Sample text for Kissinger / Niall Ferguson.

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Indeed I cannot conceive a more perfect mode of writing any man’s life, than not only relating all the most important events of it in their order, but interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought; by which mankind are enabled as it were to see him live, and to “live o’er each scene” with him, as he actually advanced through the several stages of his life._._._. I will venture to say that he will be seen in this work more completely than any man who has ever yet lived. And he will be seen as he really was; for I profess to write, not his panegyrick, which must be all praise, but his Life._._._. [I]n every picture there should be shade as well as light.

—BOSWELL, Life of Johnson1

The task of the biographer, as James Boswell understood, is to enable the reader to see, in her mind’s eye, his subject live. To achieve this, the biographer must know his subject. That means reading all that he wrote as well as much that was written about him. It also means, if the subject is living, not merely interviewing him but getting to know him, as Boswell got to know Johnson: conversing with him, supping with him, even traveling with him. The challenge is, of course, to do so without falling so much under the subject’s influence that the reader ceases to believe the disclaimer that the work is a life, not a panegyric. Boswell, who grew to love Johnson, achieved this feat in two ways: by making explicit Johnson’s boorish manners and slovenly appearance, but also (as Jorge Luis Borges noted) by making himself a figure of fun—a straight man to Johnson’s wit, an overexcitable Scot to Johnson’s dry Englishman.2 My approach has been different.

In addition to the help of all those thanked in the acknowledgments, this author has had one noteworthy advantage over his predecessors: I have had access to Henry Kissinger’s private papers, not only the papers from his time in government, housed at the Library of Congress, but also the private papers donated to Yale University in 2011, which include more than a hundred boxes of personal writings, letters, and diaries dating back to the 1940s. I have also been able to interview the subject of the work on multiple occasions and at considerable length. Not only has this book been written with Henry Kissinger’s cooperation; it was written at his suggestion.

For this reason, I can predict with certainty that hostile reviewers will allege that I have in some way been influenced or induced to paint a falsely flattering picture. This is not the case. Although I was granted access to the Kissinger papers and was given some assistance with the arrangement of interviews with family members and former colleagues, my sole commitment was to make my “best efforts to record [his] life ‘as it actually was’ on the basis of an informed study of the documentary and other evidence available.” This commitment was part of a legal agreement between us, drawn up in 2004, which ended with the following clause:

While the authority of the Work will be enhanced by the extent of the Grantor’s [i.e., Kissinger’s] assistance_._._. it will be enhanced still more by the fact of the Author’s independence; thus, it is understood and agreed that_._._. the Author shall have full editorial control over the final manuscript of the Work, and the Grantor shall have no right to vet, edit, amend or prevent the publication of the finished manuscript of the Work.

The sole exception was that, at Dr. Kissinger’s request, I would not use quotations from his private papers that contained sensitive personal information. I am glad to say that he exercised this right on only a handful of occasions and always in connection with purely personal—and indeed intimate familial—matters.

This book has been just over ten years in the making. Throughout this long endeavor, I believe I have been true to my resolve to write the life of Henry Kissinger “as it actually was”—wie es eigentlich gewesen, in Ranke’s famous phrase (which is perhaps better translated “as it essentially was”). Ranke believed that the historian’s vocation was to infer historical truth from documents—not a dozen documents (the total number cited in one widely read book about Kissinger) but many thousands. I certainly cannot count how many documents I and my research assistant Jason Rockett have looked at in the course of our work. I can count only those that we thought worthy of inclusion in our digital database. The current total of documents is 8,380—a total of 37,645 pages. But these documents are drawn not just from Kissinger’s private and public papers. In all, we have drawn material from 111 archives all around the world, ranging from the major presidential libraries to obscure private collections. (A full list of those consulted for this volume is provided in the sources.) There are of course archives that remain closed and documents that remain classified. However, compared with most periods before and since, the 1970s stand out for the abundance of primary sources. This was the age of the Xerox machine and the audio tape recorder. The former made it easy for institutions to make multiple copies of important documents, increasing the probability that one of them would become accessible to a future historian. Nixon’s and Kissinger’s fondness for the latter, combined with the expansion of freedom of information that followed Watergate, ensured that many conversations that might never have found their way into the historical record are now freely available for all to read.

My motivation in casting the widest and deepest possible net in my trawl for material was straightforward. I was determined to see Kissinger’s life not just from his vantage point but from multiple vantage points, and not just from the American perspective but from the perspectives of friends, foes, and the nonaligned. Henry Kissinger was a man who, at the height of his power, could justly be said to bestride the world. Such a man’s life requires a global biography.

I always intended to write two volumes. The question was where to break the story. In the end, I decided to conclude the first volume just after Richard Nixon announced to the world that Kissinger was to be his national security adviser, but before Kissinger had moved into his office in the West Wing basement and actually started work. There were two reasons for this choice. First, at the end of 1968 Henry Kissinger was forty-five years old. As I write, he is ninety-one. So this volume covers more or less exactly the first half of his life. Second, I wanted to draw a clear line between Kissinger the thinker and Kissinger the actor. It is true that Kissinger was more than just a scholar before 1969. As an adviser to presidents and presidential candidates, he was directly involved in the formulation of foreign policy throughout the 1960s. By 1967, if not before, he had become an active participant in the diplomatic effort to begin negotiations with the North Vietnamese government in the hope of ending the Vietnam War. Yet he had no experience of executive office. He was more a consultant than a true adviser, much less a decision maker. Indeed, that was former president Dwight Eisenhower’s reason for objecting to his appointment. “But Kissinger is a professor,” he exclaimed when he heard of Nixon’s choice. “You ask professors to study things, but you never put them in charge of anything._._._. I’m going to call Dick about that.”3 Kissinger was indeed a professor before he was a practitioner. It therefore makes sense to consider him first as what I believe he was before 1969: one of the most important theorists about foreign policy ever to be produced by the United States of America. Had Kissinger never entered government, this volume would still have been worth writing, just as Robert Skidelsky would still have had good reason to write his superb life of John Maynard Keynes even if Keynes had never left the courtyards of Cambridge for the corridors of power in His Majesty’s Treasury.

It was in London, in a bookshop, that Boswell first met Johnson. My first meeting with Kissinger was also in London, at a party given by Conrad Black. I was an Oxford don who dabbled in journalism, and I was naturally flattered when the elder statesman expressed his admiration for a book I had written about the First World War. (I was also impressed by the speed with which I was dropped when the model Elle Macpherson entered the room.) But I was more intimidated than pleased when, some months later, Kissinger suggested to me that I might write his biography. I knew enough to be aware that another British historian had been offered and had accepted this commission, only to get cold feet. At the time, I could see only the arguments against stepping into his evidently chilly shoes. I was under contract to write other books (including another biography). I was not an expert on postwar U.S. foreign policy. I would need to immerse myself in a sea of documents. I would inevitably be savaged by Christopher Hitchens and others. And so in early March 2004, after several meetings, telephone calls, and letters, I said no. This was to be my introduction to the diplomacy of Henry Kissinger:

What a pity! I received your letter just as I was hunting for your telephone number to tell you of the discovery of files I thought had been lost: 145 boxes which had been placed in a repository in Connecticut by a groundkeeper who has since died. These contain all my files—writings, letters, sporadic diaries, at least to 1955 and probably to 1950, together with some twenty boxes of private correspondence from my government service._._._.

Be that as it may, our conversations had given me the confidence—after admittedly some hesitation—that you would have done a definitive—if not necessarily positive—evaluation.

For that I am grateful even as it magnifies my regret.4

A few weeks later I was in Kent, Connecticut, turning pages.

Yet it was the documents, more than their author, that persuaded me. I remember vividly the ones I read. A letter to his parents dated July 28, 1948: “To me there is not only right or wrong but many shades in between._._._. The real tragedies in life are not in choices between right and wrong. Only the most callous of persons choose what they know to be wrong.” A letter from McGeorge Bundy dated February 17, 1956: “I have often thought that Harvard gives her sons—her undergraduates—the opportunity to be shaped by what they love. This, as a Harvard man, you have had. For her faculty, she reserves the opportunity—dangerous, perhaps fatal—to be shaped by what they hate.” A letter from Fritz Kraemer, dated February 12, 1957: “[U]ntil now things were easier. You had to resist only the wholly ordinary temptations of the ambitious, like avarice, and the academic intrigue industry. Now the trap is in your own character. You are being tempted_._._. with your own deepest principles.” A diary of the 1964 Republican National Convention: “As we left_._._. some Goldwaterite was checking off names on a list. I was not on it. But he knew me and said, ‘Kissinger—don’t think we’ll forget your name.’” Another diary of a visit to Vietnam in the fall of 1965: “[Clark] Clifford then asked me what I thought of the position of the President. I said I had great sympathy for the difficulties of the President, but what was at stake here was the future world position of the United States._._._. Clifford asked me whether I thought the Vietnamese were worth saving. I said that that was no longer the issue.” The more I read, the more I realized that I had no choice. I had to write this book. I had not been so excited by a collection of documents since my first day at the Rothschild Archive in London more than ten years before.

This book, then, is the product of a decade of painstaking archival research. In writing it, I have faithfully adhered to the three propositions of the great philosopher of history R. G. Collingwood.

1. All history is the history of thought.

2. Historical knowledge is the re-enactment in the historian’s mind of the thought whose history he is studying.

3. Historical knowledge is the re-enactment of a past thought incapsulated in a context of present thoughts which, by contradicting it, confine it to a plane different from theirs.5

In trying to reconstitute the past thoughts of Kissinger and his contemporaries, I have nearly always given preference to the documents or audio recordings of the time over testimony from interviews conducted many years later, not because documents are always accurate records of what their authors thought, but because memories generally play bigger tricks than letters, diaries, and memoranda.

Yet there are limitations to the traditional historian’s methods, no matter how critical a reader he has trained himself to be, particularly when one of the defining traits of his subject is (or is said to be) secretiveness. Let me illustrate the point. A few weeks after finishing chapter 20—which deals with Kissinger’s ultimately abortive attempt to open negotiations with the North Vietnamese through their representative in Paris, Mai Van Bo—I went to dinner with the Kissingers. The chapter had been by far the hardest to write of the entire book, but I felt that I had succeeded where others had failed in making sense of the secret peace initiative that the Johnson administration had code-named PENNSYLVANIA. I had shown, I thought, that the novice diplomat had allowed himself (despite his earlier academic strictures on the subject) to become the captive of his own negotiation, prolonging it far beyond what was justified and falling into Hanoi’s trap, which was to flirt with the idea of talks without actually committing to them, in the hope of reducing if not halting the American air attacks on their major cities.

Mrs. Kissinger, who did not intend to join us for dinner, surprised me by sitting down. She had a question. There was a pause. “Why do you suppose,” she asked me, “that Henry was really making all those trips to Paris?”

I had completely missed—because it was nowhere documented—that Kissinger’s prime motive for being in Paris in 1967 was the fact that she was studying at the Sorbonne that year.

The history of Kissinger’s relationship with his second wife may serve as a warning to all biographers, but particularly to biographers of Henry Kissinger. Walter Isaacson correctly established that Kissinger had first met Nancy Maginnes in 1964 at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco.6 But in chronicling Kissinger’s career as a less than secret “swinger” during his time as Nixon’s national security adviser, Isaacson assumed that she was no more than Kissinger’s “most regular date.” In his chapter on Kissinger’s “Celebrity,” he listed no fewer than a dozen other women whom Kissinger went out with in the early 1970s.7

Isaacson was right that his fellow journalists had missed the story. Nancy Maginnes went wholly unmentioned by The New York Times until May 28, 1973—nine years after their first meeting—when the newspaper reported that she (characterized as “a frequent companion of Dr. Kissinger”) had arranged for his fiftieth birthday dinner to be held at the Colony Club, of which she was a member.8 Four months later, when she was Kissinger’s guest at a dinner for the UN diplomatic corps at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Times was informed by a spokesman for the secretary of state, “She’s just another guest, not a hostess.”9 On December 21, 1973, another Kissinger spokesman “flatly denied” that he was going to marry Nancy Maginnes.10 On January 3, 1974, Kissinger himself declined to “make any comment on my personal plans.”11 The next day they were spotted dining together with none other than the proprietor of The Washington Post; the newspaper promptly published Kissinger’s denial that they intended to wed.12 Despite being subsequently sighted at an ice hockey game and at a cocktail party with Vice President Gerald Ford, the couple succeeded in completely surprising the media with their wedding on March 30. Indeed, Kissinger went straight to the ceremony from a press conference at which he made no reference whatsoever to his private life.13 The announcement was not made until half an hour after they had taken off for their honeymoon in Acapulco. As the Post reported in aggrieved tones,

So eager were the couple for privacy that the one reporter who saw them leaving the [State] Department was forcefully restrained by a uniformed guard so that she could not approach them. Her building pass was then taken and information copied down before it was returned. An aide to Kissinger had drawn his car up so as to prevent anyone from following the couple from the basement parking area.14

This at a time when The Washington Post was leading the campaign to expose the far bigger secret of Richard Nixon’s complicity in the Watergate scandal!

Yet the secrecy surrounding Kissinger’s second marriage cannot be explained solely by “the aversion to publicity expected of a well-bred lady.”15 For it was Kissinger, too, who ensured that their relationship remained a purely private matter for close to ten years. To understand why that was, the biographer needs a kind of knowledge that cannot always be found in documents: knowledge of the inner and largely unwritten life that a man lives in his roles as a son, a brother, a lover, a husband, a father, a divorce;. In addition, to understand how the Kissingers preserved their privacy for so long, the biographer must understand the complicity that then still existed between the news media and the political elite. For the reality was that press barons and Beltway reporters alike knew full well about Kissinger and Maginnes; knew that for years they were together either in New York or in Washington roughly one weekend in every two. It was just that they tacitly agreed not to print what they knew.

No biographer finds out everything, because not everything can be known—not even to the subject himself. No doubt there are important events I have missed, relationships I have misunderstood or underestimated, thoughts that simply were not written down and are now forgotten even by their thinker. But if so, this has not been for want of effort. I leave it to the reader to decide how far I have succeeded in being, in some sense, Kissinger’s Boswell—and how far I have avoided precisely that trap.

Cambridge, Massachusetts
April 2015


After all, didn’t what happened to me actually happen by chance? Good God, I was a completely unknown professor. How could I have said to myself: “Now I’m going to maneuver things so as to become internationally famous?” It would have been pure folly._._._. One might then say it happened because it had to happen. That’s what they always say when things have happened. They never say that about things that don’t happen—the history of things that didn’t happen has never been written.

—HENRY KISSINGER to Oriana Fallaci, Nov. 4, 19721


Surely no statesman in modern times, and certainly no American secretary of state, has been as revered and then as reviled as Henry Kissinger.

When Oriana Fallaci interviewed him in November 1972, Kissinger had not yet attained the zenith of his fame. Looking back on their encounter a few years later, Fallaci sardonically parodied the magazine covers of the time:

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 flavorless creation. He does not shoot, nor use his fists, nor leap from speeding automobiles like James Bond, but he advises on wars, ends wars, pretends to change our destiny, and does change it.2

Clad as Superman, tights, cape, and all, Kissinger did in fact appear as a cartoon “Super K” on the cover of Newsweek in June 1974. Successive Newsweek covers had depicted him as “The Man in the White House Basement,” as “Nixon’s Secret Agent,” and as an American Gulliver, swarmed over by Lilliputian figures representing “A World of Woes.” Time magazine was even more captivated. While in office, Kissinger appeared on its cover no fewer than fifteen times. He was, according to one Time profile, “the world’s indispensable man.”3

Of course, there was an element of humor in all this. The joke was already doing the rounds by late 1972: “Just think what would happen if Kissinger died. Richard Nixon would become president of the United States!”4 The compound word “Nixinger” was briefly in vogue to imply Kissinger’s parity with the president. On the cover of Charles Ashman’s Kissinger: The Adventures of Super-Kraut, published in 1972, the eponymous superhero appeared disheveled, with telltale lipstick on his cheek.

Yet Kissinger’s popularity was real. That same year he came in fourth in Gallup’s “Most Admired Man Index”; in 1973 he was number one. In May of that year, 78 percent of Americans were able to identify Kissinger, a proportion otherwise achieved only by presidents, presidential candidates, and the biggest stars of sport and screen.5 By the middle of 1974 his approval rating, according to the regular Harris survey, was an astounding 85 percent.

All secretaries of state, sooner or later, are interviewed by Charlie Rose. Only Henry Kissinger appeared on Rose’s show nearly forty times, to say nothing of his cameos in the soap opera Dynasty6 and The Colbert Report. All secretaries of state are caricatured in the newspapers. Only Kissinger became an animated cartoon character in three television series (in Freakazoid,7 The Simpsons,8 and Family Guy).9

Yet as Kissinger was all too well aware even in 1972, this kind of celebrity can easily flip into notoriety. “The consequences of what I do, I mean the public’s judgment[s],” he assured Oriana Fallaci, “have never bothered me.

I don’t ask for popularity, I’m not looking for popularity. On the contrary, if you really want to know, I care nothing about popularity. I’m not at all afraid of losing my public; I can allow myself to say what I think._._._. If I were to let myself be disturbed by the reactions of the public, if I were to act solely on the basis of a calculated technique, I would accomplish nothing._._._. I don’t say that all this has to go on forever. In fact, it may evaporate as quickly as it came.10

He was right.

Fame is double-edged; to be famous is also to be mocked. In 1971 Woody Allen parodied Kissinger in a half-hour “mockumentary” made for PBS and entitled Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story. Hurriedly written and filmed after Allen had finished “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* *But Were Afraid to Ask,” the film was due to air in February 1972 but was almost certainly pulled for political reasons.11 (PBS claimed it could not show the film in an election year without giving other candidates equal coverage, but the reality was that the government-funded broadcaster could not persuade Allen to drop his sharpest digs at, among others, Pat Nixon and feared arousing the ire of the White House.)12 Typical of the film is the scene in which Wallinger—played by Allen—is heard on the phone demanding “an injunction against the Times. It’s a New York, Jewish, Communist, left-wing newspaper, and that’s just the sports section.” In another scene, Wallinger is asked to comment on President Nixon’s (authentic) statement that “we shall end the war [in Vietnam] and win the peace.” “What Mr. Nixon means,” Allen mumbles, “is that, uh, it’s important to win the war and also win the peace; or, at the very least, lose the war and lose the peace; or, uh, win at least part of the peace, or win two peaces, perhaps, or lose a few peaces but win a piece of the war. The other alternative would be to win a piece of the war, or lose a piece of Mr. Nixon.”

INTERVIEWER: There’s a lot of talk around Washington that you have an extremely active social life.

WALLINGER: Well that’s greatly exaggerated I think, I_._._. I_._._. like attractive women, I like sex, but, um, but it must be American sex. I don’t like un-American sex.

INTERVIEWER: Well how would you distinguish American sex?

WALLINGER: If you’re ashamed of it, it’s American sex. You know, uh, that’s important, if you feel guilt_._._. and shame, otherwise I think sex without guilt is bad because it almost becomes pleasurable.13

Responding to the objection by the PBS top brass that the film was in bad taste, Allen quipped, “It’s hard to say anything about that administration that wouldn’t be in bad taste.”14

Wisecracks about the Nixon administration were standard fare for Manhattan comedians long before the president’s downfall. For Kissinger, being second only to Nixon in the government meant being second only to him as a target—in every available medium. The satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer’s ditties are now mostly forgotten, but the same cannot be said for his remark that “political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize.”15 Earlier, the French singer-songwriter Henri Salvador had composed the irritatingly catchy “Kissinger, Le Duc Tho” to mock the lack of progress in the negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam. The cartoonist David Levine produced perhaps the most savage of all pictorial attacks on Kissinger—more than a dozen in all, including two that even the left-liberal New York Review of Books found too egregious to publish: one of a naked Kissinger, his back covered in macabre tattoos, the other of Kissinger under a stars-and-stripes bedcover, gleefully ravishing a naked female whose head is the globe. (Despite protests from his staff, Victor Navasky published the latter caricature in The Nation.)16

It is as if Henry Kissinger’s personality—his very name—hit some neuralgic spot in the collective brain of a generation. In Joseph Heller’s 1979 novel Good as Gold, the protagonist, a middle-aged professor of English literature named Bruce Gold, is working on a book about none other than:


How he loved and hated that hissing name.

Even apart from his jealousy, which was formidable, Gold had hated Henry Kissinger from the moment of his emergence as a public figure and hated him still.17

Inane though it is, Eric Idle’s song for Monty Python shows that the neuralgia was transatlantic:

Henry Kissinger,

How I’m missing yer,

You’re the Doctor of my dreams.

With your crinkly hair,

And your glassy stare,

And your Machiavellian schemes.18

An entire era is distilled in the moment at Madison Square Garden when Idle and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones made “silly faces” behind Kissinger’s back after they had all seen Muhammad Ali fight. As soon as Kissinger had gone, the two English entertainers “collapsed howling in a heap on the floor.”19


Some laughed at Kissinger. Others froze. “An eel icier than ice” was how Fallaci put it. “God, what an icy man!”

During the whole interview he never changed that expressionless countenance, that hard or ironic look, and never altered the tone of that sad, monotonous, unchanging voice. The needle on the tape recorder shifts when a word is pronounced in a higher or lower key. With him it remained still, and more than once I had to check to make sure that the machine was working. Do you know that obsessive, hammering sound of rain falling on a roof? His voice is like that. And basically his thoughts as well.

To enter the realm of journalism about Henry Kissinger is to encounter much in this hysterical vein. He was, Fallaci went on, “the most guilty representative of the kind of power of which Bertrand Russell speaks: If they say ‘Die,’ we shall die. If they say ‘live,’ we shall live.” He based “his actions on secrecy, absolutism, and the ignorance of people not yet awakened to the discovery of their rights.”20

Sometimes the hysteria tips over into outright lunacy. Wild allegations against Kissinger can be found on a host of websites purporting to expose the nefarious activities of the Bilderberg Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission, organizations allegedly established by the “Illuminati” to realize their evil scheme for “world government.”21 Such claims come in at least four flavors: Anglophobe, paranoid anti-Communist, deranged-fantasist, and leftist-populist.

