanted to grasp things’. And thus the unique relationship took shape; it was one in which, according to Kissinger, Kraemer ‘sort of taught me history’. It was the very subject which was to become the focus of much of his future academic life.

Do read the rest of James’s post here