Niall Ferguson has put together a fascinating biography of Henry Kissinger. Well, at least the 17 chapters I have worked through have been extremely thought provoking. Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist covers the first half of Kissinger’s life (For those that don’t know, Kissinger is still quite alive at 92). Ferguson just took a fellowship position at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and plans to finish the second volume while there.
The first thing that stood about the book was it’s title. No where have I seen Kissinger and idealist in the same sentence. My mind immediately went to my government class with Mr. Nat Jobe, where I got my first introduction to Kissinger and realpolitik. Ferguson aims to make the case that Kissinger is actually an idealist, at least in his days leading up to 1968. I look forward to seeing how well he does so.
The second thing that stood out and was a bit distracting was the effort Ferguson made to swat away conspiracy theories about Kissinger in the introduction. I found that a bit unfair to the reader. Why not go through the history and let the reader make a judgement?
Kissinger’s intellect became evident early in the book. Ferguson recounts Kissinger reading Dostoyevsky at a very young age. My mind went to elementary school when I picked up Crime and Punishment because it was worth an absurd number of Accelerated Reader points. I perhaps got through a chapter before returning it to the library, and haven’t taken a look at it since.
What has been troubling about the biography has been events that brought my mind to frustrating events unfolding today. Here are a few examples.
The rise of Nazi Germany felt so fast in the biography. The support of parts of the Christian church in Germany for Hitler was troubling. Ferguson quotes a prayer by a pastor thanking God for Hitler. Ferguson does a helpful job explaining the divide between the two camps of Jews in Germany – the orthodox and reformed. Out of fairness, he probably could have done the same with the Christians, pointing out the dissenting voices of folks like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but maybe that is irrelevant for the purposes of the biography.
Today, we often see Christian leaders point to Islam as a violent religion and pointing to parts of the Qu’ran as evidence of that, while repudiating those who try to make the argument that ISIS, Boko Haram, and others like them do not represent Islam. Looking over the history of Christianity, there are many points of severe violence. Often, I hear a similar refrain that the Christianity of those who brought that violence should be questioned. It is interesting that some Christians do not offer Muslims the ability to do the same.
The experience of Jews in the US around the time of Kissinger’s arrival in New York was fascinating. Teenage Kissinger’s observations of America are interesting: the enormous opportunity in this country, the stark contrast between the ultra wealthy and the desperately poor, his disdain for the individualism of American society, and a particular shock at the lack of serious introspection when it came to things of spirituality.
A troubling anecdote about the racism Jews faced in the US was the image of a father approaching a police officer, with an Irish Catholic name like O’Brien, to report a case of his son being beaten up. The officer, while grinning, says that the boys were just having some fun. Imagine the frustration. Today, we are seeing frustration in the black community at the high rates of violence at the hands of police. It is frustrating to see this brushed off as griping.
Alright. Need to get the little one ready for school. If you are reading this biography, I would welcome a chance to discuss it with you as we progress. Over the course of 900 pages, there will be lots of opportunity to come up for a breath.