The Anglophobe version derives from the work of the Georgetown University historian Carroll Quigley, who traced a British plot against America back to Cecil Rhodes and Alfred Milner and identified J. P. Morgan, the Council on Foreign Relations, and The New Republic magazine as key conspirators.22 According to the former Trotskyite Lyndon LaRouche, “Sir” Henry Kissinger was all along a “British Agent of Influence” (the evidence: his honorary knighthood and a 1982 Chatham House speech).23 LaRouche’s associates have also alleged that William Yandell Elliott, Kissinger’s Harvard mentor, belonged to “a network of unreconstructed Confederates who continued Britain’s Civil War against the United States through cultural and other means.” Their aim was “to establish_._._. a new ‘dark age’ of globally extended medieval feudalism, built on the ruined remains of the United States and any nation which strove to establish itself on any approximation of American principles.” This network bound together the Ku Klux Klan, the Tennessee Templars, the Round Table, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), and the Harvard International Seminar run by Kissinger.24

A much graver though equally unfounded allegation is that Kissinger was a Soviet spy. According to Gary Allen—a member of the John Birch Society and speechwriter for the segregationist George Wallace—Kissinger was not only “an agent of the mightiest combine of power, finance, and influence in American politics: The House of Rockefeller”; he was also a Communist with the KGB code name “Bor.” Having inveigled his way into the White House, his “conspiratorial campaign” was “to effect the clandestine unilateral strategic disarmament of the United States by means of the prolongation of the Vietnam War.”25 Similar charges were leveled in a rambling tome entitled Kissinger on the Couch (1975) by the ultraconservative antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly and retired admiral Chester Ward, who accused Kissinger of making “the entire population of the United States hostages to the Kremlin.”26 The bizarre claim that the Soviets had recruited Kissinger in postwar Germany can be traced back to a 1976 article by Alan Stang in the far-right magazine American Opinion, which cited testimony from the Polish defector Michael Goleniewski that Kissinger had worked for a Soviet counterintelligence network code-named ODRA. Goleniewski’s evidence was good enough to expose at least six Soviet moles operating inside Western intelligence agencies, including the British traitor George Blake, who had been “turned” when captured during the Korean War and whose activities cost the lives of at least forty MI6 agents. However, the allegations against “Bor” were never substantiated, and Goleniewski’s later claim to be the Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich—the son of Nicholas II and heir to the Russian throne—irreparably damaged his credibility in sane minds.

The out-and-out fantasists do not even pretend to have documentary evidence. The Texan journalist Jim Marrs’s best-selling Rule by Secrecy identifies Kissinger as part of a wholly imagined conspiracy involving the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, and the Freemasons.27 In a similar vein, Wesman Todd Shaw calls Kissinger the “master architect of the New World Order_._._. one of the single most evil individuals still living, or to have ever lived.”28 Len Horowitz asserts that Kissinger is part of a global conspiracy of pharmaceutical companies that are intentionally spreading the HIV-AIDS virus, a claim that appears to rest on an alphanumerical breakdown of Kissinger’s name (which, we are told, “deciphers to 666”).29 According to Alan Watt, Kissinger’s motive for his “AIDS project” was to address the problem of overpopulation; he also blames him for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.30 A plainly unhinged woman writing as “Brice Taylor” insists that, when she was a child, Kissinger turned her into a “mind-controlled slave,” repeatedly making her eat her alphabet cereal in reverse order and taking her on the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland.31 Maddest of all is David Icke, whose “List of Famous Satanists” includes not only Kissinger but also the Astors, Bushes, Clintons, DuPonts, Habsburgs, Kennedys, Rockefellers, Rothschilds, and the entire British royal family—not to mention Tony Blair, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Joseph Stalin. (The comedian Bob Hope also makes the list.) According to Icke, Kissinger is “one of the Illuminati’s foremost master minds of the agenda.” Not only is he a “Satanist, mind controller, child torturer, creator of wars of mass murder and destruction”; he is also a “shape-shifter” with a “reptilian bloodline.” “By ‘Satanists,’ of course,” Icke helpfully explains, “I mean those involved in human sacrifice.”32

No rational people take such nonsense seriously. But the same cannot be said for the allegations made by conspiracy theorists of the left, who are a great deal more influential. In his People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn argues that Kissinger’s policies in Chile were intended at least in part to serve the economic interests of International Telephone and Telegraph.33 In place of evidence, such diatribes tend to offer gratuitous insult. According to Zinn, Kissinger “surrendered himself with ease to the princes of war and destruction.”34 In their Untold History of the United States, the film director Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick refer to Kissinger as a “psychopath” (admittedly quoting Nixon).35 The doyen of “gonzo” journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, called him “a slippery little devil, a world-class hustler with a thick German accent and a very keen eye for weak spots at the top of the power structure”—adding, for good measure, “pervert.”36 One left-of-center website recently accused Kissinger of having been somehow involved in the anthrax attacks of September 2001, when anthrax spores were mailed to various media and Senate offices, killing five people.37 In terms of scholarship, the conspiracy theorists make as valuable a contribution to historical knowledge as the creators of the cartoon series The Venture Bros., which features “a mysterious figure dressed in a black uniform and accompanied by a medical bag that he affectionately calls his ‘Magic Murder Bag’_._._. Dr. Henry Killinger.”


All this vitriol is at first sight puzzling. From January 20, 1969, until November 3, 1975, Henry Kissinger served as assistant to the president for national security affairs, first under Richard Nixon, then under Gerald Ford. From September 22, 1973, until January 20, 1977, he was secretary of state—the first foreign-born citizen to hold that office, the highest-ranking post in the executive branch after the presidency and vice presidency. Nor was his influence over U.S. foreign policy confined to those years. Before 1969, he played important roles as a consultant and an unofficial envoy for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Under Ronald Reagan, he chaired the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, which met between 1983 and 1985. From 1984 until 1990, he served as a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He was also a member of the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy (1986–88) and the Defense Policy Board (from 2001 to the present). In 1973 the Norwegian Nobel Committee jointly awarded Kissinger and Le Duc Tho the Nobel Peace Prize, citing their perseverance in the negotiations that produced the Paris Peace Accords. Four years later Kissinger received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and, in 1986, the Medal of Liberty. In 1995 he was made an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George.

Nor can it easily be argued that these offices and honors were wholly undeserved. He was responsible—to name only his most obvious achievements—for negotiating the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union. While he held office, the United States ratified the nuclear arms Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international convention banning biological weapons, and the Helsinki Final Act, Article 10 of which (little though Kissinger liked it) committed signatories on both sides of the iron curtain to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” It was Kissinger who, with Zhou Enlai, opened diplomatic communications between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, arguably one of the turning points in the Cold War. It was Kissinger who negotiated the end of the Yom Kippur War between the Arab states and Israel and whose shuttle diplomacy paved the way for the Camp David Accords.

How, then, are we to explain the visceral hostility that the name Henry Kissinger arouses? In The Trial of Henry Kissinger, the British journalist Christopher Hitchens went so far as to accuse Kissinger of “war crimes and crimes against humanity in Indochina, Chile, Argentina, Cyprus, East Timor, and several other places” (in fact, the only other place discussed in his book is Bangladesh), alleging that Kissinger “ordered and sanctioned the destruction of civilian populations, the assassination of inconvenient politicians, the kidnapping and disappearance of soldiers and journalists and clerics who got in his way.”38 Genocide, mass killing, assassination, and murder all feature in the indictment.

Hitchens was a gifted polemicist; his abilities as a historian are more open to question. Nevertheless, for each of the cases he cited, more thoroughly researched studies exist that come to comparable if less bombastically stated verdicts: William Shawcross’s study of the “catastrophe” and “crime” in Cambodia;39 Gary Bass on the bloodbath in Bangladesh;40 Jose; Ramos-Horta on East Timor;41 Jonathan Haslam and Peter Kornbluh on Chile;42 not forgetting Noam Chomsky on the missed opportunity for peace in the Middle East in 1970–71.43 Moreover, the charges of criminality have gained credibility from the attempts in 2001 and 2002 by various judges and lawyers in Argentina, Chile, France, and Spain to compel Kissinger at least to give evidence in cases relating to Operation Condor, the clandestine campaign by six South American governments to “disappear” left-wing activists. In the light of all this, it is not surprising that so many journalists now freely bandy about terms like “mass murderer,” “killer,” and “monster” when Henry Kissinger’s name comes up.

This volume covers the first half of Kissinger’s life, ending in 1969, at the moment he entered the White House to serve as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser. It therefore does not deal with the issues listed above. But it does deal with the foreign policies of Nixon’s four predecessors. As will become clear, each one of these administrations could just as easily be accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. There is no doubt whatever, to take just a single example, that the Central Intelligence Agency had a direct hand in the coup that overthrew the elected government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in Guatemala in 1954. It also played an active role in the subsequent campaign of violence against the Guatemalan left. Nearly a hundred times as many people (around 200,000) died in this campaign than were “disappeared” in Chile after 1973 (2,279). Yet you will search the libraries in vain for The Trial of John Foster Dulles. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, the United States used military action or threats of military action three times more often in the Kennedy years than in the Kissinger years.44 Interventions ranged from an abortive invasion of Cuba to a bloody coup d’e;tat in South Vietnam. And yet no great polemicist has troubled to indict Dean Rusk as a war criminal.

A similar argument might be made about American administrations after 1976. Twenty-five years after publishing Sideshow, William Shawcross argued that “after 9/11 the US had no choice but to overthrow Saddam [Hussein], who had defied the world for years and was the only national leader to praise that merciless attack.”45 In an article in The New York Times, coauthored with Kissinger’s friend and colleague Peter Rodman, Shawcross argued that “American defeat in Iraq would embolden the extremists in the Muslim world, demoralize and perhaps destabilize many moderate friendly governments, and accelerate the radicalization of every conflict in the Middle East. Our conduct in Iraq is a crucial test of our credibility.”46 Replace Iraq with Vietnam and Muslim with Communist, and you have precisely the argument that Kissinger made in 1969 against abandoning South Vietnam to its fate. Hitchens, too, discovered late in life that there were many worse things in the world than American power, going so far as to argue in 2005 that “prison conditions at Abu Ghraib [had] improved markedly and dramatically since the arrival of Coalition troops in Baghdad.”47

The interesting question, then, is why the double standard? One possible, if facile, answer is that no amount of self-deprecating humor would ever have sufficed to parry the envy of Kissinger’s contemporaries. On one occasion, at a big dinner in Washington, a man approached him and said, “Dr. Kissinger, I want to thank you for saving the world.” Without missing a beat, Kissinger replied, “You’re welcome.”48 Asked by journalists how they should now address him, following his swearing-in as secretary of state, Kissinger replied, “I do not stand on protocol. If you just call me Excellency, it will be okay.”49 The many lists of Henry Kissinger quotations all include the following one-liners:

People are generally amazed that I would take an interest in any forum that would require me to stop talking for three hours.

The longer I am out of office, the more infallible I appear to myself.

The nice thing about being a celebrity is that, if you bore people, they think it’s their fault.

There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.

Each of these employs the same rhetorical device, the reductio ad absurdum. Reputed to be arrogant, Kissinger sought to disarm his critics by saying things so arrogant as to be patent self-mockery. Those who had been raised on the Marx Brothers doubtless recognized the influence of Groucho. But it was a characteristic feature of the “counterculture” generation of the 1960s and 1970s that it did not find the Marx Brothers funny. “The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer” are among Kissinger’s most frequently cited words. Rarely are they acknowledged to be a joke, prefaced by “Before the Freedom of Information Act, I used to say at meetings_._._.” and followed in the official “memcon” by “[laughter].” If Kissinger had genuinely been “afraid to say things like that” since the Freedom of Information Act, presumably he would not have said them.50

In dictionaries of quotations, Kissinger has more wisecracks to his name than most professional comedians. “Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation.” “If eighty percent of your sales come from twenty percent of all of your items, just carry those twenty percent.” And a line worthy of Woody Allen himself: “Nobody will ever win the Battle of the Sexes. There’s just too much fraternizing with the enemy.” His finest aphorisms, too, deserve to endure: “To be absolutely certain about something, one must know everything or nothing about it,” “Each success only buys an admission ticket to a more difficult problem,” and perhaps the most famous of all, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” Yet the sharpness of Kissinger’s wit seems ultimately to have been in inverse proportion to his popularity. Perhaps the boasting about sex was simply a mistake. Kissinger’s line about the aphrodisiac quality of power was, once again, intended to be self-deprecating. Of the women he dated, he once said, “They are_._._. attracted only to my power. But what happens when my power is gone? They’re not going to sit around and play chess with me.”51 This is not the language of Don Juan. Once again Kissinger was too candid with Oriana Fallaci:

When I speak to Le Duc Tho, I know what I have to do with Le Duc Tho, and when I’m with girls, I know what I must do with girls. Besides, Le Duc Tho doesn’t at all agree to negotiate with me because I represent an example of moral rectitude._._._. [T]his frivolous reputation_._._. it’s partly exaggerated, of course._._._. What counts is to what degree women are part of my life, a central preoccupation. Well, they aren’t that at all. For me women are only a diversion, a hobby. Nobody spends too much time with his hobbies.52

This was true. The glamorous women with whom Kissinger very publicly dined in the years before his second marriage were generally left to their own devices after dessert as Kissinger returned to the White House or State Department. We know now (see the preface) that none of these relationships was more than a friendship: Kissinger loved Nancy Maginnes, and she put up with the smoke screen in the gossip columns as the price of her privacy. Yet the starlets, combined with the attendant publicity, could only fuel the jealousy of others. Nor could Kissinger resist another one-liner: “I am,” he announced at a party given for the feminist Gloria Steinem by the television talk show host Barbara Howar, “a secret swinger.”53 There was of course nothing secret about it. A two-page spread in Life magazine in January 1972 pictured Kissinger not only with Steinem and Howar but also with “movie starlet” Judy Brown, “film star” Samantha Eggar, “movie actress” Jill St. John, “TV star” Marlo Thomas, “starlet” Angel Tomkins, and “bosomy pinup girl” June Wilkinson.54 Nor were all Kissinger’s dates from the second tier of acting talent. The Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann had been nominated for an Oscar two years before she caused Kissinger to miss the announcement of his own nomination as secretary of state. Candice Bergen was a rising star when, over dinner, Kissinger gave her “the sense of shared secrets—probably the same set he gave every antiwar actress.” For the press, the story was irresistible: the dowdy Harvard professor reborn in Hollywood as “Cary Grant with a German accent.”55 When Marlon Brando pulled out of the New York premiere of The Godfather, its executive producer Robert Evans unhesitatingly called Kissinger—and Kissinger obligingly flew up, despite blizzard conditions and a schedule the next day that began with an early-morning meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss the mining of Haiphong harbor and ended with a secret flight to Moscow:

REPORTER: Dr. Kissinger, why are you here tonight?

KISSINGER: I was forced.

R: By who?

K: By Bobby [Evans].

R: Did he make you an offer you couldn’t refuse?

K: Yes.56

As they fought their way through the throng, Evans had Kissinger on one arm and Ali MacGraw on the other.

The obvious retort to all this is that hostility to Kissinger had much more to do with actions like the mining of Haiphong harbor than with appearances at movie premieres. Still, less irenic motives for animosity cannot be dismissed out of hand. As early as January 1971, the columnist Joseph Kraft could report that Kissinger’s “closest friends and associates” had come to see him as “a suspect figure, personifying the treason of the intellectuals,” because he was working “to reinforce and legitimize the President’s hard-line instincts on most major international business.”57 The previous May, thirteen of his Harvard colleagues—among them Francis Bator, William Capron, Paul Doty, George Kistiakowsky, Richard Neustadt, Thomas Schelling, and Adam Yarmolinsky—had traveled to Washington to meet with him. Kissinger had expected to host a private lunch for them. Instead, according to one well-known account of the meeting, Schelling began by saying he should explain who they were. Kissinger was perplexed.

“I know who you are,” he said, “you’re all good friends from Harvard.”

“No,” said Schelling, “we’re a group of people who have completely lost confidence in the ability of the White House to conduct our foreign policy, and we have come to tell you so. We are no longer at your disposal as personal advisers.” Each of them then proceeded to berate him, taking five minutes apiece.58

The group’s stated reason for breaking with Kissinger was the invasion of Cambodia. (As their spokesman Schelling put it, “There are two possibilities. Either, one, the President didn’t understand_._._. that he was invading another country; or, two, he did understand. We just don’t know which one is scarier.”)59 No doubt Schelling and his colleagues had cogent reasons to criticize Nixon’s decision. Still, there was something suspiciously staged about their showdown with Kissinger. Each one of those named above had experience in government, and at high levels. Bator, for example, had served as deputy national security adviser to Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, and had therefore enjoyed a ringside seat for the escalation of the war against North Vietnam. As Bator confessed to The Harvard Crimson, “Some of us here at Harvard have been working on the inside for a long time.” Neustadt, too, admitted that he had “regarded the executive branch as_._._. home for twenty or thirty years._._._. This is the first time in years that I’ve come to Washington and stayed at the Hay-Adams and had to pay the bill out of my own pocket.”

For these men, publicly breaking with Kissinger—with journalists briefed in advance about the breach—was a form of self-exculpation, not to say an insurance policy as student radicals back on the Harvard campus ran riot. When Neustadt told the Crimson, “I think it’s safe to say we’re afraid,” he did not specify of what. Others were more candid. As Schelling put it, “If Cambodia succeeds, it will be a disaster not just because my Harvard office may be burned down when I get home, but it will even be a disaster in [the administration’s] own terms.” The historian Ernest May, who had rushed down from an emergency faculty meeting called to address student demands about examinations, told Kissinger, “You’re tearing the country apart domestically.” The country he meant was not Cambodia. After their meeting with Kissinger, as if to underline their contrition for past misdeeds, Neustadt and two of the others joined a much larger “Peace Action Strike” of Harvard students and faculty led by the antiwar firebrand Everett Mendelsohn. But the campus radicals were not propitiated. That same day the Center for International Affairs, where both Bator and Schelling had their offices, was invaded and “trashed” by demonstrators.60


Even if they have not always objected to his policies, critics have long taken exception to Henry Kissinger’s mode of operation. Driven by “excessive ambition,” he was “a consummate network-builder, operating on a nearly worldwide scale.”61 He was “the media’s best friend.”62 “A distinguished journalist once complained that it took him three days after every conversation with Henry Kissinger to recover his critical sense; unfortunately, in the meantime he had written his column.”63 Kissinger, we are told, loved secrecy almost as much as the diabolical Richard Nixon, with whom (in the eyes of Harvard, at least) he had made his Faustian pact.64 He wiretapped even members of his own staff, notably Morton Halperin.65 He was a sycophant, willing to put up with Nixon’s obnoxious anti-Semitism.66 But he was also deeply insecure, needing to be reassured by Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman “almost every day, certainly at least every week_._._. that the President really did love him and appreciate him and couldn’t get along without him.”67 One of Kissinger’s most relentless critics, Anthony Lewis of The New York Times, posed the question: “How [could]_._._. Kissinger involve himself in their horrors[?]_._._. How could he humiliate himself, use locker-room language, engage in such things as wiretapping?” The answer, Lewis argued, was “not in doubt: he did what had to be done to acquire and keep power—and to exercise it in secret.”68 In all these accounts, Kissinger is like an American equivalent of Kenneth Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time novels—at once hateful and unstoppable.

The other possibility is that a great deal of what has been said against Kissinger stems from those with grudges against him. When, for example, George Ball described Kissinger as “self-centered and conspiratorial,” he was expressing the view of a State Department insider who resented the way he undermined Nixon’s now-all-but-forgotten secretary of state William P. Rogers.69 Raymond Garthoff was another official with an ax to grind: while negotiating the terms of SALT with the Soviets, he had been kept in the dark about Kissinger’s “back channel” to the Soviet ambassador.70 Hans Morgenthau once memorably described Kissinger as, like Odysseus, “polytropos, that is, ‘many-sided’ or ‘of many appearances.’”

From that quality stems the fascination with which friends and foes, colleagues and strangers behold him. That quality encloses the secret of his success. Kissinger is like a good actor who does not play the role of Hamlet today, of Caesar tomorrow, but who is Hamlet today and Caesar tomorrow.71

The Israeli press later boiled this down to a charge of “two faced diplomacy.”72 But was Morgenthau entirely disinterested in his criticism? Older than Kissinger by nearly ten years and, like Kissinger, of German-Jewish origin, he is regarded to this day as the founder of the “realist” school of U.S. foreign policy. Yet his Washington career—as a consultant to the Pentagon under Johnson—had ended when he refused to the toe the line on Vietnam. If anyone flinched to hear Kissinger hailed as the archrealist, it was Morgenthau.

A favorite theme of Kissinger’s critics was that he was fundamentally hostile, or at least indifferent, to democracy. “A policy commitment to stability and identifying instability with communism,” Morgenthau wrote, “is compelled by the logic of its interpretation of reality to suppress in the name of anticommunism all manifestations of popular discontent._._._. Thus, in an essentially unstable world, tyranny becomes the last resort of a policy committed to stability as its ultimate standard.”73 Similar sentiments can be found in multiple polemics. According to Richard Falk, Kissinger’s effectiveness stemmed from “his capacity to avoid unpleasant criticisms about_._._. domestic indecencies”—a “Machiavellian posture” that was a welcome relief to the world’s dictators.74 Why a man who had fled the Third Reich and found success in the United States should be averse to democracy is not immediately obvious. But writer after writer has resolved the paradox by arguing that, in the words of David Landau, Kissinger was “a child of Weimar,” haunted by “the dread specter of revolution and political anarchy, the demise of all recognizable authority.”75 “Witnessing these events firsthand,” writes Jeremi Suri, “Henry Kissinger could only conclude that democracies were weak and ineffective at combating destructive enemies._._._. The solution was_._._. to build space for charismatic, forward-looking undemocratic decisionmaking in government.”76 Thus he “often acted against what he saw as dangerous domestic opinion. To do otherwise, in his eyes, would repeat the mistakes of the democratic purists in the 1930s and bow to the weaknesses and extremes of mass politics_._._. to the people protesting in the streets.”77 As we shall see, the defect of this argument is that Henry Kissinger was not yet ten years old when the Weimar Republic died, an age at which even quite precocious children are unlikely to have formed strong political opinions. His earliest political memories were of the regime that came next. Did growing up under Hitler somehow prejudice Kissinger against democracy? Bruce Mazlish offered the psychoanalytical interpretation that Kissinger’s “identification with the aggressor” was his way of “dealing with the Nazi experience.”78 As we shall see, however, a much more straightforward reading is possible.

In this context, it is a strange irony of the Kissinger literature that so many of the critiques of Kissinger’s mode of operation have a subtle undertone of anti-Semitism. The more books I have read about Kissinger, the more I have been reminded of the dreadful books I had to read twenty years ago when writing the history of the Rothschild family. When other nineteenth-century banks made loans to conservative regimes or to countries at war, no one seemed to notice. But when the Rothschilds did it, the pamphleteers could scarcely control their indignation. Indeed, it would take a great many shelves to contain all the shrill anti-Rothschild polemics produced by Victorian antecedents of today’s conspiracy theorists (who, as we have seen, still like to drag in the Rothschilds). This prompts the question: might the ferocity of the criticism that Kissinger has attracted perhaps have something to do with the fact that he, like the Rothschilds, is Jewish?

This is not to imply that his critics are anti-Semites. Some of the Rothschilds’ fiercest critics were themselves Jews. So are some of Kissinger’s. Bruce Gold, Heller’s Kissinger-hating professor, advances the “covert and remarkable hypothesis that Henry Kissinger was not a Jew”—a hypothesis based partly on his father’s insight that “no cowboy was ever a Jew.”

