Kissinger -1923-1968: The Idealist
By Niall Ferguson
Penguin Books – £16.99
If you want to know who has influenced me the most, I’ll answer with the names of two philosophers: Spinoza and Kant. So it’s curious that you choose to associate me with Machiavelli. People rather associate me with the name of Metternich. Which is actually childish. On Metternich I’ve written only one book, which was to be the beginning of a long series of books on the construction and disintegration of the international order of the nineteenth century. It was a series that was to end with the First World War. That’s all. There can be nothing in common between me and Metternich.
This too famous, too important, too lucky man, whom they call Superman, Superstar, Superkraut, and who stitches together paradoxical alliances, reaches impossible agreements, keeps the world holding its breath as though the world were his students at Harvard. This incredible, inexplicable, unbearable personage, who meets Mao Tse-tung when he likes, enters the Kremlin when he feels like it, wakens the president of the United States and goes into his bedroom when he thinks it appropriate. 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 auto-mobiles like James Bond, but he advises on wars, ends wars, pretends to change our destiny, and does change it.
I really cannot remember the last time I read such an all-engrossing, brilliant biography as Kissinger -1923-1968: The Idealist. According to The Independent’s Marcus Tanner, it’s ”definitive” and ”reveals his subject as nothing like the calculating cold fish of legend.”
To be sure, having read these 878 pages (excluding Preface, Acknowledgements, Notes, Sources, Illustration Credits and Index), he known throughout the planet as Henry Kissinger comes across as many things – although ye ”cold fish of legend” most certainly isn’t one of them.
Might this be the case, because this most absorbing and altogether outstanding book, delves into every crevice of the subject’s life? And I really do mean nigh every nuanced area; which, given the fact that this is Volume I and concludes in 1968 – at the height of what many might consider to be the nadir of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War – is quite something.
Quite something, simply because by this book’s end, we’re only half way through what is among other things, clearly, a worldly and politically, uber-jam-packed life. A life that never once, not even for a micro-second, ever teetered on the precipice of perhaps being a tad dull. There again, Niall Ferguson (whose previous books include Paper and Iron, The House of Rothschild, The Pity of War, The Ascent of Money and The Great Degeneration among others) has herein written a biography, that in and of itself, alters the occasionally perplexing parameters of biographical literature.
Reason being, the author has probably delved deeper and researched unto the point that research was no longer possible. Thus, by default, raising the stakes by (perhaps) inadvertently raising the bench mark itself.
An exceedingly good example of this comes in the very first chapter ‘Heimat’ (the German word for homeland), where, apart from researching Kissinger’s family tree, Ferguson also goes some way in researching the Jewish induced history of the subject’s place of birth: ”There had been a Jewish community in Furth since 1528. Thirty years before, Nuremberg had followed the example of many other European cities and states by expelling Jews from its territory. But Furth offered a refuge. Indeed, by the late sixteenth century, Jews were being encouraged to settle there as a way of diverting trade away from Nuremberg. Already by the early 1600s, Furth had its own rabbi, a Talmudic academy, and its first synagogue, built in 1616-17 and modelled on the Pinkas synagogue in Prague.”
With this most informative background in mind, only a few pages later, Ferguson touches on the author, Jakob Wassermann, who, when ”asked by a foreigner, ”what is the reason for the German hatred of the Jews?… What do the Germans want? His reply was striking:
I should have replied: Hate…
I should have answered: They want a scapegoat…””
That these words were published in 1921 – a mere two years before the birth of Henry Kissinger himself – does much to trigger just some of the tonality of what’s to come. The undeniable thread of which is undeniably inter-laced with the idealism of Kissinger’s very own hypotheses of history and philosophy.
Or, an undiluted amalgamation thereof.
To be sure, Kissinger’s wartime mentor, Fritz Kraemer, once described his protege as being: ”musically attuned to history. This is not something you can learn, no matter how intelligent you are. It is a gift from God.”
Suffice to say, the manifestation of what said protege chose to do, and how to implement (t)his ”gift from God,” remains wide open to debate. A debate, that if nothing else, can and will no doubt, be further enhanced (if not exasperated) by what has been exceedingly well written within these twenty-two chapters.
That’s twenty-two chapters of the most readable and realistic, realpolitik. A literal quality, which in the final analysis, accounts for Kissinger – 1923-1968: The Idealist, being a veritable tour-de-force to be reckoned with.