Henry Alfred Kissinger (originally Heinz Alfred Kissinger) became one of the most admired and most despised figures of the second half of the twentieth century. His brilliance, however, was almost universally respected. He was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Fürth, Bavaria, a city of about seventy thousand, of which about three thousand residents were Jewish. The Kissingers and the other Fürth Jews regarded themselves as Germans and were accepted as such. Henry’s father was a teacher who, under the Nazis, lost his position. Henry was soon banned from playing his beloved soccer and was badly treated by the Nazi youth. When his mother was banned from the public swimming pool, she realized that the future was less than bright and, with her family, left the country. The Kissingers were to lose thirteen relatives in the Holocaust.
They settled in the Washington Heights section of New York City. Henry, an average student in Germany, began to excel in his studies. Economic difficulties forced him to work and complete his final two years of high school at night. In 1943, he was drafted. Military service was a turning point in Kissinger’s life. Back in Germany, he was ultimately assigned to the Counter-Intelligence Corps. Having been made the administrator of a city, he had a local government in place and functioning in about a week. He had a similar experience with a larger area. Demobilized in 1946, he remained in Germany as a civilian instructor at the European Command Intelligence School, where he lived quite ostentatiously. Power had its privileges, he learned. Around this time he met the man who would become his mentor, Fritz Kraemer. While only a private, he acted like an officer and got results. Kraemer, a wealthy and well-educated anti-Nazi Prussian American, introduced his protégé to the ideas of a number of thinkers, including political theorist Oswald Spengler, whose work contributed to Kissinger’s tragic view of history. Kraemer also convinced Kissinger to attend a prestigious university.
He entered Harvard University in 1947. To the surprise of other Jewish students, Kissinger was anti-Zionist and opposed the creation of Israel, seeing it as detrimental to American interests by offending the Arabs. Actually, he had been anti-Zionist since his youth, along with the other Jews of Fürth. It is notable that he would find Israel one of the most difficult nations to deal with in his diplomatic days.
Kissinger eventually decided to concentrate on government. His senior thesis was a monumental work of 383 pages, the longest ever at Harvard, bearing the title “The Meaning of History.” He tackled the theories of some of the most influential thinkers on the subject, such as Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, finding some fault with each. His attention, however, became directed toward the practitioners of statecraft, especially Klemens von Metternich, Austria’s nineteenth century master of international balance-of-power politics, and Kissinger’s real hero, Otto von Bismarck, the unifier of Germany. Their “realism,” as opposed to the traditional idealistic American approach to foreign policy, would later earn him both admiration and disdain.
Kissinger continued at Harvard for his graduate work; in 1951, the Harvard International Seminar was inaugurated, with Kissinger running it and choosing the participants. He invited famous people from around the world to participate and thereby became acquainted with numerous influential figures. These contacts would prove valuable in years to come. Similarly, he began a journal, Confluence; its list of contributors read like a “Who’s Who” of world leaders, many of whom also became Kissinger contacts for the future.
Kissinger’s doctoral dissertation, “A World Restored: Castlereagh, Metternich, and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822,” was a surprise. The most common topics chosen by the other doctoral students were related to nuclear weapons. Kissinger displayed his interest in balance-of-power diplomacy,...
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