In Gold’s conservative opinion, Kissinger would not be recalled in history as a Bismarck, Metternich, or Castlereagh, but as an odious shlump who made war gladly and did not often exude much of that legendary sympathy for weakness and suffering with which Jews regularly were credited. It was not a shayna Yid who would go down on his knees on a carpet to pray to Yahweh with that shmendrick Nixon, or a haimisha mentsh who would act with such cruelty against the free population of Chile._._._. Such a pisk on the pisher to speak with such chutzpah!79

To say that American Jews have been ambivalent toward the man who is arguably their community’s most distinguished son would be an understatement. Even sympathetic biographers like Mazlish and Suri use questionable phrases like “court Jew” or “policy Jew” to characterize Kissinger’s relationship with Nixon.80


The crux of the matter, nevertheless, is how we judge Kissinger’s foreign policy—both its theory and its practice. For the vast majority of commentators, the theory is clear-cut. Kissinger is a realist, and that implies, in Anthony Lewis’s crude definition of the “Kissinger Doctrine,” “an obsession with order and power at the expense of humanity.”81 According to Marvin and Bernard Kalb, Nixon and Kissinger “shared a global realpolitik that placed a higher priority on pragmatism than on morality.”82 In the 1960s, Stanley Hoffmann had been more than a colleague to Kissinger; he had been a friend and admirer, who had welcomed his appointment by Nixon. Yet by the time Kissinger published the first volume of his memoirs, he, too, had joined this club. Kissinger had, he wrote in a venomous review, “an almost devilish psychological intuition, an instinct for grasping the hidden springs of character, of knowing what drives or what dooms another person.” He also had “the gift for the manipulation of power—exploiting the weaknesses and strengths of character of his counterparts.” But

[i]f there was a vision beyond the geopolitical game, if the complex manipulation of rewards and punishments needed to create equilibrium and to restrain the troublemakers was aimed at a certain ideal of world order, we are left free to guess what it might have been._._._. [His] is a world in which power is all: equilibrium is not just the prerequisite to order, the precondition for justice, it is order, it amounts to justice.83

Like so many other less learned authors, Hoffmann concluded that both Nixon and Kissinger (the former “instinctively,” the latter “intellectually”) were “Machiavellians—men who believed that the preservation of the state (inseparable in Machiavelli from that of the Prince) requires both ruthlessness and deceit at the expense of foreign and internal adversaries.”84 This kind of judgment recurs again and again. According to Walter Isaacson, “power-oriented realpolitik and secretive diplomatic maneuvering_._._. were the basis of [Kissinger’s] policies.”85 John Gaddis calls the Nixon-Kissinger combination “the triumph of geopolitics over ideology,” with their conception of American national interests always paramount.86 Kissinger, says Suri, was “hardened against idealistic rhetoric that neglected the ‘realistic’ importance of extensive armed force and preparations to use it.”87 He invariably placed the “demands of the state above other ethical scruples.”88

So deeply rooted is this view of Kissinger as an amoral realist—a “hard-boiled master of realpolitik who will not sacrifice one iota of American interest”—that the overwhelming majority of writers have simply assumed that Kissinger modeled himself on his “heroes” Metternich and Bismarck.89 Kissinger did indeed write about both men in, respectively, the 1950s and the 1960s. But only someone who has not read (or who has willfully misread) what he actually wrote could possibly think that he set out in the 1970s to replicate their approaches to foreign policy. One of the quirks of the “Killinger” literature is that, by comparison, so little is made of Kissinger’s book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. With its cold, calculated argument for the graduated use of nuclear weapons, this might very easily be presented as evidence that Dr. Kissinger was indeed the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Yet Kissinger’s critics prefer different battlegrounds to those of Central Europe, the core conflict zone of the First and Second World Wars, which even a limited nuclear war would have laid waste.


The Cold War, which was the defining event of Henry Kissinger’s two careers as a scholar and as a policy maker, took many forms. It was a nuclear arms race that on more than one occasion came close to turning into a devastating thermonuclear war. It was also, in some respects, a contest between two great empires, an American and a Russian, which sent their legions all around the world, though they seldom met face-to-face. It was a competition between two economic systems, capitalist and socialist, symbolized by Nixon’s “kitchen debate” with Khrushchev in Moscow in 1959. It was a great if deadly game between intelligence agencies, glamorized in the novels of Ian Fleming, more accurately rendered in those of John le Carre;. It was a cultural battle, in which chattering professors, touring jazz bands, and defecting ballet dancers all played their parts. Yet at its root, the Cold War was a struggle between two rival ideologies: the theories of the Enlightenment as encapsulated in the American Constitution, and the theories of Marx and Lenin as articulated by successive Soviet leaders. Only one of these ideologies was intent, as a matter of theoretical principle, on struggle. And only one of these states was wholly unconstrained by the rule of law.

The mass murderers of the Cold War were not to be found in Washington, much less in the capitals of U.S. allies in Western Europe. According to the estimates in the Black Book of Communism, the “grand total of victims of Communism was between 85 and 100 million” for the twentieth century as a whole.90 Mao alone, as Frank Dikötter has shown, accounted for tens of millions: 2 million between 1949 and 1951, another 3 million by the end of the 1950s, a staggering 45 million in the man-made famine known as the “Great Leap Forward,” yet more in the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution.91 According to the lowest estimate, the total number of Soviet citizens who lost their lives as a direct result of Stalin’s policies was more than 20 million, a quarter of them in the years after World War II.92 Even the less bloodthirsty regimes of Eastern Europe killed and imprisoned their citizens on a shocking scale.93 In the Soviet Union, 2.75 million people were in the Gulag at Stalin’s death. The numbers were greatly reduced thereafter, but until the very end of the Soviet system its inhabitants lived in the knowledge that there was nothing but their own guile to protect them from an arbitrary and corrupt state. These stark and incontrovertible facts make a mockery of the efforts of the so-called revisionist historians, beginning with William Appleman Williams, to assert a moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War.94

All Communist regimes everywhere, without exception, were merciless in their treatment of “class enemies,” from the North Korea of the Kims to the Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh, from the Ethiopia of Mengistu Haile Mariam to the Angola of Agostinho Neto. Pol Pot was the worst of them all, but even Castro’s Cuba was no workers’ paradise. And Communist regimes were aggressive, too, overtly invading country after country during the Cold War. Through which foreign cities did American tanks drive in 1956, when Soviet tanks crushed resistance in Budapest? In 1968, when Soviet armor rolled into Prague, U.S. tanks were in Saigon and Hue, their commanders little suspecting that within less than six months they would be defending those cities against a massive North Vietnamese offensive. Did South Korea invade North Korea? Did South Vietnam invade North Vietnam?

Moreover, we now know from the secret documents brought to the West by Vasili Mitrokhin just how extensive and ruthless the KGB’s system of international espionage and subversion was.95 In the global Cold War, inextricably entangled as it was with the fall of the European empires, the Soviet Union nearly always made the first move, leaving the United States to retaliate where it could.96 That retaliation took many ugly forms, no doubt. Graham Greene had it right when he mocked The Quiet American, whose talk of a “third force” sounded just like imperialism to everyone else. But in terms of both economic growth and political freedom, it was always better for ordinary people and their children if the United States won. The burden of proof is therefore on the critics of U.S. policy to show that a policy of nonintervention—of the sort that had been adopted by the Western powers when the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and fascist Italy took sides in the Spanish Civil War, and again when the Germans demanded the breakup of Czechoslovakia—would have produced better results. As Kissinger pointed out to Oriana Fallaci, “the history of things that didn’t happen” needs to be considered before we may pass any judgment on the history of things that did happen. We need to consider not only the consequences of what American governments did during the Cold War, but also the probable consequences of the different foreign policies that might have been adopted.

What if the United States had never adopted George Kennan’s policy of containment but had opted again for isolationism after 1945? What, conversely, if the United States had adopted a more aggressive strategy aimed at “rolling back” Soviet gains, at the risk of precipitating a nuclear war? Both alternatives had their advocates at the time, just as there were advocates of both less and more forceful policies during Kissinger’s time in office. Anyone who presumes to condemn what decision makers did in this or that location must be able to argue plausibly that their preferred alternative policy would have had fewer American and non-American casualties and no large negative second-order effects in other parts of the world. In particular, arguments that focus on loss of life in strategically marginal countries—and there is no other way of describing Argentina, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile, Cyprus, and East Timor—must be tested against this question: how, in each case, would an alternative decision have affected U.S. relations with strategically important countries like the Soviet Union, China, and the major Western European powers? For, as Kissinger himself once observed, the statesman is not like a judge, who can treat each individual case on its merits. The maker of grand strategy in the Cold War had to consider all cases simultaneously in the context of a prolonged struggle against a hostile and heavily armed rival.

From this standpoint, the real puzzle of the Cold War is why it took so long for the United States to win it. Far wealthier than the Soviet Union by any measure (according to the best available estimates, the Soviet economy was on average less than two-fifths the size of the American throughout), technologically nearly always in front, and with a markedly more attractive political system and popular culture, the United States on the eve of Henry Kissinger’s appointment as national security adviser was already a mighty empire—but an “empire by invitation” rather than imposition.97 American service personnel were stationed in sixty-four countries.98 The United States had treaties of alliance with no fewer than forty-eight of them.99 Not only were American forces generally better armed than anyone else; the United States was not afraid to use them. Between 1946 and 1965, according to one estimate, there had been 168 separate instances of American armed intervention overseas.100 U.S. forces were permanently based in key countries, including the two major aggressors of World War II, Germany and Japan. Yet the Cold War was set to endure for another twenty years. Moreover, throughout the era of superpower rivalry, the United States tended to have a harder time than its rival when it came to imposing its will outside its own borders. According to one assessment of seven Cold War interventions by the United States, only four were successful in the sense of establishing stable democratic systems: West Germany and Japan after World War II, and Grenada and Panama in the 1980s. Even if the list is expanded to include the striking success of South Korea, the colossal failure of Vietnam hangs like a cloud of acrid smoke over the American record.101

In the summer of 1947, George Kennan published his anonymous essay in Foreign Affairs, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” one of the foundational texts of the strategy he called “containment.” In a startling passage, Kennan likened the seeming power of the Soviet Union to that of the grand merchant family in Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks.

Observing that human institutions often show the greatest outward brilliance at a moment when inner decay is in reality farthest advanced, [Mann] compared the Buddenbrook family, in the days of its greatest glamour, to one of those stars whose light shines most brightly on this world when in reality it has long since ceased to exist. And who can say with assurance that the strong light still cast by the Kremlin on the dissatisfied peoples of the western world is not the powerful afterglow of a constellation which is in actuality on the wane?_._._. [T]he possibility remains_._._. that Soviet power_._._. bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.102

Kennan was forty-three when he wrote those words. He was eighty-seven when the Soviet Union was finally dissolved in December 1991.

Why was this? Why was the Cold War so interminable and so intractable? A large part of the interest of this book lies in the fact that, by rejecting both historical materialism and economic determinism from an early stage of his career, Henry Kissinger was able to offer a compelling answer to that question. The Cold War was not about economics. It was not even about nuclear stockpiles, much less tank divisions. It was primarily about ideals.


Was Kissinger, as nearly all his critics assume, really a realist? The answer matters a good deal. For if he was not in fact a latter-day Metternich or Bismarck, then his conduct as a policy maker ought not to be judged by the standard realist criterion: were American interests best served, regardless of the means employed? “Realism,” Robert Kaplan has written, “is about the ultimate moral ambition in foreign policy: the avoidance of war through a favorable balance of power._._._. [A]s a European-style realist, Kissinger has thought more about morality and ethics than most self-styled moralists.”103 Like Mazlish’s skeptical allusion to Kissinger’s “higher moral purposes,”104 this is closer to the target than the wild accusations of amorality and immorality favored by the conspiracy theorists, though it is still wide of the bull’s-eye.

Asked in 1976 to assess his own achievement as a statesman, Kissinger replied, “I have tried—with what success historians will have to judge—to have an overriding concept.” There is no question, as we shall see, that Kissinger entered the White House in 1969 with such a concept. He had indeed spent most of the preceding twenty years devising and defining it.105 As he famously observed, “High office teaches decision making, not substance. It consumes intellectual capital; it does not create it. Most high officials leave office with the perceptions and insights with which they entered; they learn how to make decisions but not what decisions to make.”106 But to an extent that says much about modern standards of scholarship, remarkably few of those who have taken it upon themselves to pass judgment on Henry Kissinger have done more than skim his published work, which prior to 1969 included four weighty books, more than a dozen substantial articles for magazines such as Foreign Affairs, and a fair amount of journalism. The first task of a biographer who undertakes to write the life of a scholar—even if that scholar goes on to attain high office—ought surely to be to read his writings. Doing so reveals that Kissinger’s intellectual capital had a dual foundation: the study of history and the philosophy of idealism.

Kissinger’s wartime mentor, Fritz Kraemer, once described his prote;ge; 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.”107 His Harvard contemporary John Stoessinger recalled an early meeting with Kissinger when they were both first-year graduate students: “He argued forcefully for the abiding importance of history. Quoting Thucydides, he asserted that the present, while never repeating the past exactly, must inevitably resemble it. Hence, so must the future._._._. More than ever_._._. one should study history in order to see why nations and men succeeded and why they failed.”108 This was to be a lifelong leitmotif. The single thing that differentiated Kissinger from most other students of international relations in his generation was that he revered history above theory—or rather, Kissinger’s theory of foreign policy was defined by the insight that states and statesmen act on the basis of their own historical self-understanding and cannot be comprehended in any other way.

Yet there was something that preceded Kissinger the historian, and that was Kissinger the philosopher of history. It is here that the most fundamental misunderstanding has occurred. Like nearly all Kissinger scholars, Oriana Fallaci took it for granted that Kissinger was “much influenced” by Machiavelli and was therefore an admirer of Metternich. Kissinger gave her a frank and illuminating answer:

There is really very little of Machiavelli that can be accepted or used in the modern world. The only thing I find interesting in Machiavelli is his way of considering the will of the prince. Interesting, but not to the point of influencing me. 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.109

To my knowledge only one previous writer has fully understood the significance of that candid response.* Far from being a Machiavellian realist, Henry Kissinger was in fact from the outset of his career an idealist, having immersed himself as an undergraduate in the philosophy of the great Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant. Indeed, as the historian Peter Dickson pointed out as early as 1978, Kissinger considered himself “more Kantian than Kant.”110 His unpublished senior thesis, “The Meaning of History,” is at root an overambitious but deeply sincere critique of Kant’s philosophy of history. More than a quarter of a century after its completion, Kissinger was still citing Kant to explain why he discerned “a clear conflict between two moral imperatives” in foreign policy: the obligation to defend freedom and the necessity for coexistence with adversaries.111 Though habitually categorized as a realist, Dickson argued, in reality Kissinger owed much more to idealism than to the likes of Morgenthau.112 I believe this is correct. Indeed, it is compellingly borne out by Kissinger’s World Order, published in his ninety-first year, which quotes Kant at length.113 I also believe that the failure of writer after writer to understand Kissinger’s idealism has vitiated severely, if not fatally, the historical judgments they have passed on him.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the young Kissinger was an idealist in the sense in which the word is often used to characterize the tradition in U.S. foreign policy that emphasized the subordination of “might” to supranational laws and courts.114 Rather, I am using the term “idealism” in its philosophical sense, meaning the strand of Western philosophy, extending back to Anaxagoras and Plato, that holds that (in Kant’s formulation) “we can never be certain whether all of our putative outer experience is not mere imagining” because “the reality of external objects does not admit of strict proof.” Not all idealists are Kantian, it need hardly be said. Plato regarded matter as real and existing independently of perception. Bishop Berkeley insisted that reality was all in the mind; experience itself was an illusion. In Kant’s “transcendental” idealism, by contrast, “the whole material world” was “nothing but a phenomenal appearance in the sensibility of ourselves as a subject,” but there were such things as noumena, or “things in themselves,” which the mind shaped into phenomena on the basis of experience rather than “pure reason.” As we shall see, Kissinger’s reading of Kant had a profound and enduring influence on his own thought, not least because it made him skeptical of the various materialist theories of capitalist superiority that U.S. social scientists devised as antidotes to Marxism-Leninism. He showed no interest whatever in the version of idealism developed by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as a comprehensive theory of history, in which the dialectical fusion of theses and antitheses propelled the world inexorably onward. For Kissinger, the burning historical question was how far Kant’s view of the human predicament—as one in which the individual freely faced meaningful moral dilemmas—could be reconciled with the philosopher’s vision of a world ultimately destined for “perpetual peace.” It was no facile allusion when Kissinger referred to Kant’s essay in his address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 1973, just two days after he had been confirmed as secretary of state:

Two centuries ago, the philosopher Kant predicted that perpetual peace would come eventually—either as the creation of man’s moral aspirations or as the consequence of physical necessity. What seemed utopian then looms as tomorrow’s reality; soon there will be no alternative. Our only choice is whether the world envisaged in the [United Nations] charter will come about as the result of our vision or of a catastrophe invited by our shortsightedness.115

As we know, the Cold War did not end in catastrophe. In its aftermath, though still a long way from perpetual peace, the world has become a markedly more peaceful place, with striking declines in the levels of organized violence in all regions of the world except the Middle East and North Africa.116 How far that outcome owed anything to Henry Kissinger’s vision is, to say the least, a question that has not hitherto received an adequate answer. Suffice for now to say that, having escalated alarmingly during the 1960s, global violence, as measured by total deaths due to warfare, fell sharply between 1971 and 1976.

Presciently, Peter Dickson foresaw what Kissinger’s predicament would be if the Cold War did indeed end, as it did, with a more or less bloodless American victory:

[Kissinger’s] notion that discord can surreptitiously lead to cooperation, the concept of self-limitation, and his characterization of foreign policy as a hierarchy of imperatives were all designed to inject a sense of purpose_._._. [in]to American political culture as a whole_._._. to restore meaning to history when Americans began to question seriously their nation’s role in the world._._._. Kissinger’s political philosophy constitute[d] a major break with the rationale of all postwar policy, which rested on the notion of America as a redeemer nation, as the guarantor of freedom and democracy._._._. [I]f at some future time the United States succeeds in fulfilling the role of redeemer, then Kissinger will be seen as a defeatist leader, as an historical pessimist who underestimated the appeal and relevance of democratic ideals and principles.117

It is surely no accident that the most bitter denunciations of Kissinger came after the Soviet threat had—as if by magic—disappeared.


I have spent a substantial proportion of the last twenty years trying to understand better the nature of power and the causes of war and peace. Though I initially focused on the German Reich and the British Empire, my focus since moving across the Atlantic has been, perhaps inevitably, on that strange empire that dare not speak its name, the United States of America. My critique has been, if nothing else, nonpartisan. In 2001 I summed up Bill Clinton’s foreign policy as a case of “understretch,” in that the administration was too preoccupied with domestic scandal and too averse to casualties to make proper use of America’s vast capabilities.118 Three years later, in the early phase of the Bush administration’s occupation of Iraq, I published a meditation on the American predicament: the heir to a British tradition of liberal imperialism, convinced of the benefits of free trade and representative government, yet constrained—perhaps fatally—by three deficits: a fiscal deficit (in the sense that spiraling welfare entitlements and debt must inevitably squeeze the resources available for national security), a manpower deficit (in the sense that not many Americans want to spend very long sorting out hot, poor countries), and above all, an attention deficit (in the sense that any major foreign intervention is likely to lose popularity within a four-year election cycle).119 I foresaw the direction we would take under Bush’s successor—“an imminent retreat from the principles of preemption and the practice of unilateralism”—well before his identity was known. I also anticipated some of the consequences of the coming American retreat.120

Yet in researching the life and times of Henry Kissinger, I have come to realize that my approach was unsubtle. In particular, I had missed the crucial importance in American foreign policy of the history deficit: the fact that key decision makers know almost nothing not just of other countries’ pasts but also of their own. Worse, they often do not see what is wrong with their ignorance. Worst of all, they know just enough history to have confidence but not enough to have understanding. Like the official who assured me in early 2003 that the future of a post-Saddam Iraq would closely resemble that of post-Communist Poland, too many highly accomplished Americans simply do not appreciate the value, but also the danger, of historical analogy.

This is the biography of an intellectual, but it is more than just an intellectual biography because, in the evolution of Kissinger’s thought, the interplay of study and experience was singularly close. For that reason, I have come to see this volume as what is known in Germany as a bildungsromanthe story of an education that was both philosophical and sentimental. The story is subdivided into five books. The first takes Kissinger from his childhood in interwar Germany through forced emigration to the United States and back to Germany in a U.S. Army uniform. The second is about his early Harvard career, as an undergraduate, a doctoral student, and a junior professor, but it is also about his emergence as a public intellectual as a result of his work on nuclear strategy for the Council on Foreign Relations. The third describes his first experiences as an adviser, first to a candidate for the presidency—Nelson Rockefeller—and then to a president—John F. Kennedy. The fourth leads him down the twisted road to Vietnam and to the realization that the war there could not be won by the United States. The fifth and final book details the events leading up to his wholly unexpected appointment as national security adviser by Nixon.

Kissinger was a voracious reader, and so a part of his education self-evidently came from writers, from Immanuel Kant to Herman Kahn. Yet in many ways the biggest influences on him were not books but mentors, beginning with Fritz Kraemer—Mephistopheles to Kissinger’s Faust. And the most important lessons he learned came as much from his own experience as from their instruction. I have concluded that four precepts in particular should be considered as the essential assets in the intellectual capital that Kissinger brought with him as he entered the White House in January 1969: his sense that most strategic choices are between lesser and greater evils; his belief in history as the mother lode of both analogies and insights into the self-understanding of other actors; his realization that any decision is essentially conjectural and that the political payoffs to some courses of action may be lower than the payoffs of inaction and retaliation, even though the ultimate costs of the latter course may be higher; and finally, his awareness that realism in foreign policy, as exemplified by Bismarck, is fraught with perils, not least the alienation of the public and the slippage of the statesman into regarding power as an end in itself.

In aspiring to loftier ends, I believe, the young Kissinger was indeed an idealist.

Book I



Fürth ist mir ziemlich egal. (Fürth is a matter of indifference to me.)



Where exactly is a biographer to begin when his subject flatly denies the significance of his childhood for his later life?

It has often been suggested that growing up in the Germany of the 1930s “cast a traumatic shadow over [Kissinger’s]_._._. adolescence.” For example: “The feeling of constantly being liable to unpredictable violence obviously laid deep in Kissinger’s psyche a kind of groundwork on which his later attitudes (even to nuclear war) could be built.”2 Another author has speculated that in the 1970s Kissinger “feared a return to the violence, chaos and collapse of Weimar Germany.” His attitudes to both the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, so the argument runs, are intelligible only in the light of his youthful experiences in Germany. Indeed, his entire philosophical and political outlook is said to have deep German roots. “The experience of Weimar Germany’s collapse_._._. convinced_._._. [him] that democracy had a very dark side.” That same experience supposedly made him a lifelong cultural pessimist.3

Kissinger himself has repeatedly dismissed such theories. “My life in Fürth,” he declared in 1958, during a visit to his Bavarian birthplace, “seems to have passed without [leaving] any deeper impressions; I cannot recall any interesting or amusing incident.”4 Interviewed by Al Ellenberg of the New York Post in March 1974, he laconically conceded that he had “often_._._. been chased through the streets, and beaten up” as a boy growing up in Nazi Germany. But he was quick to add, “That part of my childhood was not a key to anything. I was not consciously unhappy, I was not acutely aware of what was going on. For children, these things are not that serious._._._. It is fashionable now to explain everything psychoanalytically. But let me tell you, the political persecutions of my childhood are not what control my life.”5

In his memoirs of his career in government, Kissinger alludes only once to his German boyhood.6 His birthplace, he remarked in 2004, meant little to him.7 Those who seek the key to his career in his German-Jewish origins are therefore wasting their time.

I experienced the impact of Nazism and it was very unpleasant, but it did not interfere in my friendship with Jewish people of my age so that I did not find it traumatic._._._. I have resisted the psychiatric explanations [which] argue that I developed a passion for order over justice and that I translated it into profound interpretations of the international system. I wasn’t concerned with the international system. I was concerned with the standing of the football team of the town in which I lived.8

Kissinger’s readiness in later life to revisit Fürth has served to reinforce the impression that his youth was not a time of trauma. He paid a visit during a trip to Germany in December 1958, when his return—as the associate director of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University—rated two paragraphs in the local paper.9 The media attention was far greater seventeen years later when, as U.S. secretary of state, he traveled to Fürth to receive a “citizen’s gold medal,” accompanied by his parents and younger brother, as well as his wife.10 The event was a carefully choreographed celebration of (in Kissinger’s words) “the extraordinary renewal of the friendship between the American and German peoples.” Before an audience of Bavarian worthies, he and the German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, exchanged what today might seem like diplomatic platitudes.

In the shadow of a nuclear catastrophe [declared Kissinger]_._._. we must not bow to the supposed inevitability of historical tragedy._._._. Our shared task is to collaborate in building a system of international relations which ensures the stability of continents and the security of peoples, which binds the peoples of the world together through their common interests, and which demands restraint and moderation in international affairs. Our goal is a peace for which all of us work—small as well as big states—a peace that is enduring because all wish to uphold it—strong as well as weak states.11

Yet the more memorable speech was the unscheduled one given by Kissinger’s father, Louis, making his first visit to Germany since 1938. Though noting that he had been “forced to leave” Germany in that year, he generously referred to Fürth’s earlier tradition of religious tolerance. (“While, in past centuries, intolerance and prejudice were predominant in many German cities, in Fürth the various faiths lived together in harmony.”) His son was being honored in his birthplace not just because of his worldly success but because, like Trygaeus, the hero in Aristophanes’s comedy Peace, he

has seen it as his life’s work to dedicate his time and energy to furthering and maintaining peace in the world. Working together with the President of the United States, he has the great idea of ushering in an era of understanding and peaceful collaboration between nations._._._. It is a gratifying feeling for us parents that today the name Kissinger is seen around the world as interchangeable with the term “peace”; that the name Kissinger has become a synonym for peace.12

It was December 1975. Angola was sliding into civil war, less than a month after the end of Portuguese colonial rule. A matter of days before the Kissingers’ trip to Fürth, the Pathet Lao, supported by Vietnam and the Soviet Union, had overthrown the king of Laos, and the Indonesian military had invaded the briefly independent state of East Timor. Just eight days after the medal ceremony, the CIA’s head of station in Athens was shot dead. The newspapers that month were full of terrorist outrages: by the Irish Republican Army in London, by the Palestine Liberation Organization in Vienna, by South Moluccan separatists in the Netherlands. There was even a fatal bomb explosion at New York’s La Guardia airport. To some young German Social Democrats, it seemed incongruous to honor the American secretary of state at such a time.13 Perhaps only the older Germans present understood the significance of Kissinger’s call for “a world, in which it is reconciliation and not power that fills peoples with pride; an era, in which convictions are a source of moral strength and not of intolerance and of hate.”14 These were no empty phrases. For the Kissinger family, what was “especially moving” about this “homecoming” was the fact that the country they had once fled now feted them.15

May 1923 was the month Heinz Alfred Kissinger was born in Fürth. That, too, was a year of turmoil in the world. In January the town of Rosewood, Florida, had been razed to the ground in a race riot that left six people dead. In June the Bulgarian prime minister, Aleksandar Stamboliyski, was overthrown (and subsequently killed) in a coup. In September General Miguel Ángel Primo de Rivera seized power in Spain, while Japan was devastated by the Great Kanto Earthquake. In October another military strongman, Mustafa Kemal, proclaimed the Republic of Turkey amid the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The world was still reeling from the political aftershocks of the First World War. In many countries, from Ireland to Russia, bloody civil wars were only now coming to an end. The revolution in the latter had been a human catastrophe, claiming the lives of millions—including its leader, Lenin, who that same month was forced to retire to his estate at Gorki, his health never having recovered from an assassination attempt in 1918.

Nowhere, however, was the upheaval of 1923 greater than in Germany. In January French and Belgian troops had occupied the coal-rich Ruhr area in retaliation for Germany’s failure to fulfill its obligations under the Treaty of Versailles. The German government called for a general strike. The crisis was the coup de grâce for the German currency, which nose-dived into worthlessness. The country threatened to fall apart, with separatist movements in the Rhineland, Bavaria, Saxony, and even Hamburg, where the Communists attempted to seize power. In Munich on November 8 Adolf Hitler launched a putsch from the huge beer hall known as the Bürgerbra;ukeller. He would not have been the first uniformed demagogue to seize power with such a stunt; Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome had succeeded just over a year before. It took a concerted effort by the head of the Reichswehr, Hans von Seeckt; the leader of the German People’s Party, Gustav von Stresemann; and the banker Hjalmar Schacht to restore the authority of the central government and begin the process of currency reform and stabilization.

It was into this chaos, in the Middle Franconian town of Fürth, that Heinz Kissinger was born.


Stifling in its narrow dreariness, our ungardened city, city of soot, of a thousand chimneys, of clanging machinery and hammers, of beer-shops, of sullen, sordid greed in business or craft, of petty and mean people crowded together, with poverty and lovelessness._._._. In the environs, a barren, sandy plain, dirty factory streams, the slow, murky river, the uniformly straight canal, gaunt woods, melancholy villages, hideous quarries, dust, clay, broom.16

Fürth lacked charm. The author Jakob Wassermann, who was born there in 1873, recalled its “peculiar formlessness, a certain aridity and meagreness.”17 The contrast with its ancient neighbor, Nuremberg, was especially striking. One of the three most important cities of the Holy Roman Empire, Nuremberg was all “ancient houses, courtyards, streets, cathedrals, bridges, fountains and walls.”18 Separated by just five miles—a short train ride away—the two cities were, in Wassermann’s words, an incongruous “union of antiquity and recentness, art and industry, romance and manufacturing, design and dissolution, form and deformity.”19 Even more sharp was the contrast between grimy industrial Fürth and the pretty, hilly countryside around Ansbach to the south, a landscape of “flower gardens, orchards, fish ponds, deserted castles, ruins full of legends, village fairs, simple people.”20

First referred to in the eleventh century, Fürth alternately prospered then suffered from the fragmentation of political authority in medieval and early modern Germany. For a time, sovereignty over the town was shared between the bishop of Bamberg and the margrave of Ansbach. But such loose arrangements exposed the town to devastation during the Thirty Years’ War that ravaged Germany during the first half of the seventeenth century. (Not far southwest of Fürth is the Alte Veste, where Albrecht von Wallenstein defeated the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus in 1632.) A Bavarian possession from 1806, Fürth was a beneficiary of two concurrent nineteenth-century processes: the industrialization of continental Europe and the unification of Germany. It was no accident that the first railway in Germany, the Ludwigsbahn, was built in 1835 to link Nuremberg to Fürth.21 The little town on the banks of the Rednitz sprang into life as one of the hubs of South German manufacturing. Fürth became famous for the mirrors made by companies like S. Bendit & Söhne, as well as for spectacles and other optical instruments. Bronze goods, wooden furniture, gold leaf decoration, toys, and pens: Fürth made them all, often for export to the United States. Its breweries, too, were renowned throughout South Germany. This was scarcely mass production. Most firms were small, with 84 percent of them employing fewer than five people at the turn of the century. The technology was relatively primitive and working conditions—especially in the mercury-intensive mirror industry—often hazardous. Still, there was no mistaking the dynamism of the place. Its population quintupled between 1819 and 1910, from 12,769 to 66,553.

Travelers in search of picturesque Bavarian vistas found Fürth an eyesore. On their way to Nuremberg, the British artist Arthur George Bell and his wife approached Fürth by rail in the early 1900s. They, too, were struck by the contrast between town and country:

The fields and pastures, the vineyards and hops plantations, undivided by hedges, are enlivened with groups of peasants. Men, women, and children, all equally hard at work, are to be seen toiling in primitive fashion with clumsy agricultural instruments, such as the hand-sickle, long since abandoned elsewhere, and it is no unusual thing for a threshing machine, drawn by a pair of cows or oxen, to creep slowly along whilst the driver trudges, half asleep, beside it._._._.

As the train nears Fürth[, however], the premonition of the approaching destruction of all that is primitive and rural becomes ever more accentuated, and it is through a heavy pall of smoke, between rows of unsightly houses, that the final stage of the journey is performed.22

Fürth, in short, was an ugly, smoggy agglomeration of sweatshops, a modern excrescence in an otherwise picturesque kingdom.

Yet even Fürth retained some vestiges of the medieval past. At the end of September each year the townsfolk celebrated (as they still do) the St. Michael’s Festival (Michaeliskirchweih or “Ka;rwa” in local dialect), a twelve-day carnival dating back to the construction of the St. Michael’s church around 1100. The town also had its own mystery play derived from the legend of Saint George, in which the mayor’s daughter was rescued from the local dragon by a plucky peasant lad named Udo.23 Despite such quaint customs, Fürth was in fact a staunchly Protestant town, like most of Franconia. More than two-thirds of the population were Lutheran, and like most nineteenth-century Protestant towns on both sides of the Atlantic, the Fürthers had a rich secular associational life. At the turn of the century the town had around 280 associations, ranging from the singing groups to stamp collectors.24 In 1902 a new town theater had opened its doors, funded entirely by 382 private subscriptions. As a cultural center, Fürth was no match for Nuremberg, but it could at least hire its own Meistersinger: their inaugural performance was of Beethoven’s Fidelio.25 However, opera was not the Fürthers’ favorite pastime. That was without doubt soccer. The Spielvereinigung Fürth was founded in 1906 and won its first national title just eight years later under an English coach named William Townley. Here, too, Fürth had to contend with its bigger and grander neighbor. In 1920 the two teams met in the championship final (Fürth lost). Four years later the German national side was made up exclusively of Fürth and Nuremberg players, though the rivalry between the two clubs was so intense that the players traveled in separate rail coaches.

Soccer was and remains a working-class sport, and its popularity in Fürth from the early 1900s showed how industry was changing the town. The same was true in politics. Already at the time of the 1848 Revolutions, Fürth had acquired a reputation as a “nest of Democrats” (a term then connoting political radicalism). Fürthers were also active in the formation of the new Bavarian Progressive Party (Fortschrittspartei), founded in 1863. Five years later the Fürth socialist Gabriel Löwenstein established the workers’ association “Future” (Zukunft), which soon became part of the nationwide German Social Democratic Party (SPD). In the 1870s the SPD could win the Erlangen-Fürth district only by joining forces with the left-liberal People’s Party.26 But by the 1890s the Social Democrats commanded a plurality of votes in Reichstag elections; only a united front of “bourgeois parties” in the second round of voting kept the SPD candidate out, so that it was not until 1912 that “Red Fürth” sent a Social Democrat deputy to the Reichstag.27

The town acquired its red reputation for two distinct reasons. The first and more obvious was the large concentration of skilled and usually unionized workers in the town’s manufacturing industry. The second, however, was the large proportion of Jews in the population. To be sure, not all of Fürth’s Jews were men of the left like Löwenstein. But enough were to make the elision of socialism and Judaism a plausible rhetorical trope with the increasingly numerous demagogues of the German right.


There had been a Jewish community in Fürth since 1528. Thirty years before, Nuremberg had followed the example of many other European cities and states by expelling Jews from its territory. But Fürth 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.28 Already by the early 1600s Fürth had its own rabbi, a Talmudic academy, and its first synagogue, built in 1616–17 and modeled on the Pinkas synagogue in Prague. Rabbi Schabbatai Scheftel Horowitz, who lived there between 1628 and 1632, praised “the sacred community of Fürth, a small city but one which appeared to me to be as great as Antioch because here erudite people were gathered together for daily study.”29 The Thirty Years’ War was a perilous time for Jews in Germany, but the Fürth community got off lightly, apart from some damage to the synagogue when it was used by a Croatian cavalry regiment as stables.30 Two new synagogues were built in the 1690s: the Klaus and the Mannheimer. By the early nineteenth century the town had seven in all, four of which were grouped around the Schulhof, along with the congregational offices, ritual bathhouse, and kosher butcher. The Jewish population by this time accounted for just under a fifth of the population of Fürth, though that proportion would subsequently decline (to just 4 percent by 1910) as the town expanded. At its numerical peak in 1880, the Jewish community numbered 3,300, making it the third largest in Bavaria, after Munich and Nuremberg, and the eleventh largest in Germany.31

In many ways, the Jews of Fürth were tightly knit. In the 1920s, for example, more than two-thirds of them were concentrated in just fifteen of the town’s sixty-five voting districts. A Jewish home could be distinguished by the mezuzah on the door—a small metal case containing a parchment and bearing the Hebrew letter “shin” (), short for Shaddai, a name for God. To be sure, it was an overwhelmingly middle-class population of businessmen, professionals, and civil servants, who were economically highly integrated into the gentile society that surrounded them. But they remained socially and culturally distinct, with their own network of associations: the Bikkur Cholim (health insurance union), the three Chewra Kaddischa (holy fraternities), the Hachnassat Kalla (dowry association), the Hachnassat Orchim (association for innkeepers), and the Bar Kochba (sports club).32 With good reason the nineteenth-century satirist Moritz Gottlieb Saphir could call Fürth “the Bavarian Jerusalem.”

Yet in one crucial respect the Jewish community of Fürth was divided: between a Reform or liberal minority and an Orthodox majority. Proponents of Reform, like Isaak Loewi, who became chief rabbi in 1831, wished (among other things) that Jewish worship should conform more to the style of Christian worship. Under his influence, the main synagogue was given a more churchlike layout, with standing desks replaced by pews and the addition of an organ in 1873; worshippers no longer wore the tallit.33 These changes were part of a wave of assimilation among German Jews, who sought to efface the outward differences between themselves and German Christians in the hope of thereby achieving full equality before the law. A few Jews went even further, either converting to Christianity or embracing the radical skepticism of the political left. But the majority of Fürth Jews reacted against the Reform movement. Thus, while the liberal congregation controlled the main synagogue, the other smaller synagogues around the Schulhof were the domain of Orthodoxy. The division extended into the realm of education. The children of Reform Jews attended the public Gymnasium or the Girls’ Lyceum, along with their gentile contemporaries, while the children of Orthodox families were sent to the Jewish High School (Realschule) at 31 Blumenstrasse, where there were no Saturday lessons.34

To an extent that is often forgotten, Jewish assimilation succeeded in pre-1914 Germany. Formally, to be sure, there remained restrictions. The Bavarian Judenedikt of 1813 had granted Jews Bavarian citizenship but had set a limit on their numbers in any one place—which explains the stagnation of the Fürth community in the mid-nineteenth century and its absolute decline after 1880. That statute remained in force until 1920, despite a brief period of relaxation after the 1848 Revolutions.35 Yet in practice the Jews of Fürth had ceased to be second-class citizens by 1900 at the latest. Not only could they vote in local, state, and national elections; they could also serve as magistrates. They played leading roles in the local legal, medical, and teaching professions. As one Fürth Jew recalled, his hometown produced “the first Jewish attorney, the first Jewish deputy to the Bavarian diet, the first Jewish judge in Bavaria, the first Jewish headmaster.”36 Among the distinguished products of the community were the publisher Leopold Ullstein, born in Fürth in 1826, who by the time of his death in 1899 was one of Germany’s leading newspaper proprietors. In 1906 another luminary, the pencil manufacturer Heinrich Berolzheimer, bequeathed to the town the Berolzheimerianum as a “home for popular education” to “serve the whole population_._._. regardless of social class, religion or political opinions.” This building, with its large public library and auditorium, symbolized the apogee of South German–Jewish integration.

Yet there was always a seed of doubt. The author Jakob Wassermann was born in Fürth in 1873, the son of an unsuccessful businessman. Looking back on his unhappy childhood in a memoir published in 1921, Wassermann recalled how the mid-nineteenth-century restrictions “like those on numbers, on freedom of movement and on occupation_._._. [had] provided constant nourishment for sinister religious fanaticism, for ghetto obstinacy and ghetto fear.”37 Admittedly, those restrictions had ceased to operate by the time of his youth, so much so that his father would exclaim contentedly, “We live in an age of tolerance!”

As far as clothing, language and mode of life were concerned, adaptation was complete. I attended a public government school. We lived among Christians, associated with Christians. The progressive Jews, of whom my father was one, felt that the Jewish community existed only in the sense of religious worship and tradition. Religious worship, fleeing the seductive power of modern life, became concentrated more and more in secret, unworldly groups of zealots. Tradition became a legend, and finally degenerated into mere phrases, an empty shell.38

Wassermann’s recollections need to be read with caution. He was doubly an outsider, an autodidact atheist who despised his father’s mechanical observance, and a lover of German literature who felt the tiniest hint of racial prejudice as a personal affront. Yet his account of the religious and social life of the Fürth Jews is unmatched and illuminating. “Religion was a study,” he recalled “and not a pleasant one. A lesson taught soullessly by a soulless old man. Even today I sometimes see his evil, conceited old face in my dreams._._._. [He] thrashed formulas into us, antiquated Hebrew prayers that we translated mechanically, without any actual knowledge of the language; what he taught was paltry, dead, mummified.”

Religious services were even worse. A purely business-like affair, an unsanctified assembly, the noisy performance of ceremonies become habitual, devoid of symbolism, mere drill._._._. The conservative and orthodox Jews conducted their services in the so-called shuls, tiny places of worship, often only little rooms in obscure, out-of-the-way alleys. There one could still see heads and figures such as Rembrandt drew, fanatic faces, ascetic eyes burning with the memory of unforgotten persecutions.39

When the young Wassermann expressed interest in the works of Spinoza, he was warned, “in a tone of sibylline gloom, that whoever read these books must become insane.”40

Wassermann rightly saw through the facade of assimilation. One night the family’s Christian housemaid took him in her arms and said, “You could be a good Christian, you have a Christian heart.” Her words frightened the boy “because they contained a tacit condemnation of being Jewish.”41 He sensed the same ambivalence in the families of his gentile playmates: “In childhood my brothers and sisters and I were so closely bound up with the daily life of our Christian neighbors of the working and middle classes that we had our playmates there, our protectors._._._. But watchfulness and a feeling of strangeness persisted. I was only a guest.”42

To live as a Jew in Fürth was to grow accustomed to things Wassermann found intolerable: “A sneering appellation in the street, a venomous glance, a scornfully appraising look, a certain recurrent contempt—all this was the usual thing.”43 What was worse was to discover that such attitudes were not peculiar to Fürth. As a conscript in the Bavarian army, Wassermann also encountered

that dull, rigid, almost mute hatred that has penetrated the national organism. The word anti-Semitism does not serve to describe it._._._. It contains elements of superstition and voluntary delusion, of fanatic terror and priest-inspired callousness, of ignorance and rancor of him who is wronged and betrayed, of unscrupulousness and falsehood as well as of an excusable weapon of self-defense, of apish malice as well as of religious bigotry. Greed and curiosity are involved here, blood-thirstiness and the fear of being lured or seduced, love of mystery and scanty self-esteem. In its constituents and background it is a peculiarly German phenomenon. It is a German hatred.44

Wassermann was once 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 answered: Hate._._._.

I should have answered: They want a scapegoat._._._.

But what I did say was: A non-German cannot possibly imagine the heartbreaking position of the German Jew. German Jew—you must place full emphasis on both words. You must understand them as the final product of a lengthy evolutionary process. His twofold love and his struggle on two fronts drive him close to the brink of despair. The German and the Jew: I once dreamt an allegorical dream._._._. I placed the surfaces of two mirrors together; and I felt as if the human images contained and preserved in the two mirrors would have to fight one another tooth and nail.45

These words were published in 1921, just two years before the birth of Henry Kissinger. Idiosyncratic Wassermann may have been—an exemplar, some would say, of Jewish “self-hatred”—but his anatomy of German-Jewish melancholy was darkly prophetic.46


The Kissingers descended from Meyer Löb (1767–1838), a Jewish teacher from Kleineibstadt who in 1817 took his surname from his adopted home of Bad Kissingen (complying with an 1813 Bavarian edict that required Jews to have surnames).47 By his first wife he had two children, Isak and Löb, but she died giving birth to the latter in May 1812. Meyer Löb then married her sister, Schoenlein. Of their ten children, only one—Abraham Kissinger (1818–99)—had issue. The descendants of Isak and Löb Kissinger were tailors; the descendants of Abraham were teachers.48 Abraham himself was a successful weaver and merchant. He and his wife, Fanny Stern, had nine children in all, including four sons, Joseph, Maier, Simon, and David (1860–1947), all of whom became rabbis. David Kissinger taught religion to the Jewish community of Ermershausen, a village on the Bavarian-Thuringian border. On August 3, 1884, he married Karoline (Lina) Zeilberger (1863–1906), the daughter of a prosperous farmer, who provided her with a ten-thousand-mark dowry.49 They had eight children: Jenny (who died aged six in 1901), Louis (born on February 2, 1887), Ida (born in 1888), Fanny (1892), Karl (1898), Arno (1901), Selma and Simon.50

Louis Kissinger’s youth was an advertisement for what an intelligent, hardworking Jewish boy could achieve in imperial Germany. At the age of eighteen—without even a diploma, much less a university degree—he embarked on a teaching career. His first job was in Fürth, at the private Heckmannschule for (mainly Jewish) boys, where he was paid 1,000 marks per annum, plus 255 per month for health and old age insurance, to teach German, arithmetic, and science for four hours a day. He remained at the post for fourteen years.51 Despite formally becoming a citizen of Fürth in 1917,52 he seems to have contemplated moving, applying for posts in northern Bavaria and Upper Silesia, but he declined these jobs when offered them. Instead, at the age of thirty, he opted belatedly to sit his school-leaving examination—the Reifeprüfung—at the Fürth Realgymnasium, the town’s senior boys’ school. Equipped with his diploma, he was able to attend courses at Erlangen University. More important, he was able to apply for a more prestigious post at one of Fürth’s public schools: the senior girls’ school known today as the Helene-Lange-Gymnasium. With his appointment as Hauptlehrer (literally “chief teacher”) in 1921, Louis Kissinger became in effect a senior civil servant. Though he continued to teach arithmetic and science—and appears also to have given occasional instruction at the town’s business school (Handelsschule)53—his preferred subject was German literature. “Kissus,” as the girls nicknamed him, was not a strict teacher. He enjoyed introducing his pupils to classics of German poetry like Goethe’s “Der Adler und die Taube” (“The Eagle and the Dove”) and Heinrich Heine’s “Jetzt wohin?” (“Now where?”). The latter would later acquire a painful personal significance. In the poem, written in the wake of the 1848 Revolutions, the exile Heine wonders where he should go if he faces a death sentence in his German homeland.

Where to now? My foolish feet

To Germany would gladly go

But my wiser head is shaking

And seems to tell me “No”:

The war may well be over,

But martial law is still in force._._._.

I sometimes get to thinking

To America I should sail,

To the stable yard of freedom

Whence egalitarians hail.

But I’m fearful of a country

Where the people chew tobacco

Where they bowl without a monarch

Where they spit without spittoons.

Louis Kissinger surely shared Heine’s preference for the land of his birth. Like Heine, he felt as much a German as a Jew.

That Louis Kissinger was a German patriot is not in doubt. He was a member of the national association expressly set up to represent “German citizens of the Jewish faith” (the Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens).54 Unlike the majority of German men of his generation, he did not fight in the First World War, but this was for health reasons.55 Other members of the Kissinger family are known to have served in the Bavarian army, which was notably friendlier toward Jews than its larger Prussian counterpart, Jakob Wassermann’s experiences notwithstanding. Louis’s brother Karl saw active service; his future father-in-law, as we shall see, was also called up. Two of his cousins lost their lives in the war.56 To many German Jews of that era, there was no better proof of their commitment to the Reich than this sacrifice. The claim that Jews were underrepresented on the front lines and in the casualty lists was angrily rebutted by patriotic organizations like the one to which Louis Kissinger belonged. Unlike some of his contemporaries, however, Louis felt under no pressure to dilute his religious faith as proof of his patriotism. He adhered firmly to the Orthodox part of the Fürth community, attending the Neuschul synagogue presided over by Rabbi Yehuda Leib (Leo) Breslauer, rather than the rival Reform congregation of Rabbi Siegfried Behrens. Like Breslauer (and unlike his brother Karl), Louis was uneasy about the Zionist movement, which called on the Jews to establish their own nation-state in Palestine—an idea that was proving especially attractive to Bavarian Jews.57 As his wife later recalled, “He [Louis] knew about [the Zionist leader Theodor] Herzl and everything. He knew but he was never [convinced]._._._. He was deeply religious but like a child, he believed everything_._._. and he studied Zionism but he couldn’t accept it. He felt so German.”58

Paula Kissinger—the woman who spoke those words—was born thirty-five miles to the west of Fürth in the village of Leutershausen, on February 24, 1901. Her father, Falk Stern, was a prosperous farmer and cattle dealer and a pillar of the local Jewish community, serving as its chairman (Vorsitzender) for fifteen years. Three years after his daughter’s birth, Falk and his brother David pooled their resources to buy the imposing house that still stands at number 8 Am Markt. Paula was brought up in an Orthodox household, learning to read Hebrew fluently and always eating at home in order to keep kosher. As in Fürth, however, religious separation did not imply social segregation. Paula’s closest childhood friend was a Protestant girl named Babette “Babby” Hammerder. “You never saw or felt any anti-Semitism ’til Hitler came,” Paula later recalled. “In fact, they sought you out, they looked for you, they wanted you.”59 Paula was just twelve when her mother, Peppi, died. A bright girl, she was sent by her grieving father to the girls’ school in Fürth, where she lived with her aunt, Berta Fleischmann, whose husband ran the kosher butcher’s in the Hirschenstrasse.

Despite being a widower in his mid-forties, Falk Stern was drafted in June 1915 and served in the infantry in Belgium until his discharge eleven months later. On his return from the front, Paula was summoned back to Leutershausen to keep house for her father and uncle. “I was eighteen,” she later remembered, “and_._._. terribly lonesome in that small town, which had no intellectual [life]_._._. nothing to keep your mind busy. I had to go to the next town to get books from the library.” She already dreamed of going to “faraway places” like Capri, but instead she was confined to the kitchen. “My aunt_._._. taught me how to cook and I hated it. I wanted to read, and when she came I was sitting there and reading instead of doing my work.”60 Escape came when her father married Fanny Walter in April 1918. Not long after that, Paula took a job as an au pair in Halberstadt in North Germany, where she looked after the four children of a wealthy Jewish metal manufacturer. It was not quite Capri, but the family’s summer villa in the Harz Mountains was an improvement over the kitchen in Leutershausen. It was on a visit to her relatives in Fürth that Paula was introduced to the new teacher at her old school. Though Louis Kissinger was fourteen years her elder, they fell in love. In December 1921 they became engaged. Eight months later, on July 28, 1922, they were married.

Louis and Paula Kissinger married amid a revolution no less violent than the one that had driven his favorite poet Heine into exile ninety years before. Even before the formal armistice ended the First World War, the imperial regime had been toppled by the revolutionary wave that swept through Germany. On November 9, 1918, Fürth came briefly under the control of a Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council; the red flag flew high above the town hall. In April 1919 the revolutionaries sought to align themselves with the Munich “revolutionary central council,” set up in imitation of the Soviets in Russia. But as elsewhere in Germany, the Fürth Social Democrats repudiated the Bolshevik model and within just four days the city authorities (the Magistrat and the Kollegium der Gemeindebevollma;chtigten) were restored to power.61 The revolution did not end there, however. In every year between 1919 and 1923, there was at least one attempt from either the left or the right to overthrow the new Weimar Republic (named after the Thuringian town where its constitution was drafted). Political violence was accompanied by economic insecurity. Intent on proving the unsustainability of the reparations debt imposed on Germany under the Versailles Treaty, Weimar’s ministers pursued a conscious policy of deficit finance and money printing. The short-term benefit was to boost investment, employment, and exports. The long-term cost was a disastrous hyperinflation that inflicted permanent damage on the financial system, the social order, and the political legitimacy of the republic. On the eve of the First World War, the exchange rate of the German mark had been fixed, under the gold standard, at 4.20 marks to the dollar. By Sunday, May 27, 1923—the day of Heinz Kissinger’s birth62—a dollar bought nearly 59,000 paper marks. The annual inflation rate was approaching 10,000 percent. By the end of the year the rate was 182 billion percent. A paper mark was worth precisely one trillionth of a prewar mark.

Needless to say, the Kissingers’ newborn baby was oblivious to all this, but he was not unaffected by it. For no social group was harder hit by the inflation than higher civil servants like Louis Kissinger. Workers were able at least partly to protect themselves against spiraling prices by striking for higher wages. A respectable schoolmaster could do no such thing. In the postwar years, unskilled workers’ wages initially held up in real terms, finally falling by around 30 percent in the collapse of 1922–23. By contrast, when adjusted for inflation, a civil servant’s salary fell by between 60 and 70 percent. At the same time, the cash savings of middle-class families like the Kissingers were wiped out. In the great leveling produced by the Weimar hyperinflation, men like Louis Kissinger were among the biggest losers. It was not until January 1925 that he could afford to move his growing family from their cramped first-floor apartment at 23 Mathildenstrasse to nearby 5 Marienstrasse, where Heinz’s brother, Walter, was born.


Henry Kissinger once joked that if it hadn’t been for Hitler, he might have spent his life “quietly as a Studienrat in Nuremberg.” In fact, as a boy he did not seem very likely to follow in his studious father’s footsteps. When they were first sent to kindergarten, their mother later recalled, he and his brother “hated it and_._._. were terribly naughty and hard to handle._._._. They would run away and I had to find them.”63 Later, the two attended the old Heckmann private school, where his father had first taught: a photograph from 1931 shows Heinz with his teacher, a man named Merz, and eight other students (five of whom are identified as Jewish).64 Contemporaries later differed about Heinz Kissinger’s academic ability as a boy. Menahem (formerly Heinz) Lion, who ended up living in Israel, later admitted to having been “envious of his essays._._._. They were remarkable for their form, their style, and their ideas, and they were often read out to the class.”65 But others remembered him as an “average” pupil at school.66 Shimon Eldad, who taught him English and French when he attended the Jewish High School, recalled a “good but not outstanding student._._._. He was a spirited and scintillating youth, but I didn’t notice anything special in him. His English didn’t exactly excite me, and it seems that way still today.”67

It seems clear that the Kissinger brothers were brought up in a fairly strict Orthodox household. Menahem Lion remembered going “together to synagogue every morning before school. On Saturdays Lion’s father taught them both the Torah. They attended an Orthodox youth club, Ezra, together.”68 Tzipora Jochsberger had similar memories.69 A cousin, John Heiman, who came to live with the family when Kissinger was seven, later described

one Saturday when he and Henry took a stroll beyond the eruv, a sort of understood boundary encircling [the Jewish community]. Outside the eruv, under the teachings of their religion, Orthodox Jews were not permitted to carry anything in their hands or in their pockets._._._. [W]hen he and Kissinger crossed the boundary, Henry stopped and reminded him that “carrying” was forbidden. They took their handkerchiefs from their pockets and tied them to their wrists.70

Yet as he grew into a teenager, Heinz Kissinger increasingly rebelled against his parents’ way of life. Their idea of entertainment was to hear Fidelio at the Fürth Theater. For pleasure, Louis Kissinger read the great works of Friedrich Schiller and Theodor Mommsen and even researched and wrote local history. Heinz’s passion, by contrast, was for soccer.71

The Spielvereinigung in those days was a team worth following. They were German champions in 1926 and 1929—beating Hertha BSC Berlin in the final on both occasions—and got as far as the semifinals in 1923 and 1931. In the same period, they also won the South German Cup four times. The Fürth-Nuremberg rivalry had the intense quality of other neighborly feuds in European soccer, such as Rangers-Celtic in Glasgow. Heinz Kissinger was soon an ardent Fürth fan. As he later recollected,

Fürth was to soccer as Green Bay was to [American] football. It was a small town_._._. that in a ten-year period won three German championships._._._. I started playing when I was about six. My grandfather had a farm [at Leutershausen] near Fürth, and they had a big courtyard and we played pickup games there. I played goalie for a brief period, then I broke my hand. After that, I played inside-right and then mid-field. I played until I was fifteen. I really wasn’t very good though I took the game very seriously.

Though no great athlete, Heinz Kissinger was already a shrewd tactician, devising for his team “a system that, as it turned out, is the way the Italians play soccer._._._. The system was to drive the other team nuts by not letting them score, by keeping so many people back as defenders._._._. It’s very hard to score when ten players are lined up in front of the goal.”72 So ardent did his soccer mania become that for a time his parents banned him from attending Fürth fixtures.

Soccer was not the only passion that brought Heinz Kissinger into conflict with his parents. As his boyhood friend remembered,

Heinz Kissinger spent many hours in my home. They lived near us and Heinz would ride over on his bike. He liked being with us. It seems to me he had a problem with his father. If I’m not mistaken, he was afraid of him because he was a very pedantic man._._._. His father was always checking Heinz’s homework, and kept a close watch on him. Heinz told me more than once he couldn’t discuss anything with his father, especially not girls.

As Lion later related, “the only time that Kissinger brought home a less than satisfactory report card was when he started paying attention to girls—or girls started paying attention to him. He was only twelve at the time and the girls were already chasing after him, but he didn’t pay any attention to them. His first love was a charming blonde.” According to Lion, the two boys used to take girlfriends for walks in the local park on Friday evenings. When Lion returned late from one of these walks, his parents blamed Kissinger’s influence and forbade their son to see “the Kissinger boy” for a whole week. Later they sent Lion off to a summer camp for six weeks “to get him away from Heinz Kissinger, who had earned a reputation as a skirt chaser.”73 Memory plays tricks, and this story had probably improved in the telling over thirty years. Still, even Kissinger’s mother noted her elder son’s penchant for “keeping everything locked up inside—never discussing your innermost thoughts!”74 Corporal punishment was not unknown in the Kissinger household, as in most households of the time.75 It paid to keep mischief quiet.


Ball games, bicycles, girlfriends, and summer vacations at Granddad’s house;76 at first glance, Heinz Kissinger’s childhood was not much different from what he might have experienced growing up in the United States. And yet the bright and rebellious boy can scarcely have been oblivious to the dramatic changes going on around him as Germany lurched from depression to dictatorship—especially as the principal scapegoat for the country’s misfortunes was the religious minority to which he belonged.

Why was it that the assimilation of the German Jews, which appeared to have been so successful prior to 1914, was so dramatically reversed thereafter, culminating in their near annihilation? There are few more difficult questions in history. One argument—which was Jakob Wassermann’s—is that assimilation was never complete and that there always remained a strain of exceptionally aggressive anti-Semitism in German culture. Another is that we should understand the surge of support for anti-Semitic policies as a backlash against assimilation, precipitated in large measure by economic crisis. It is surely no coincidence that the high points of electoral support for anti-Semitic parties came immediately after the hyperinflation of 1922–23 and the depression of 1929–32. Jews were in relative terms the most successful ethnic group in Germany: they were less than 1 percent of the population but had significantly more than 1 percent of the wealth. Moreover, territorial and political changes to the east of Germany led to an influx of so-called Ostjuden, who attracted public disapprobation precisely because they were not assimilated.77 The virulently anti-Semitic magazine Der Stürmer began weekly publication in Nuremberg in April 1923, the month before Heinz Kissinger’s birth. The front-page masthead for each issue read simply “The Jews Are Our Misfortune.” Even before the Nazis came to power, steps were already being taken in Bavaria to restrict the rights of Jews, notably the 1929 vote by the Bavarian Landtag to ban ritual slaughter by Jewish butchers.78

To some extent, the Jews of Fürth could comfort themselves that their gentile neighbors were ideologically hostile to National Socialism. When the various far-right organizations held a special “German Day” in Nuremberg on September 1–2, 1923, those attending were given short shrift if they passed through Fürth, where people wearing swastika insignia found themselves being asked to remove them or risk having them torn off. As they arrived at Fürth railway station, one group of brownshirts from Munich were assailed by a hundred-strong crowd chanting “Down with Reaction!,” “Kill them!,” and “Down with Hitler!” When the SA (Sturmabteilung) men started to sing the Erhardtlied, an early Nazi favorite, the crowd retorted with the Internationale and shouts of “Heil Moskau!”79 When a branch of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) was established in Fürth shortly after the “German Day,” only 170 people joined.80 And when the party tried to hold a meeting in Fürth on February 3, 1924, the event ended in chaos when the speaker was forced to flee by Communist hecklers. True, the far-right Völkische Bloc did well in the May 1924 national elections, winning over 25 percent of the Fürth vote, compared with just 6.5 percent at the national level. But it did much less well when elections were held again seven months later, slumping to just 8 percent of votes cast. As in Germany as a whole, it was splinter parties like the Economic Party that flourished in the relatively stable economic conditions of the mid-1920s. When the Nazis held a rally in Fürth in September 1925, they fielded a star-studded cast of speakers, including Hitler himself and Julius Streicher, the editor of Der Stürmer. They hoped to fill the Geismann Hall, one of the town’s biggest venues, but less than a third of the expected fifteen thousand people turned up. The local party leader Albert Forster—later the gauleiter of Danzig—ruefully welcomed Hitler to the “citadel of the Jews” (Hochburg der Juden). Hitler responded with a speech lamenting the fact that Germans had become “slaves of Jewry” (“Sklaven_._._. für das Judentum”).81 Nazi Party membership in Fürth was down to 200 by 1927. Visits by Hitler in March 1928 and Streicher a year later did nothing to stop the rot. The party’s share of the local vote sank to just 6.6 percent in the elections of May 1928.

In Fürth, as in the rest of Germany, it was the Depression that saved Hitler’s movement. The entire period from 1914 to 1933 was an economic disaster for Fürth because the town’s economy was so heavily reliant on exports. Even in the period of relative prosperity between 1924 and 1928, unemployment remained very high—above 6,000 at the beginning of 1927, though things improved in the course of the year as the prospects of the brewing and building industries seemed to brighten. But then conditions began to deteriorate again. At the end of June 1929 there were 3,286 workers receiving one of three forms of welfare available to the unemployed. By February 1930 that number had soared above 8,000. By the end of January 1932 it reached a peak of 14,558. In effect, half of all the workers in Fürth were out of a job. Employment in the once buoyant mirror industry had slumped from around 5,000 to just 1,000. Toy exports had collapsed.82 It was not only workers who were affected but small businessmen, too. By October 1932, 185 formerly independent craftsmen were reliant on public welfare. But welfare payments were so modest that many people were reduced to begging and to petty crime.83

The causes of the Great Depression continue to be hotly debated. Certainly, a large part of the explanation lies in the policy errors made in the United States during the period. The Federal Reserve first allowed a stock market bubble to inflate by keeping monetary conditions too loose, then allowed the banking system to implode by keeping monetary conditions too tight. Congress increased already high protectionist tariffs. Not until 1933 did the federal government respond to the crisis with anything resembling fiscal stimulus. There was also a complete breakdown in international policy coordination. The large public debts incurred during and after the First World War might have been rationally restructured; instead there were moratoriums and defaults after austerity policies had failed. The Germans made matters worse for themselves by creating a welfare state they could not afford, allowing the trade unions to drive real wages up, and tolerating anticompetitive practices in their industries. But forces were at work beyond the influence of any policy maker. Despite the war, there was an oversupply of young men. Because of the war, there was overcapacity in agriculture, iron, and steel and shipbuilding.

None of this was remotely intelligible to the unemployed and impoverished people living in a provincial Franconian industrial town. The challenge is to explain why, of all the explanations offered to them for the crisis, Adolf Hitler’s was the one they ended up embracing. The big breakthrough for the Nazis came in the Reichstag election of September 14, 1930, which saw their share of the national vote rise from 2.6 to 18.3 percent. In Fürth they won 23.6 percent of votes cast, up fourfold from 1928. This was the beginning of a sustained ascent. Hitler won 34 percent of the Fürth vote in the first round of the 1932 presidential election. In the Bavarian Landtag elections, the Nazis’ share of the vote rose to 37.7, exceeding the Social Democrats’ for the first time. In the Reichstag election of July 31, 1932, the Nazis won 38.7 percent of the vote. They lost ground in the election of November 6, 1932, but then surged to 44.8 percent of the Fürth vote in the election of March 5, 1933. In that election, more than 22,000 Fürthers voted Nazi (see table).


As at the national level, the Nazis won votes disproportionately from the old “bourgeois parties”: the National People’s Party, the People’s Party, and the Democratic Party. Defections from the Social Democrats, Communists, and Catholic Center Party were more rare. This transfer of allegiance was in many ways led or mediated by economic splinter groups like the German Nationalist Clerical Workers’ Association and conservative organizations like the monarchist Royal Bavarian Homeland League, the “Faithful to Fürth” society, and veterans’ associations like the Kyffha;user League.85 Typical of the proto-Nazi associations that flourished in South Germany in the Weimar period was Young Bavaria, which proudly proclaimed its rejection of “the exclusive rule of pure reason, a legacy of the French Revolution.”86 An equally important factor was the strongly “German national” tone of some Protestant clergy, which echoed the often explicitly religious language of some Nazi propaganda.87 For the historian Walter Frank, born in Fürth in 1905 and already an ardent German nationalist in his teens, the transition from his father’s German Nationalist milieu to the National Socialists was easy. He was among many academic overachievers who gravitated toward the Nazis at this time; Ludwig Erhard, another talented Fürther of the same generation, was unusual in being immune to their charm without being a socialist.88

The remarkable thing is that all these socially respectable groups ended up giving their votes to a movement that systematically used violence as an electoral tactic and explicitly advocated it as a governmental strategy. Part of the explanation is simply that the Nazis ran more effective campaigns than their rivals. First, NSDAP membership in Fürth rose from 185 in March 1930 to 1,500 in August 1932. The new recruits worked hard for their party. After police restrictions were lifted in early 1932, the party held almost weekly events in Fürth, organizing no fewer than twenty-six meetings in the two weeks before the first election of that year.89 In the run-up to the second election of 1932, the Nazis held eight major election meetings and almost nightly “evening discussions” (Sprechabende). But violence also played a crucial role.

That the streets of Fürth became increasingly dangerous was not entirely the Nazis’ fault. On the left, the Communist Party (KPD) and socialist organizations like the Reichsbanner also liked to stage rowdy demonstrations and to disrupt the meetings of their political opponents. As in the 1920s, the Nazis found much of Fürth to be hostile territory. On April 9, 1932, fifteen SA men were set upon by Iron Front members as they left the pro-Nazi Yellow Lion pub. Two months later Nazi supporter Fritz Reingruber was beaten up for being a “Swastikist”; the same fate befell another Nazi caught selling the NSDAP newspaper, the Völkische Beobachter.90 The police watched helplessly on the evening of July 30 as a mob threw potatoes and stones at a Nazi motorcade going from Fürth airport to the Nuremberg stadium; the car carrying Hitler himself was among the vehicles hit.91 There was more muted hostility in January 1933 when Sturmabteilung, Schutzstaffel (SS), and Hitler Youth members participated in the town’s annual Fasching (Mardi Gras) parade. A public meeting in the Geismann Hall ended in yet more violence when KPD members refused to stand for the national anthem.92

Fürth was not Chicago. Firearms played no role in the gang warfare between Communists and Nazis. Yet the effect of all this unruly behavior was insidious. At one and the same time, it made people yearn for the old German ideal of “tranquillity and order” (Ruhe und Ordnung) and accept that further violence might be necessary as a means to that end. With Hitler’s appointment as Reich chancellor on January 31, 1933, the Nazis seized their moment, staging a large torch-lit parade through the town center, from the Kurgartenstrasse through the Nürnbergstrasse and the Königstrasse to Dreikönigsplatz. Now they took the offensive. On the night of February 3, between sixty and seventy SA men attacked the Communist pub Am Ga;nsberg. After the Reichstag fire at the end of the same month had provided the perfect pretext for emergency legislation “For the Protection of the People and the State,” the election of March 1933 could be conducted in a new atmosphere of official intimidation. On March 3 there was another large-scale torch-lit parade through Fürth. On the evening of March 9 a crowd of between ten and twelve thousand people gathered outside the Rathaus to watch the raising of the red Nazi flag together with the reassuring old imperial black, white, and red flag above its tower, and to hear the Landtag deputy and Streicher sidekick, Karl Holz, proclaim the “German Revolution.” “Today,” Holz declared, “marks the beginning of the great clean-up in Bavaria. Out with the black Mamelukes [sic]. Even Fürth, which was once red and totally jewified [verjudet], will once again be made into a clean and honest German town.”93

Those words foretold a far graver threat to the Jews of Fürth—including the loyal patriot Louis Kissinger and his family—than even the most pessimistic among them yet understood.



If we could go back 13 years over the hatred and the intolerance, I would find that it had been a long hard road. It had been covered with humiliation, with disappointment.

—HENRY KISSINGER to his parents, 19451


It was late September 1934. On the eve of the annual St. Michael’s Festival in Fürth, the town preacher Paul Fronmüller spoke for many when he gave thanks to God “for sending us Adolf Hitler, our rescuer from the alien onslaught of the godless horde, and the builder of the new Reich, in which the Christian religion will be the foundation of our life as a people.”2

For the majority of Fürth’s Christian population, life had already improved after barely eighteen months of Nazi rule, and it continued to get better with scarcely a pause until the summer of 1938. In January 1933 the number of welfare claimants was more than 8,700. By June 1938 it would be down below 1,300.3 The Nazi economic recovery was real, and Fürth felt it.

The town looked different, too. The Rathaus was bedecked with bright red National Socialist flags; swastikas and portraits of the Führer were becoming ubiquitous. Some street names had also changed. Königswarterstrasse was now “Adolf-Hitler-Strasse”; the main square was renamed Schlageterplatz, after the proto-Nazi “martyr” Albert Leo Schlageter, who—on the eve of Heinz Kissinger’s birth—had been executed by the French for sabotaging trains in the occupied Ruhr. True, Fürth had nothing to match the annual Nuremberg rallies, weeklong festivals that attracted up to a million members of the party and affiliated organizations from all over Germany. But there were still at least fourteen official holidays and festivals, like the May 1 “Festival of the People” (appropriated from the Social Democrats’ May Day) and the April 20 celebration of Hitler’s birthday.4 And for those who preferred a night at the opera to a street parade, the new director of the reopened and refurbished city theater, Bruno F. Mackay, offered a wholesomely Germanic diet including Goethe’s Egmont, Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe, and Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm. When Hitler himself paid a visit to Fürth on February 11, 1935, he was treated to a performance of Wenn Liebe befiehlt (“When Love Commands”), an innocuous operetta. The echo of the Nazi slogan Führer befiehl, wir folgen! (“Führer Command, We’ll Follow!”) was apt.

Yet behind the good cheer of National Socialist propaganda lay a reality of coercion and terror. What the Nazis euphemistically called “synchronization” (Gleichschaltung) began on March 10, 1933, with the arrest of between fifteen and twenty Communist Party, Communist trade union, and Social Democratic officials and the occupation of the Social Democratic trade union headquarters. The left-liberal Lord Mayor (Oberbürgermeister) Robert Wild was sent on indefinite leave; his deputy resigned on grounds of age. A week later the purge of left-leaning officials continued with the forced retirement of the chief of police, the director of the city hospital, the chief medical officer, and the head of the health insurance fund. More arrests of Communist activists followed on March 28 and April 25: most were detained in “protective custody” (Schutzhaft), another Nazi euphemism, signifying that they had been sent to the newly created penal camp at Dachau, a hundred miles to the south.

Synchronization proceeded relentlessly; each week brought further restrictions on the Nazis’ political opponents. The press ceased to be free on April 1, with the announcement that henceforth the Fürther Anzeiger would be the “official organ of the NSDAP in the Fürth district.” The local council was reconstituted so that a majority of its members were now Nazis, including the new Lord Mayor, Franz Jakob (previously a Nazi deputy in the Bavarian parliament), and his two deputies. The local libraries were also purged with a ceremonial burning of “subversive” books on the night of May 10–11.5 The next day the Fürth branch of the Social Democratic Party dissolved itself, in advance of the nationwide ban on its activities on June 22. On June 30 the party’s leaders in Fürth were arrested and sent to join their Communist counterparts in Dachau. All the old middle-class parties, who had lost so many of their supporters to the Nazis, were either dissolved or merged with the NSDAP. Young Bavaria was absorbed into the Hitler Youth. Similar fates befell all Fürth’s independent economic organizations and sporting associations—even the singing and gardening clubs.6

From the earliest phase of the National Socialist regime, however, it was the Jews who were targeted for the most relentless persecution. After their leaders had been arrested, the ordinary rank-and-file Communist and Social Democratic voters had the chance to conform and consent. This chance was not given to anyone whom the Nazis defined as Jewish by race, which included converts to Christianity and even the issue of mixed marriages. To understand what it was like to grow up as a Jew in Nazi Germany, it is necessary to grasp the way the regime systematically sliced away the rights of Jews, week after week, month after month. With every passing year between 1933 and 1938, the level of insecurity went up. The experience was especially harrowing in a town like Fürth. Not only had it earned the Nazis’ contempt as a “jewified” town. It was also next door to Nuremberg, one of the “capitals of the movement” and home of the odious Julius Streicher, editor of Der Stürmer and now gauleiter of Middle Franconia. Moreover, Fürth was in Bavaria, where the SA leader Ernst Röhm was state commissar and the Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler was in charge of the Political Police. All this meant that anti-Semitic measures and “spontaneous” actions tended to come sooner to Fürth than elsewhere and to be implemented with more zeal.7

Readers who have no experience of life in a totalitarian state must struggle to imagine what it is like, in the space of five years, to lose the right to practice one’s profession or trade, to use public facilities from swimming pools to schools, and to speak freely; more important, to lose the protection of the law from arbitrary arrest, abuse, assault, and expropriation. This was the fate of the Jews of Germany between 1933 and 1938. In Fürth it began on March 21, 1933, with the suspension and temporary arrest of the director of the town hospital, Dr. Jakob Frank. Two other Jewish doctors and a nurse were also fired. A week later all nine Jewish doctors in Fürth lost their posts.8 The Nazis then turned their attention to Fürth’s large Jewish business community. On March 25 the well-known general store Bauernfreund-Pachmayr was forced to close amid allegations that mouse droppings and animal hair had been found in its food.9 Six days later a NSDAP demonstration heralded the next day’s nationwide boycott of Jewish business, ostensibly in retaliation for the anti-German boycott proposed by some American Jewish organizations. On the morning of April 1, SA men began putting up posters throughout the town center that urged citizens to “Boycott the Jews! Boycott their cronies [Handlangern]” and listed all 720 of Fürth’s Jewish-owned businesses, which represented at least 50 percent of wholesalers, 24 percent of manufacturers, and 15 percent of retailers—remarkable market shares for less than 4 percent of the population.10 One especially prominent target of the boycott was the Jewish-owned Fortuna cinema.11 Next it was the turn of Jewish civil servants—including teachers in public schools like Louis Kissinger—who were ejected from their posts under the April 1933 “Law for the Restoration of the Career Civil Service.” Another major legislative milestone were the so-called Nuremberg Laws, drafted at the party’s annual gathering in 1935, the first of which—the “Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor”—prohibited mixed marriages as well as interracial sex and banned Jews from employing non-Jews as domestic servants. The second “Reich Citizenship Law” deprived Jews of full citizenship.

Discrimination against Jews was mandated centrally but enforced and sometimes also extended locally. The segregation of Jews—their exclusion from public spaces—proceeded at different paces from region to region. In Fürth, for example, it was at the height of the summer heat, in August 1933, that Jews were banned from using the public bathing area in the River Rednitz. In April 1934 a ceiling of 1.5 percent was imposed on the proportion of Jewish pupils that could study at public schools. By 1936, however, all the major Fürth schools—the Girls’ Lyceum, the Humanistic Gymnasium, the Oberrealschule, and the Commercial School—could proudly proclaim themselves “Jew-free” (judenrein). Henceforth all Jewish children had to attend either the Jewish Realschule or the Jewish Volksschule.12

As rights were stripped away, so too was dignity. The Fürther Anzeiger published a steady stream of anti-Semitic articles in the sneering style of Streicher. The author of one typical story described hearing Jewish schoolchildren singing the German national anthem. “Oh you comical Jew folk,” he gloated. “How you must fear the Germany that is now being built.”13 On May 27, 1934, Streicher himself was made an honorary citizen of Fürth. In his acceptance speech, he did not mince his words: “We are heading toward serious times. If another war comes, all the Jews in Franconia will be shot, [because] the Jews were responsible for the [last] war.”14 The annual Fasching parade the following year featured a number of grotesquely anti-Semitic floats, with clowns dressed as caricature Jews in various humiliating postures.15 But anti-Semitism in Bavaria was much more than playacting. Already in 1933 there was more than a hint of physical menace in the way the SA conducted the boycott campaign. Where this might lead became clear on the night of March 25, 1934, when the village of Gunzenhausen, around thirty miles southwest of Fürth, erupted in a pogrom that left two of the local Jewish community dead: one from hanging, the other from stab wounds.16

By this time the “national revolution” was threatening to run out of control, to the extent that—in Fürth as elsewhere—the army had to step in to restrain the SA.17 But even after the so-called Night of the Long Knives (the purge of the SA leadership, including Ernst Röhm, between June 30 and July 2, 1934), the persecution continued, though now with legalistic trappings. Theodor Bergmann, a leading member of the Fürth Jewish community, was arrested for insulting an “Aryan” woman; he committed suicide while in a concentration camp. On March 10, 1935, Dr. Rudolf Benario was arrested and dragged from his sickbed, despite suffering from a high fever. He and Ernst Goldmann were sent to Dachau, where they were both shot—in yet another infamous euphemism—“while trying to escape.”18 A year later three Jewish youths, also from Fürth, were sentenced to twelve, ten, and five months, respectively, for having the audacity to tell “horror stories” (Greuelnachrichten) about the treatment of Jews in Germany.19 Such grim ironies abounded in Fürth. On November 26, 1937, a seventy-two-year-old Jew from the town was sentenced to eight months in prison for daring to suggest that Jews in Germany were being persecuted. A year later three Fürth Jews were arrested and charged under the Nuremberg Laws with “racial defilement.” They received jail sentences of between five and ten years.20


For Louis Kissinger, the stripping away of his hard-won respectability as a senior staff member at a public high school was a bewildering nightmare. On May 2, 1933, along with Studienra;tin Hermine Bassfreund, the other Jewish teacher at the Fürth Girls’ School, he was “sent on mandatory leave” and then, a few months later, “permanently retired.”21 He was not yet fifty. His son Walter remembered how he “withdrew into his study” after his dismissal.22 But it was not just the premature termination of his career that shocked Louis. As his wife later recalled, “the colleagues of my husband, the former colleagues, ignored him completely as if he would never have [existed].” To keep himself active, he founded “a school that Jewish children who couldn’t go to public schools any more could [attend]._._._. He taught them commercial sciences, which he had taught before.”23 Curiously, he did not move to teach at the Jewish Realschule, where both his sons began studying in the summer of 1933. It is not entirely clear from the existing records why they went there so early—before the Jewish quotas had been imposed on the public schools.24 According to Kissinger, his parents intended that he should go to the Gymnasium after four years at the Realschule (which would not have been unusual for a boy from an Orthodox family).25 By that time, however, the quota was in place.

The Realschule, which was just around the corner from the Kissingers’ home, was by no means a bad institution. Its director, Fritz Prager, had recruited at least one able teacher, Hermann Mandelbaum, who taught arithmetic, geography, and writing as well as economics and shorthand. Mandelbaum liked to make his pupils squirm with difficult questions. His catchphrase in class was “Who’s chattering?” (Wer schwa;tzt?)26 But Kissinger’s mother recalled that “the teachers [at the Realschule] were not of the first grade, and Henry, who was very gifted, was bored. Both [boys] were not happy in school._._._. [T]he children were frustrated, really, and they didn’t do their best.”27 Such evidence as survives confirms that Kissinger did not shine there.28 A further cause of frustration was the way Nazi legislation was excluding the boys from all their favorite extracurricular activities. Barred from public swimming pools, from playing soccer with gentiles, and from watching their beloved Spielvereinigung, the boys had to join the Zionist Bar-Kochba sport association and to use the facilities of the new Jewish Sports Club, founded in October 1936 with its playing fields in the Karolinenstrasse.29 As Kissinger later remembered,

Jews were segregated from 1933 on_._._. but there was a Jewish team and I played in the junior team. We could only play against the other Jewish teams._._._. During that period_._._. watching and participating in sports provided me with relief from the environment. I used to sneak out to catch the local soccer team play, even though, as a Jew, you ran the risk of getting beaten up if you were there and they recognized you.30

Not all of Kissinger’s contemporaries had memories of street violence. Jules Wallerstein, who attended the same school as the Kissingers, recalled that until 1938, “My friends were Jewish and non-Jewish. We played soldiers, went to each other’s homes and made fun of some of the Nazi leaders. My non-Jewish friends never called me foul names or called me a dirty Jew.”31 But others—notably Frank Harris (Franz Hess) and Raphael Hallemann, the son of the director of the Jewish orphanage—confirm Kissinger’s account.32 It was no longer safe for a Jewish boy to walk through the streets of Fürth.

Yet there were other forms of recreation than sport. It was at some point during the Nazi period that the young Heinz Kissinger joined the Orthodox organization Agudath (Union), the political arm of Ashkenazi Torah Judaism, a creation of the First World War that for a time called itself Shlumei Emunei Yisroel (the Union of Faithful Jewry). Agudath’s aim was to strengthen Orthodox institutions in Europe independently of the Zionist movement and ultimately to unite Western European and Eastern European Orthodoxy—a fact of which Kissinger was reminded forty years later by the Orthodox rabbi Morris Sherer, who joked that he had “under lock and key a paper you wrote back then” for Agudath.33 This long-forgotten “paper” is the earliest of Henry Kissinger’s writings to survive. It consists of the minutes of a meeting of the Esra Orthodox youth group run by Leo Höchster, a slightly older Jewish boy.34 At the time of the meeting, on July 3, 1937, Heinz Kissinger was just fourteen years old; Höchster was eighteen. Five other “members” attended the meeting: Alfred Bechhöfer, Raphael Hallemann, Manfred Koschland, Hans Wangersheimer, and Kissinger’s friend Heinz Lion. The original is in Kissinger’s own hand in a combination of Sütterlin (the old German script) and Hebrew. It is worth quoting in full for the light it sheds on his early religious and political outlook.

We met in our room punctually at 3:45 [p.m.]. First we discussed dinim [religious laws]. We set out the dinim about tevet [what is forbidden]. We talked about muktseh [excluded things, i.e., things that may not be carried on the Sabbath].

One distinguishes between four forms of muktseh:

muktseh me-hamat isur—[excluded] because of a specific prohibition [e.g., a pen, which is used for writing, a prohibited activity on Shabbat]

muktseh me-hamat mitsva—[excluded] to prevent one carrying out a Mitzvah [commandment inappropriate on Shabbat] (e.g. [wearing] Tefillin) [a reference to the small black leather boxes containing verses from the Torah that observant Jews wear during weekday morning prayers but not on Shabbat]

muktseh me-hamat avera—[excluded] so that one doesn’t commit an avera [sin; for example, an object like an altar for worshipping idols, a sinful act]

muktseh me-hamat mius—[excluded] because it is hateful [ha;sslich], therefore is inappropriate for Shabbat [for example, something dirty].

Then there is also a 5th form of muktseh, for example when one says before Shabbat that one will not take something if it is muktseh for the relevant Shabbat.

Then it was time to see who was the best in the group at [remembering] this. The decision was reached that Heinz Lion and I each received half a point.

For the most part this was simply a Torah study group, drilling the younger boys in the finer points of Hilchatic law. But the tone changes completely in the final sentences:

Then we discussed the impending partition of Palestine. A partition would be the greatest sacrilege [hilul ha-Shem] in the history of the world. A Jewish state governed not by the Torah but by a general law code is unthinkable. That was the end [of the meeting].

Heinz K.35

Events in distant Palestine were having their impact even in Franconia. Since April 1936 an Arab revolt had been raging against British Mandatory rule in Palestine. In large measure a response to increasing Jewish immigration, the revolt—which had begun as a general strike but quickly escalated into violence against both Jewish settlers and British forces—had forced the British to review the governance of the former Ottoman province. Heinz Kissinger and his friends were meeting just four days before the publication of the keenly anticipated report of the Royal Commission chaired by Earl Peel, which would recommend partition of Palestine into a small Jewish state along the coastal plain but also including Galilee, a residual Mandatory corridor from Jerusalem to the coast (including Haifa), and a larger Arab territory to the south and east, which would be joined to the neighboring kingdom of Transjordan. (That the report would recommend partition along these lines had already been anticipated in the British press since early April, so it is not so strange that an obscure Orthodox youth group in Fürth already knew its contents.) Though they wanted much more territory, the Zionist leaders Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion were willing to accept the Peel Commission’s report as the basis for negotiation, not least because it envisaged large-scale population transfers that would have resettled up to 225,000 Arabs outside the planned Jewish state. But the report was rejected by both the Arabs and non-Zionist Jewish groups like Agudath, and ultimately the idea of partition was shelved by the British themselves.36 It is remarkable that Henry Kissinger was already at the age of just fourteen an ardent opponent of Palestinian partition. Even if the view that it would be the “greatest sacrilege in the history of the world” was not his own but that of the group of which he was a member, he certainly did not dissent from it when recording the minutes of their meeting. Nor did he dissent from their repudiation of the idea of a secular Jewish state, based (as Israel would be) on a law code other than the Torah. At least one of the boys in the Höchster group would later end up a refugee in Palestine and in due course a citizen of Israel. But this was never likely to be the fate of Heinz Kissinger, who seemed to have embraced wholeheartedly his father’s anti-Zionism.


It was time, nevertheless, to leave Germany. Two of Louis Kissinger’s brothers had already done so. In June 1933 Karl Kissinger, who helped manage his father-in-law’s shoe store business, had been arrested and sent to Dachau, where he was subjected to beatings and death threats. After his wife secured his release more than a year later, in December 1934, they resolved to emigrate and in 1937 moved to Palestine with their three children, Herbert, Erwin, and Margot. Another of Louis’s brothers, Arno, moved to Stockholm in the mid-1930s, where he was later joined by their father, David, in early 1939. A Leutershausen friend, Karl Hezner, urged Louis to follow his brothers’ example. But Louis was more than ten years older than Karl and Arno. As his wife later put it, “It wasn’t so easy to give up everything and go away with two children to an uncertain future.”37 His father, David, and brother Simon urged them not to give up on Germany. And there was a further obstacle to emigration. Paula Kissinger’s father had been diagnosed with cancer.

Yet Paula had to put her children first. What kind of future did they have in Germany, where the “Hitler State” showed every sign of enduring and where the position of Jews seemed much more likely to deteriorate than to improve? After graduating from the Jewish Realschule, Heinz had enrolled for three months in a Jewish teacher-training college in Würzburg, for want of any better option.38 As his mother later told Walter Isaacson, “It was my decision and I did it because of the children. I knew there was not a life to be made for them if we stayed.”39

It was, to say the least, fortunate for the Kissingers that one of Paula’s mother’s elder sisters had already emigrated to the United States, years before Hitler was even heard of. Her daughter—and therefore Paula’s cousin—Sarah Ascher had been born in Brooklyn but now lived in Larchmont, Westchester County. When Paula suggested sending Heinz and Walter across the Atlantic to safety, her American cousin urged the whole family to come. On October 28, 1937, she signed the crucial “affidavit of support” that pledged to give the Kissingers financial support if they came. (Quotas on immigration to the United States dating back to the 1920s meant that without such a pledge even refugees from Nazism could not be admitted.)* Though her income was just $4,000 a year, Sarah Ascher had stocks worth $8,000 and other savings worth $15,000, so her pledge was credible.40 (The Kissingers in fact had wealthier U.S. relatives, the descendants of Louis Baehr in Pittsburgh, but their assistance was not required.) On April 21, 1938, Louis and Paula Kissinger—officially identified as “German nationals, Jews by race and belief”—notified the Emigration Advisory Bureau in Munich of their intention to emigrate.41 The request had to clear multiple hurdles, but it was processed and approved in less than three weeks. First, Louis Kissinger applied to the Fürth police for passports.42 The Gestapo then had to check that none of the family had a criminal record. The mayor of Fürth gave his approval on April 29, followed by the Gestapo on May 5,43 the municipal finance office on May 6,44 and German customs on May 9.45 After receiving payment of 12 marks and 70 pfennigs, plus 5 marks 28 for a character reference, the police issued the four passports on May 10.46

It was not until August 10 that the Kissingers officially told the Fürth police of their intention to depart, however. There were painful farewells to make, not least to Paula’s ailing father—the first occasion in their lives when Heinz and Walter had seen their father moved to tears.47 “When my family was about to leave the country of my birth,” Kissinger recalled many years later, “I called on my grandfather, to whom I was very attached, in the little village where he lived, to say good-bye. He was suffering from cancer, and I knew I would never see him again. My grandfather took the finality out of the encounter by telling me that we were not really parting, because he would pay me a final visit at my parents’ home a few weeks hence. Though I did not really believe it, the prospect proved remarkably consoling.”48 They also had to bid farewell to most of their possessions; Nazi regulations ensured that Jews who quit the Reich left behind not only most of their savings but also most of their furniture (worth, in the Kissingers’ case, an estimated 23,000 marks, including the piano).49 There was a regulation-sized crate that Jews leaving the Third Reich were allowed to fill; Kissinger recalled his mother making the doleful selection of what could come with them.50 On August 20 the family set sail from one of the Belgian Channel ports, bound for England. They spent just over a week in London, at the Golders Green home of Paula’s aunt Berta and her husband, Sigmund Fleischmann—formerly the kosher butcher in Fürth—with whom Paula had lodged as a schoolgirl. Then, on August 30, 1938, they took the train to Southampton and boarded the Île de France, bound for New York. Heinz Kissinger was fifteen years old. His best friend, Heinz Lion, had already left for Palestine in March.

The Kissingers were just 4 among 1,578 Bavarian Jews who emigrated in 1938.51 They did not leave Germany a moment too soon.


On the same day the Kissingers informed the Fürth police of their departure, the principal Nuremberg synagogue was destroyed. The main synagogue in Munich had suffered a similar fate the previous June. The more radically anti-Semitic elements within the Nazi Party—not least Hitler himself—were growing impatient with mere segregation. With good reason, the Jewish community in Fürth began preparing for trouble. The most valuable scrolls and silver ornaments were removed from the synagogues for safekeeping.52 A further warning of the impending storm came on October 16, 1938, when a mob attacked the Leutershausen synagogue and broke the windows of Jewish homes, including Falk and Fanny Stern’s farmhouse. In the wake of the pogrom, Stern was forced to sell the house he had bought with his brother thirty-four years before. He and Fanny moved to his sister Minna Fleischmann’s house in Fürth, where he would succumb to cancer on May 26, 1939. By that time Fürth, too, had ceased to be a safe place for Jews.

Kristallnacht—the “Night of Broken Glass”—was a moment of truth in the history of the Third Reich. Whatever facade had been erected to give a semblance of legality to the regime’s racial policy was torn away by a nationwide orgy of violence and vandalism. The pretext for the worst pogrom in German history since the Middle Ages was the murder in the German embassy in Paris of the diplomat Ernst vom Rath by a seventeen-year-old Jewish exile from Hanover named Herschel Grynszpan, who had been incensed by the deportation from Germany of his parents, who were Polish nationals. He shot vom Rath at point-blank range on November 7, 1938. Two days later the diplomat was dead. This was Hitler’s cue. With Goebbels’s excited encouragement, he unleashed an ostensibly “spontaneous” assault on the Jewish population.

There was a farcical quality to the way these orders were carried out in Fürth. November 9 was the anniversary of the abortive “beer hall putsch” of 1923, a day when the Nazis commemorated their martyrs. As a result, the local party bigwigs were celebrating bibulously in the Cafe; Fink when the order came through to attack the Jews and, in particular, to destroy the town’s synagogues. The mayor was red-faced and brimming over with beer. He had no objection at all to organizing a pogrom. But he was concerned about the consequences of burning down so many synagogues, most of them located in the densely built town center. With that curious mixture of callousness and punctiliousness so characteristic of the Nazis, he summoned the chief of the town’s fire brigade, Johannes Rachfahl, and ordered him to prepare to protect all buildings in the vicinity of the synagogues that were about to be incinerated. Rachfahl was flabbergasted: “The Herr Oberbürgermeister likes his little joke” was his immediate reaction. He patiently explained to the mayor the impossibility of controlling the kind of fire there would be if all the synagogues around the Schulplatz were set ablaze. Reluctantly the mayor compromised. Only the main synagogue would be burned down.53

At around one a.m. in the small hours of November 10, a force of 150 SA men broke down the iron gates of Schulhof and then smashed in the oak doors of the main synagogue. Once inside they broke pews and ornaments, then piled up whatever Torah scrolls they could find, doused them with petrol, and set them ablaze. Dragged from his bed, Dr. Albert Neuburger, a leading member of the Jewish community, was left semiconscious and bloody after his head was used as a battering ram to break down the door of the community’s welfare office. At 3:15 a.m., with the main synagogue now burning fiercely, the fire brigade was summoned to the scene, but the SA prevented their hoses from being used on the synagogue. Indeed, the Oberbürgermeister ordered them to let the fire spread to the caretaker’s house and the adjoining prayer hall (Betsaal). Also destroyed that night was the ritual bathhouse and the synagogue at 30 Mohrenstrasse. The Jewish cemetery was also vandalized, as were the Jewish hospital, the Realschule, the orphanage, and many Jewish-owned shops, including the cafe; in the Moststrasse. Anti-Semitic slogans were painted on the walls of the orphanage—“We will not let a Jew murder a German”—and the Realschule—“Croak Judas! Revenge for Paris!”

Nor was that all. The entire Jewish community, including the children from the orphanage, were now herded into the Schlageterplatz (today known as Fürther Freiheit) and left standing there in the November cold for five hours. Entertainment was provided by an assault on the Kissingers’ rabbi, Leo Breslauer, culminating in the forcible shaving off of his beard. Watching with horror was the young Edgar Rosenberg, whose recollections capture not only the fear but also the horrible dissension among the helpless victims.

At about 5:30_._._. the Jews were ordered to execute a smart about-face in the direction of the Schulhof: the sky had turned crimson; the synagogues burned. And at that moment the time-honored religious schisms among us, which seem not to desert us even in days of wrath, burst eerily into the open. For now the orthodox Jews—the members of the Neuschul, the Mannheimer Shul, the Klaus Shul—set up a heart-rending wail to see their bet knesset aflame; but these seemed above all to intimidate, even terrify, the reformed Jews, who took it for granted that these pious howls could only inflame the troopers and turn it into a bloodbath. In this they over-reacted.54

There would be no bloodbath; not here, not yet. At nine a.m. all the women and children were sent home, while the men were marched to the former Berolzheimerianum (it too had been renamed), where the verbal and physical abuse continued. Rosenberg remembered “my nosy townsmen_._._. crowd[ing] into the streets, spitting, yodeling, screaming, ‘Well, high time!’ and ‘None too soon!’ and bursting into a chorus of ‘Jew Sow’ and ‘Croak Judas!’_._._. [then] break[ing] the ranks of the Brownshirts to get a good close-up of the Jew Kahn [sic], the religious whose beard has been ripped off.”55 In total, 132 men were subsequently sent to Nuremberg and then on to Dachau, including the Kissinger brothers’ teacher Hermann Mandelbaum, who was held there for forty-seven days, and Rosenberg’s father, who subsequently escaped to Switzerland.56

The pillage was not over. Back in Fürth, the Jewish community’s leaders were forced to sign a document selling the two Jewish cemeteries, hospital, and much other community property to the municipality for the risible sum of one hundred marks. They were also threatened with death if they refused to reveal the whereabouts of a nonexistent, supposedly hidden synagogue. (Their assailants had in mind a school for sick children called the Waldschule, which had been established by a Jewish philanthropist in 1907.) In the succeeding days, a number of Jewish firms were also compelled to sell their real estate for similar negligible sums—a prelude to the law of November 12, 1938, which formally excluded Jews from German economic life and paved the way for the formal “Aryanization” of all Jewish-owned firms.57 Later on the morning of November 10, the SA men returned to march through the still smoldering Schulhof in triumph. They had blood as well as ashes on their hands. One man had died of the injuries inflicted on him during the night; another had committed suicide. Rabbi Breslauer survived, but he was so badly brutalized that, even years later, “he could not speak loudly because of the tortures to which the Nazis had subjected him on Kristallnacht.”58

To the victims of the pogrom, it seemed incredible. As one incredulous eyewitness put it, “When I was a young man we took dance classes, Jews and Christians together, intermingling without any problems. There was virtually no anti-Semitism_._._. until the time of Hitler. We Jews never believed that there could be such anti-Semitism in Fürth.”59

And yet there was. It took thirteen years to bring those responsible for the events of November 10, 1938, in Fürth to justice. Of five ringleaders who survived to face prosecution in 1951, just one was found guilty. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. A year later, a second case came to trial in Karlsruhe; two more defendants were convicted and sentenced to, respectively, two years and four months. By that time, however, many far worse crimes had been committed against the Jews of Fürth.


Fürth is but a dull town and a measure of its unimportance beneath the stars came home to me_._._. in 1945. [While] Nuremberg lay in dust and ashes, a heap of broken icons and crumbled idols, a tribute to its Babylonian wickedness, Fürth was still there, all of a piece, squatting pacifically in the sun._._._. Of course, the missing synagogue left a certain hole in the jigsaw puzzle._._._.

Nuremberg_._._. has_._._. its golden tradition and its trumpeted trials; the reader is easily oriented: ah, says he, Nuremberg, I know that: Albrecht Dürer, the Nazi Congress, the Tower, Justice Jackson, the hangings, the bratwursts; but whenever I whisper “Fürth,” the echo replies: spell it.60

Edgar Rosenberg was one of those Fürth-born Jews who survived World War II, having escaped to the United States, via Haiti, after Kristallnacht. He was ironically surprised to find so much of his hometown still intact when he returned in an American uniform at the end of the war.

Not that Fürth was unscathed. The war that Hitler launched in September 1939 pitted Germany against seemingly weaker opposition than the war he himself had fought in twenty-five years before. By the summer of 1940, Germany bestrode the European continent, triumphant after defeating France and driving the British Expeditionary Force back across the Channel from Dunkirk. Yet the resources of the British Empire remained enormous. As early as August 1940 and again the following October, Royal Air Force planes dropped bombs on Fürth and Nuremberg, an industrial conurbation high on the British list of targets for strategic bombing. This was but a foretaste of what lay ahead. There were sporadic raids in 1941 and 1942, but in 1943—by which time Germany was also at war with both the Soviet Union and the United States—the scale of aerial bombardment soared. On the night of August 10–11, 1943, the entire district of Wohrd in Nuremberg was destroyed. In 1944 there were twelve major Allied air raids on Middle and Upper Franconia, which killed over a thousand people. Three times that number were killed by devastating strikes on January 2 and February 21–22, 1945. By the end of the war, 6 percent of prewar buildings in Fürth had been totally destroyed, 30 percent moderately to badly damaged, and 54 percent slightly damaged.61 According to reports of a small raid on Nuremberg-Fürth in March 1945, “the majority of the bombs fell on fields of ruins.”62

The last film to be screened in Fürth before the final collapse of the Third Reich was a light comedy with a cruelly fitting title: It Began So Harmlessly (Es fing so harmlos an).63 Perhaps that was how Hitler’s accession to power appeared in retrospect to those who had voted Nazi in 1932 and 1933. But there had never been anything harmless about Hitler from the vantage point of German Jews. In January 1939, even before the outbreak of war, he had made a chilling prophecy: “If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”64

With the outbreak of war, the Nazis felt emboldened to fulfill that threat. Of 1,990 Jews who had lived in Fürth in 1933, fewer than 40 were left by the end. Of those who had not emigrated by the war’s outbreak, most—511 in all—were deported by train to German-occupied territory in Eastern Europe, where they were either shot, gassed, or worked to death.65 The first deportation was to Riga on November 29, 1941. This was followed on March 22–24, 1942, by a large-scale deportation to Izbica. From there the deportees were sent to the death camps at Sobibór or Bełzec or to the forced labor camp at Trawniki. A month later another contingent of Fürth Jews was dispatched to Krasniczyn. Those remaining were sent to either Theresienstadt (September 10, 1942) or Auschwitz (June 18, 1943). The Nazis concluded the liquidation of Fürth’s Jewish community by deporting a small group of converts and Mischlinge (“half-breeds”) on January 17, 1944. Among the victims were all 33 pupils at the Jewish orphanage, who were sent to Izbica, along with the director of the orphanage, Dr. Isaak Hallemann, and his family.66 (His proposal to move the orphanage to Palestine had been rejected by the Jewish community on the ground that the benefactors of the orphanage had specified Fürth as its location.)67 By 1945 all that remained of the “Bavarian Jerusalem” was a handful of survivors and a few repurposed buildings. The old Jewish cemetery had been totally destroyed, the gravestones used as stone for building air defenses, the burial ground flooded to create a makeshift reservoir for the fire brigade.68

If the Kissingers had not left Germany when they did, there can be little doubt what their fate would have been. It is unlikely that Heinz Kissinger would have lived to see his twentieth birthday. Of his close family, according to his own estimate, thirteen relatives were killed in the Holocaust, including his father’s three sisters, Selma, Ida, and Fanny; their husbands, Max Blattner, Siegbert Friedmann, and Jakob Rau; his great-uncle Simon, along with his sons Ferdinand and Julius; and Paula Kissinger’s stepmother, Fanny Stern.69 Although she was not a blood relative, Kissinger had regarded Fanny as his grandmother. “For [her],” he later recalled, “I was a genuine grandchild and for me, I didn’t know she was my stepgrandmother, so that was a very warm, caring relationship.” Deceptively, the family continued to receive pro forma postcards from her even after her deportation. They subsequently learned that she had been sent to the death camp at Bełzec, only to perish on a forced march westward after the camp was dismantled.70 Falk Stern’s sister Minna died at Theresienstadt and her husband, Max, at Auschwitz. Also among the victims were Kissinger’s cousins Louise Blattner, Lilli Friedmann, and Norbert Rau.71

In fact, the figure of thirteen understates the number of Henry Kissinger’s relatives who perished at the hands of the Nazis. According to “The Kissingers,” a manuscript family history compiled by either Charles Stanton or Martin Kissinger, the correct figure is twenty-three. Even that figure may be too low. Of all the known descendants of Meyer Löb Kissinger, no fewer than fifty-seven died in the years of the Holocaust. This total may of course include people who died outside German-occupied territory of natural causes, but it may also exclude victims of the Holocaust whose deaths were not documented. Suffice to say that the figure of twenty-three is a minimum; the total number of Kissinger’s relatives killed was probably closer to thirty.

What was the impact of this calamity on Henry Kissinger? Thirty years after the end of the war, now secretary of state, he was invited to return to his birthplace to receive a medal of honorary citizenship.72 For his parents’ sake, he accepted and they accompanied him. His father was publicly forgiving, his mother privately implacable. (“I was offended in my heart that day, but said nothing,” she later said. “In my heart, I knew they would have burned us with the others if we had stayed.”)73 Kissinger himself has always been at pains to deny that the Holocaust was crucial to his development. “My first political experiences were as a member of a persecuted Jewish minority,” he said in an interview in 2007.

And_._._. many members of my family, and about 70 per cent of the people I went to school with, died in concentration camps. So that is something one cannot forget._._._. [Nor is it] possible to have lived in Nazi Germany and to_._._. be emotionally indifferent to the fate of Israel._._._. [But] I do not agree with [the view] that analyzes everything in terms of my alleged Jewish origin. I have not thought of myself in those terms.74

Kissinger was still a devoutly Orthodox Jew when he left Germany in August 1938. But at some point between then and 1945, something happened to change that. As a result, for most of his adult life, he characterized himself as Jewish by ethnicity rather than by faith: “I’m not a religious man in the sense of practicing a particular religion. Of course I’m Jewish and always affirm that, but I am religious in the sense that I do believe—in the sense of Spinoza—that there probably is a fitness in the universe which we can no more understand than an ant could understand an interpretation of our universe.”75

And yet it was not the horror of the Shoah, despite its calamitous impact on his family, that brought Kissinger to this realization of the limits of human understanding. It was the searing experience of waging war against the Nazis.


Fürth on the Hudson

Almost a year has passed since I left Germany. You will certainly have often recalled my promise to write as soon as possible. Yet it was not just laziness that prevented me from writing. Rather it was the fact that in these eight months so much has changed within me and around me that I have neither the desire nor the peace to write letters.


New York was not merely the vital metropolis, brimming with politics and contention, that has since become a sentimental legend; it was also the brutal, ugly, frightening, the foul smelling jungle_._._. the embodiment of that alien world which every boy raised in a Jewish immigrant home has been taught_._._. to look upon with suspicion.



It is tempting to draw a stark contrast between the country the Kissingers left behind in the summer of 1938 and the one they settled in. The German Reich, now firmly in Hitler’s ruthless grip, stood on the brink of an abyss of lawlessness and violence. The United States was the land of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” the song Franklin Roosevelt had chosen as the theme tune of his 1932 presidential election campaign. The Kissingers had narrowly avoided burning synagogues in Fürth. The Manhattan skyline that greeted them as the Île de France sailed in past Brooklyn—on a day of welcoming sunshine—was dominated by the dazzling Empire State Building, the highest skyscraper in the world. Germany was the land of oppression. America was the land of the free.

There were, of course, profound differences between the family’s old and new homes. And yet it would be a mistake to understate the problems of the United States in 1938—problems that very quickly had a direct bearing on the Kissingers’ lives. They, like most refugees to the United States, probably arrived with somewhat unrealistic expectations of their newly adopted homeland.3 If so, they were soon disabused of them.

Unlike in Germany, in the United States the Depression was not yet over in 1938. On the contrary, after four years of recovery, the economy had slumped back into recession in the second half of 1937. In October 1937 the stock market had capitulated. “We are headed right into another Depression,” Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau warned. From peak to trough, stocks fell by a third. Industrial production slumped 40 percent. A total of two million workers had been laid off by the end of the winter of 1937–38, driving the unemployment rate back up to 19 percent. Roosevelt and his sidekicks complained of a “capitalist strike”; the capitalists retorted that the New Deal had created too much uncertainty for business to invest with confidence. The New Dealers within the administration blamed monetary and fiscal tightening for the “Roosevelt Recession.” The most influential American Keynesian, Harvard’s Alvin H. Hansen, argued in his 1938 tract, Full Recovery or Stagnation, that only massive government deficits could maintain full employment—and certainly, it took the approach of war and unprecedented public borrowing to generate recovery. From the vantage point of Republicans, however, deficits were one of the things eroding business confidence.4 Meanwhile, the still-large agricultural sector of the economy languished. Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor captured the agony of the economic migration from the Dust Bowl in An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, published in 1938.5

It was not only Nazi Germany that could be described as a “racial state.” In the United States, racial segregation extended far beyond the South. Signs like “We Cater to White Trade Only” could be seen in shops all over America. Lynchings claimed more than one hundred lives between 1930 and 1938. It was in 1938 that Gunnar Myrdal began the research that would produce An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy.6 Thirty states still retained constitutional or legal bans on interracial marriage, and many of these had recently extended or tightened their rules. It was not only African Americans and American Indians who were affected; some states also discriminated against Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, “Malays” (Filipinos), and “Hindus” (Indians). Moreover, the influence of eugenics in the United States had added a new tier of discriminatory legislation that was not only similar to that introduced in Germany in the 1930s but also the inspiration for some Nazi legislation. No fewer than forty-one states used eugenic categories to restrict marriages of the mentally ill, while twenty-seven states passed laws mandating sterilization for certain categories of people. In 1933 alone California forcibly sterilized 1,278 people. Hitler openly acknowledged his debt to American eugenicists.7

Meanwhile, the political power of the segregationists in Congress was waxing, not waning. They successfully stymied an Anti-Lynching Bill in 1938. They also prevented Roosevelt from enacting minimum wage legislation; South Carolina’s senator Ellison Smith (“Cotton Ed”) boasted that in his state a man—meaning a black man—could live on fifty cents a day.8 The year 1938 marked the effective end of the New Deal in the face of such congressional opposition. In the midterm elections held that year, the Republicans won thirteen governorships, doubled their representation in the House, and gained seven new Senate seats. Roosevelt’s attempt to replace at least some southern Democrats with New Dealers abjectly failed.9

The American right was fighting back in more ways than one. In June 1938 Texas congressman Martin Dies chaired the first hearings before the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities. Fear of Communism was stoked by dissension within the U.S. labor movement, with AFL representatives openly accusing their CIO rivals of running “a seminary of Communist sedition.”10 Labor market friction was especially severe in New York. In September 1938 the city was hit by an unofficial truck drivers’ strike.11 Another labor dispute led to the bombings of seven fur shops on West 29th Street.12

In Germany the government itself had been taken over by criminals. In the United States the criminals wielded power in different ways. The 1930s were the heyday of gangsters like Meyer Lansky (born Meyer Suchowljansky), Bugsy Siegel (born Benjamin Siegelbaum), and Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Salvatore Lucania), who had successfully switched from bootlegging to gambling and other rackets after the end of Prohibition in 1933. It was Luciano who, emerging as the dominant figure in the New York Mafia underworld, established “The Commission” in order to impose some kind of central governance not just on the Five Families of New York but on organized crime throughout America. Luciano’s reign had effectively ended in 1936, when he was arrested and successfully prosecuted by special prosecutor (later governor) Thomas E. Dewey for running a prostitution racket. But his place was soon taken by Frank Costello (born Francesco Castiglia).13 And the links from such men to the political machines that ran urban America were real. For every Dewey there was at least one corrupt ward boss in the pay of the Mob.

And yet, amid all this turmoil, the United States remained an astonishingly dynamic and creative society. The year Henry Kissinger arrived in New York was the year when Errol Flynn starred in The Adventures of Robin Hood (one of four films he appeared in that year), Jimmy Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Carefree. Ronald Reagan was kept busy in ten B movies, including Accidents Will Happen, Going Places, and Girls on Probation. In truth, the best film in American cinemas in 1938 was French: Jean Renoir’s antiwar masterpiece La Grande Illusion, while the most commercially successful was Disney’s full-length cartoon Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (which had opened in December the year before). But the Oscar for Best Picture went to Frank Capra’s adaptation of the Broadway screwball comedy You Can’t Take It with You, in which Jimmy Stewart, playing a banker’s son, becomes romantically entangled with a member of an eccentric immigrant household. Set in Manhattan, the movie made light of the social cleavages of the time (though it is best remembered today for its timeless exchange about income tax). Also appearing regularly in American cinemas in the year of the Kissingers’ arrival were Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, W. C. Fields, Henry Fonda, Judy Garland, Betty Grable, Bob Hope, Edward G. Robinson, Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy, and John Wayne—not forgetting Shirley Temple, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and the Marx Brothers. If Hollywood ever had a true golden age, then this was it.

As ubiquitous as the movies in American life was the radio. In 1938 most American households were served by NBC’s two principal networks, which offered everything from Amos ’n’ Andy to Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra. The songs most likely to be heard on air in 1938 included the originally Yiddish hit “Bei Mir Bistu Shein,” recorded by the Andrews Sisters, “A-Tisket A-Tasket” by Ella Fitzgerald, “I Can’t Get Started” by Bunny Berigan, “Jeepers Creepers” by Al Donahue, and the Gershwins’ “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” sung by Fred Astaire. But it was Bing Crosby who was America’s preeminent crooner, counting among his 1938 hits “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” For all the economic difficulties of the time, this was also the golden age of the big band: Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw—all these bandleaders were at the peak of their powers, touring the nation with their big brass and reed orchestras. Yet the radio sensation of 1938 was not musical; it was Orson Welles’s dramatization of H. G. Wells’s science fiction novel The War of the Worlds, which caused panic across the nation when broadcast on October 30.

Among the year’s best-selling books was The Yearling, a tale of hardship in rural Florida, which won its author, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a Pulitzer Prize. British authors were strongly represented in the bookstores that year, among them A. J. Cronin, Howard Spring, and Daphne du Maurier, whose Rebecca was a bestseller in the United States. A further intimation of the deepening political crisis on the other side of the Atlantic was provided by The Mortal Storm, an anti-Nazi love story by another English writer, Phyllis Bottome. Broadway offered less challenging fare in the form of the musical Hellzapoppin, which began a run of more than a thousand performances in the month the Kissingers arrived in New York.

The Depression was also a remarkable time in the history of American sport. On June 22, 1938, in a richly symbolic fight, the African American heavyweight boxer Joe Louis knocked out the German Max Schmeling in front of seventy thousand people at Yankee Stadium, the second of their two encounters in the ring. The Yankees themselves won four successive World Series titles between 1936 and 1939, a period that saw the ailing Lou Gehrig retire and the young Joe DiMaggio shoot to fame as the “Yankee Clipper.” New York seemed to dominate American sports. In December, the Giants defeated the Green Bay Packers to win the National Football League title. It was the kind of performance that inspired improvised games of street football in neighborhoods like Washington Heights and Harlem.14 Here, perhaps, was the most striking contrast between Germany and America, at least for a teenage boy: soccer was nowhere to be seen. For fifteen-year-old Heinz Kissinger, it was time to study batting averages.


In one crucial respect, New York was not such unfamiliar territory for a family like the Kissingers. It was among the most Jewish cities in the world. There had been a Jewish community in the city since the early 1700s, but it was from the late nineteenth century that the Jewish population of the city exploded as a result of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe. In 1870 there had been around 60,000 Jews in New York. By 1910 there were more than one and a quarter million, around a quarter of the total population. Jews were arriving in New York at the rate of 50,000 a year between 1915 and 1924, until legal restrictions on immigration (enacted in 1921 and 1924) drove the annual influx down below 20,000. At their peak share in 1920, the Jews accounted for just over 29 percent of the population of New York City. At that time, the city’s Jewish population was larger than that of any European city including Warsaw. By 1940, to be sure, the Jewish share had fallen below 24 percent.15 Nevertheless, the city retained a distinctively Jewish character. Or, to be more precise, parts of it did.

Jews had been leaving Manhattan in droves since the early 1920s. In particular, the Lower East Side’s Jewish population had collapsed from 314,000 to 74,000. Yorkville, Morningside Heights, and East Harlem had also seen steep declines.16 By the time of the Kissingers’ arrival, there were more Jews in Brooklyn (857,000) and the Bronx (538,000) than in Manhattan (270,000). One exception to this rule was the area of Manhattan known as Washington Heights, in the far north of the island, where there was still a very high concentration of Jewish settlement. Those who had expected the newcomers’ children to be absorbed or assimilated into the wider population were proved wrong. By the end of the 1920s, 72 percent of Jewish New Yorkers lived in neighborhoods with at least 40 percent Jewish populations.17 Ethnic segregation actually increased in the 1920s, as Jewish property developers built smart new streets like the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, and stayed high through the 1930s. Washington Heights was an example of the “new kind of ghetto, a closed community of middle-class Jews whose social life was carried on exclusively with Jews of appropriate status.”18 This segregation was not wholly voluntary. There were subtle “restrictions” on Jewish residents in certain apartment buildings in Jackson Heights Queens, and in the Fieldston section of Riverdale.19 But mostly Jews lived in close proximity to one another because they preferred, for a variety of reasons, to do so. In the words of Nathaniel Zalowitz,

There [are] Ghettos for foreign born Jews and Ghettos for native born Jews. Ghettos for poor Jews and ghettos for middle class and for rich Jews, for Russian Jews and for German Jews. The East Side is one kind of Ghetto, Washington Heights another kind, West Bronx a third, Riverside Drive a fourth_._._. and Brooklyn has a dozen different kinds and styles of Ghettos of its own._._._. [As a result] four-fifths of all Jews_._._. practically have no social contact with the Gentiles.20

The German-Jewish exiles were therefore latecomers to a long-running process. Most, as we have seen, came after the summer of 1938: the total number of German refugees from January 1933 to June 1938 was just 27,000.21 In the period 1938–40, however, 157,000 came to the United States, of whom just under half were Jewish.22 Most settled in New York, despite the efforts of organizations like the interdenominational organization “Selfhelp” to get them to move inland.23 Jews were socially rather than geographically mobile. After fifteen to twenty-five years, half of Jewish immigrants achieved white-collar status.24 By the 1930s, Jews owned two-thirds of the 24,000 factories in New York City, the same proportion of the more than 100,000 wholesale and retail firms, and two-thirds of the 11,000 restaurants.25 But they moved en masse to more affluent neighborhoods within New York’s five boroughs, sticking together in the same streets and apartment buildings.

Jews were not in fact the largest religious minority in New York. By the 1930s, that position was occupied by Roman Catholics, mostly of Irish or Italian origin.26 Indirectly, this helped the Jews preserve their own religious and cultural identity, since Catholics were not only more numerous but also highly resistant to becoming assimilated into the Protestant “native” population—still a decided majority of the U.S. population as a whole—through intermarriage or education. On the other hand, there was no love lost between New York’s different religious and ethnic groups. For ethnic conflict was not unique to Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. It occurred—albeit on a much less violent scale—in the United States, too. Jews knew to avoid the established German areas like Yorkville on the Upper East Side. But anti-Semitism was by no means uniquely German. For New York’s Irish-Americans, who had borne the brunt of nativist antagonism in the second half of the nineteenth century, the arrival of poor southern Italians and Eastern European Jews provided an opportunity to turn the tables. So Jewish refugees also had to steer clear of Irish neighborhoods like Bainbridge and Kingsbridge in the Bronx. Interethnic competition over jobs and housing was commonplace. The Depression intensified such conflicts as the proportion of the population in employment slumped from 46 percent in 1930 to 38 percent in 1940. During the “Roosevelt Recession,” unskilled workers had the highest unemployment rates; this affected the Irish and Italians more than Jews, because the latter had been much quicker than other immigrant groups to move into more skilled sectors of the economy.27

Jewish upward mobility extended to the realm of politics. In the course of the 1920s, the formerly Republican New York Jews had been brought into the fold of the Democratic Party’s “ethnic coalition,” along with other immigrant groups. Governor Alfred E. Smith and his successor, Franklin Roosevelt, could count on Democratic bosses like Brownsville’s Hymie Schorenstein. Another Jew, Herbert H. Lehman, was elected to succeed Roosevelt as governor of New York in 1932; he held the post for four successive terms. And another, Irwin Steingut, became speaker of the New York State Assembly in 1935. Two years before, the election of the Republican–City Fusion candidate Fiorello La Guardia as mayor of New York City had ended Tammany Hall’s stranglehold on public sector jobs.28 La Guardia’s victory was hailed as an Italian victory, but it was equally a Jewish victory as his mother, Irene Coen, was a Jew from Trieste. (Significantly, the wholly Jewish Nathan Straus had decided not to run for the post as it seemed to him “extremely doubtful_._._. that it would be advisable for there to be a Jewish Governor and a Jewish Mayor.”)29 La Guardia soon signaled his allegiance, becoming the vice chairman of the American League for the Defense of Jewish Rights, one of the organizations set up to boycott German goods in retaliation for the Nazis’ anti-Jewish boycott in Germany.30 The Jewish vote was in fact quite evenly split between La Guardia and his opponents in 1933, which explains why all candidates worked so hard to attract Jewish voters. Under La Guardia’s mayoralty, however, Jews began to get more and more elected and unelected posts in the city government. In 1937 more than two-thirds of all Jews voted for La Guardia, and in 1941 very nearly three-quarters. In presidential elections, New York Jews overwhelmingly endorsed Roosevelt in 1932, 1936, and 1940 (when FDR won no less than 88 percent of their votes).31

The sharp increase under La Guardia in the number of Jews getting city government and teaching jobs angered the long-dominant Irish-Americans. The mainly Irish “Christian Front” was openly hostile to the “Jew Deal.” Anti-Semitism manifested itself in vandalism and anti-Jewish specifications in help-wanted advertisements.32 Even the former governor Al Smith (a political progressive) could say,

All my life I’ve been hearing about the plight of the poor Jews some place in the world._._._. As I look around the room tonight, I see the Governor here, Herby Lehman. He’s Jewish. Take the Mayor, he’s half Jewish. The President of the Board of Aldermen, my old job, Bernie Deutsch, he’s Jewish and so is Sam Levy, the Borough President of Manhattan. I’m beginning to wonder if someone shouldn’t do something for the poor Irish here in New York.33

Under the strain of the Depression, the Democratic ethnic coalition threatened to fall apart.

It did not help that key members of the New York Communist Party were Jews.34 Post–First World War socialism had also found its strongest support among New York’s Jews.35 And Jews accounted for between 20 and 40 percent of the New York vote for the American Labor Party between 1936 and 1941.36 As in Europe, so in America, it was not so hard for demagogues to equate “Reds” with “Jews.” In reality, the real bias in Jewish politics was toward liberalism, broadly defined.37

Events in Europe only widened all these domestic cleavages. To be sure, a Gallup poll on December 9, 1938 (a month after the Kristallnacht pogrom), showed that the American public overwhelmingly condemned Hitler’s persecution of the Jews.38 But few Americans were willing to increase immigration quotas to accommodate refugees, while more than two-thirds agreed that “with conditions as they are we should try to keep them out.” Roosevelt himself was sympathetic but gently pushed aside Governor Lehman’s argument (after Hitler’s annexation of Austria) that the immigration quota should be increased. Asked after Kristallnacht by a reporter, “Would you recommend a relaxation of our immigration restrictions so that the Jewish refugees could be received in this country?” Roosevelt replied bluntly, “That is not in contemplation. We have the quota system.” After Senator Robert Wagner of New York and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts introduced a bill to allow twenty thousand German children under fourteen years of age to enter outside the quota limits, two-thirds of those polled in January 1939 said they opposed the bill. In mid-1939, a Fortune poll asked, “If you were a member of Congress, would you vote yes or no on a bill to open the doors_._._. to a larger number of European refugees?” Eighty-five percent of Protestants, 84 percent of Catholics, and nearly 26 percent of Jews answered no.39 More than two-fifths of Americans surveyed in 1940 were opposed to mixed marriages between gentiles and Jews. Just under a fifth of Americans considered Jews a “menace to America,” and nearly a third expected “a widespread campaign against Jews in this country,” which more than 10 percent said they would support. Just under half of Americans polled in 1942 thought that Jews had “too much power in the United States.”40

The parallel world of a Nazi America imagined in Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America is not without its credibility. In October 1938, just weeks after their arrival, the Kissingers could have read a report of a meeting of the New York branch of the Daughters of the American Revolution at which one speaker called for curbs on “the alien menace,” including an end to the admission of refugees to the United States, as well as an investigation of “alien, atheistic, communistic and radical professors” at New York University and Hunter College.41 Other organizations were explicitly anti-Semitic, notably the Defenders of the Christian Faith, founded in 1925 by the Kansas preacher and Nazi sympathizer Gerald B. Winrod, and the Silver Shirt legions, which flourished in 1930s South Carolina under the leadership of William Dudley Pelley, a Methodist preacher’s son who dreamed of being the “American Hitler.”

Especially influential in New York was the National Union for Social Justice (NUSJ), founded by the Detroit-based priest Charles E. Coughlin, whose radio broadcasts against the “Jewish Communist threat” had up to 3.5 million listeners, mostly lower-class Catholics. Coughlin went so far as to defend the Kristallnacht pogrom in one of his tirades on the radio station WMCA and to publish the bogus “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in his periodical Social Justice. The NUSJ had its own branch at West 59th Street, where a substantial number of policemen were said to be members.42 Coughlin was also the inspiration for the Christian Front, formed by anti-Semitic Irish Catholics like John Cassidy in Brooklyn in 1938. An even more radical group were the Christian Mobilizers, who refused to drop their pro-Hitler stance even after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. The climax of this process of radicalization was the arrest of Christian Front members by the FBI in January 1940. They were charged with planning a coup against the government, which would have been accompanied by terrorist bombings of Jewish neighborhoods and assassinations of Jewish congressmen.43

The most overtly pro-Nazi organization in New York, however, was the Freunde des Neuen Deutschland—known from 1936 as the German-American Bund (Amerikadeutscher Volksbund). Its New York Gau (centered on Yorkville) was the hub of the Nazi movement in the United States. By the late 1930s, according to the Justice Department, this organization had between 8,000 and 10,000 members (the American Legion put the figure higher at 25,000), most of them recent immigrants or nonnaturalized Germans, as well as its own German-language newspaper, the Deutsche Weckruf und Beobachter (“The German Alarm Call and Observer”). To some, it was a mere pawn of Berlin, but probably only a small minority of its members were genuine fifth columnists.44 The Bund did not confine itself to organizing parades of brown-shirted activists.45 It also sought to put pressure on the long-established German-language newspaper the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung, as well as on German-American clubs like the Steuben Society of America and the Roland Society, to support the Hitler regime. It was only the increasing strength of anti-Nazi feeling in the United States—especially after Kristallnacht—that deterred more German-Americans from backing the Bund.46

The approach of war only worsened interethnic relations in New York. “New York is a veritable powder keg,” wrote one advocate of U.S. neutrality, “and our entry into the war might touch it off.” Predictably, Coughlinites strongly backed the anti-interventionist America First Committee, which also had the support of Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. Few Irish-Americans had an appetite for fighting another war on the same side as the British Empire. By contrast, New York’s Jewish organizations agreed with the administration’s view that “the choice [was] between Hitler and civilization.”47


Like most New York neighborhoods, Washington Heights—the area of Manhattan where the Kissingers made their home—is not a precise geographical location. If you had asked where it was in 1938, you might well have been told “the area around 159th Street near the intersection of Broadway and Fort Washington Avenue” or “the area to the north and west of Harlem.” Looking back, a near contemporary of Kissinger’s defined it somewhat differently:

For me, the early boundaries of the neighborhood were 173rd Street to the south, 177th Street to the north, South Pinehurst Avenue to the west and Broadway to the east. The only exceptions were if I was in Jay Hood Wright Park, I could go to the extreme rear, which was at Haven Avenue, one block west of South Pinehurst. If I was on Broadway, I could go to 181st Street to the movies; or if on Ft. Washington Avenue, I could go to 178th Street to the “Y.”_._._. On the corner of 181st Street and Broadway was_._._. the Harlem Savings Bank and, opposite it, the RKO Coliseum.48

Hilly and surrounded on three sides by rivers, Washington Heights was the last part of Manhattan to be urbanized, a process that was still not quite complete in the 1930s. The developers favored five- and six-story brick apartment buildings, but parks like Fort Tryon and Inwood Hill made this one of Manhattan’s most verdant districts. That may explain its appeal to the mostly middle-class exiles from Hitler’s Germany.

By the outbreak of World War II, Washington Heights had such a large population of German-Jewish refugees that it was jokingly known as the “Fourth Reich.”49 Other nicknames were “Cincinnati,” a pun on the German question “Sind Sie net’ die Frau soundso?” (“Aren’t you Mrs. So-and-so?”) and “Kanton Englisch,” another pun meaning “Not a word [Kein Ton] of English.”50 Altogether, between 20,000 and 25,000 German-Jewish refugees settled there, close to a quarter of the nearly 100,000 Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany to the United States.51 But Jews were never more than three-eighths of the Washington Heights population, and by the time of the war that proportion had fallen.52 The fact that the refugees were relatively elderly (22 percent were over forty) and favored small families meant that they were never likely to compete with the Irish and Greek populations.53 Partly for that reason, Washington Heights was less outwardly Jewish than, say, Brownsville in Brooklyn.

Washington Heights was, by almost any definition, a middle-class neighborhood. Median family income in 1930 had been just over $4,000, three times what it was in the Lower East Side, but half what it was in the Upper West Side, home of the wealthy “alrightniks.”54 The refugees, however, arrived with little cash. Often, like the Kissingers, they had only a crateful of furniture. What made Washington Heights so attractive was that it was both bürgerlich and affordable. Rents were relatively low, and because most apartments had between six and eight bedrooms (some of which had originally been intended for servants), it was possible to sublet for cash.55 As in other parts of New York, the different ethnic groups engaged in residential self-segregation by street and even apartment building, so that in some streets all-Jewish buildings could be found not far from all-Irish ones.56

The degree of separateness of the Jewish community came as a surprise to many of the newcomers. Writing in 1951, the Frankfurt-born Ernest Stock—who had arrived in New York in 1940—recalled, “It came as a shock to discover how much [the United States] is a series of rather tight ethnic enclaves._._._. German Jewish professionals frequented the homes of other German professionals, whereas, in New York, Jewish doctors and lawyers tend to visit the homes of other Jewish doctors and lawyers.”57 For such professionals, it was far from easy to find work. Physicians had to pass state medical examinations; German-trained lawyers had almost no chance of practicing again. The best option was to set up a small business catering mainly to one’s fellow Jews. Already by 1940 there were eight kosher butchers in Washington Heights. Jewish bakeries also sprang up, specializing in poppyseed-covered barches.58 A few Washington Heights firms succeeded in finding a wider market, notably the Odenwald Bird Company and the Barton candy store. But most stayed small. For many men, the choice was between idleness and door-to-door sales; for many women, between their own housework and that of others.59

Even to their fellow Jews in New York, the refugees were to some extent alien. According to one refugee, American Jews regarded the newcomers as “conceited”: “they ‘stick together and won’t mix with the rest of us,’ they are ‘arrogant,’ they are ‘schemers,’ they are ‘mercenary’—a long list of accusations sounding not too much unlike the ideas about Jews generally harbored by anti-Semites.”60 For nearly everyone in Washington Heights, life in pre-Hitler Germany had been better than their new exile existence. A popular joke had one dachshund saying to another, “In Germany I ate white bread every day.” The second replies, “That’s nothing, in Germany I was a Saint Bernard.”61

For those refugees who could not at first find work—and Louis Kissinger was one of them—life in Washington Heights revolved around “agreeable socializing with coffee and cake.”62 Lublo’s Palm Garden offered “Viennese cuisine” (though the proprietor was in fact from Stuttgart). Other German-Jewish restaurants in the neighborhood included Orner’s, the College Inn, and Restaurant Derrick. There one might pass the time reading Aufbau, the weekly newspaper published by the Deutsch-jüdischer Club (later the German-Jewish Club, later the New World Club) or its smaller local rival Jewish Way, published in German by Max and Alice Oppenheimer from 1940 to 1965.63 Alternatively, there was the Prospect Unity Club, with its headquarters at 558 West 158th Street. Other associations included the Immigrant Jewish War Veterans and Agudath Israel of Washington Heights. For younger people there was the Maccabi Athletic Club, which had its clubhouse on 150th Street, or ALTEO (All Loyal To Each Other), another youth organization.64

Such clubs, however, were less important in the life of the refugee Jewish community than the numerous religious and charitable organizations (chevras) they founded. Jewish immigrants to New York tended to begin by creating small synagogues for themselves and their landslayt (countrymen), usually meeting in rented rooms. In the second generation, Jews in places like Brooklyn and Flatbush built more formal “synagogue centers” (“a pool with a school and a shul”), which mixed the religious and the secular (from physical fitness to Zionism). Secularization was hard to resist. By the 1930s, the typical New York Jew did not regularly attend religious services; he would turn out for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when temporary “mushroom” synagogues had to be set up.65

The Jews of Washington Heights were different. This was partly because of circumstances that predated the arrival of the German-Jewish refugees. In the mid-1920s a group of wealthy Orthodox Jews had financed the foundation of Yeshiva College, which was (and is) located on Amsterdam Avenue and West 185th Street. Under the leadership of Bernard Revel, the college grew out of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, but it was intended to be much more than a seminary. Revel was motivated partly by the restriction of Jewish admission to the Ivy League universities in the years after the First World War. His aim was to take Orthodox Judaism “out of the ghettos” by combining study of the Talmud with a broad liberal arts program.66 Washington Heights was therefore already a center for Jewish scholarship ten years before the Kissingers arrived there. It was also home to several Jewish congregations, including the Hebrew Tabernacle, the Fort Tryon Jewish Center, and Washington Heights Congregation. Yet the newcomers proved reluctant to become involved with any of these institutions.

To other Jews in New York, the German Jews were Yekkes, characterized by their “exaggerated discipline in daily life, love of order taken to grotesque lengths [and] overvaluing of humanistic education.” Compared with Jews who had come to America from Eastern Europe, certainly, the German Jews seemed much more buttoned-up in their worship. People arrived early, services began punctually, they sat on fixed pews in rows facing the same way, they had formal choirs led by cantors, and there was none of the swaying or chanting in prayer to be seen in the synagogues of the Lower East Side or Brooklyn.67 Though strict in their observance of religious law—they were more likely to keep kosher than other New York Jews68—Orthodox German Jews did not dress like Hasidim.69 Men wore hats (or less commonly, yarmulkes) at all times, but they shaved—in Washington Heights, beards were for rabbis only. Women dressed plainly but not anachronistically: “One black dress, one blue dress, and one brown dress are considered an entirely adequate wardrobe.”70

Predominantly Orthodox, predominantly South German, the refugees brought with them cleavages that meant little in the United States.71 In Germany, where all Jews were required to belong to single local communities (Gemeinde), there had been a rift between followers of communal or unitary Orthodoxy, led by Seligman Baer Bamberger, and those of separatist Orthodoxy, led by Samson Raphael Hirsch. Confusingly, the former were more conservative in their mode of observance but favored coexistence with proponents of Reform and even of Zionism; the latter, while somewhat closer to Reform in their mode of worship, strongly rejected both Reform and Zionism. The persistence of such differences explains why the Orthodox German-Jewish refugees founded so many new congregations.72 By 1944 there were twenty-two “refugee communities” in New York.73 Of the twelve founded in Washington Heights, four were unitary and four separatist.74 The first to be established was Kultusgemeinde Gates of Hope in 1935, followed three years later by the Synagogengemeinde Washington Heights, Tikwoh Chadoshoh (New Hope), and K’hal Adath Jeshurun (also known as “Breuer’s,” after its rabbi, Joseph Breuer). The only new Liberal congregation was Beth Hillel, founded in 1940 by exiles from Munich and Nuremberg.75

It is doubly significant that the Kissingers opted to join K’hal Adath Jeshurun. Breuer, who had been born in Hungary but from 1926 until 1938 had been head of the Samson Raphael Hirsch School in Frankfurt, was a strict separatist, whose ideal was the all-embracing, exclusively Orthodox community (kehilla).76 For Breuer, the synagogue was merely the center of a complex of institutions and services, which included a separate school (yeshiva), ritual bath, kashruth supervision (of kosher food producers), and even a monthly newsletter. In an early edition, the German-language Mitteilungen (“Notices”) warned newcomers to the United States:

Here in this country_._._. there is no organized community. Whatever there is of organization is voluntary and subject to the changes inherent to voluntary organizations. The authority over Jewish questions, including Kashruth, is not established. Rabbis whose knowledge of the law qualifies them to be authorities may not be recognized by the community as such. Others lacking the knowledge may have forced themselves into authoritative positions from where they unscrupulously give their pronouncements.77

Accordingly, the Mitteilungen listed retailers and products that could be relied upon to be kosher. Moreover, like their rabbi in Fürth, Leo Breslauer, Breuer was strongly anti-Zionist. In September 1940, he published a revealing summation of recent Jewish history.

Emancipation led to Assimilation, whose proponents were the men of the so-called Reform Judaism [movement]. Complete alienation and mass baptism were the inevitable consequences. Assimilation led to the revival of anti-Semitism, which is always what happens according to G*d’s eternal truths. Anti-Semitism precipitated the Zionist movement, which just continued the madness of Assimilation under a different flag, and directed it down no less disastrous, because wholly un-Jewish, paths. The result of it all is the catastrophe of the present time, with all its horrible manifestations.78

It was the Zionist sympathies of the Yeshiva Rabbi Moses Soloveitchik that persuaded Breuer to set up his own Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.79 The only puzzle is why the Kissingers stuck with Breuer when their former rabbi, Leo Breslauer, arrived in New York and set up his own synagogue, Kehillath Yaakov.80 Kissinger suspected it was because Breuer was the more charismatic figure. He soon grew accustomed to hearing his fiery sermons once a week.81

The great counterbalance to the influence of men like Breuer was public school. Young refugees like Heinz and Walter Kissinger swiftly found themselves existing in two worlds: the backward-looking Orthodox world of their religious community and the self-consciously progressive world of the secular high school. At first sight, this seems strange. American public schools remained broadly Christian, in the sense that they observed Christian holidays. The priorities of interwar educationalists were also explicitly secular and integrative. Extracurricular activities—from athletics to journalism—were intended to train “efficient citizens.” Yet the belief of Orthodox parents that their children could enjoy the benefits of secular education without losing their religious faith had profound consequences. While Irish-American and Italian-American families often eschewed the public system in favor of Catholic schools, Jews enthusiastically adopted the public schools in their neighborhoods. Jewish pupils were soon overrepresented in the new extracurricular activities.82 Increasingly, they were taught by Jewish teachers: by 1940, more than half of all new teachers in New York public schools were Jewish.83 This symbiosis manifested itself in the board of education’s recognition of Hebrew as a foreign language worthy of study.

George Washington High School, which would give the future Harvard professor his introduction to American education, was not the most Jewish high school in New York City. That honor belonged to Seward Park in the Lower East Side, where 74 percent of the pupils were Jewish, followed by New Utrecht (in Bensonhurst) and Evander Childs (in Pelham Parkway). Nevertheless, between 1931 and 1947, around 40 percent of pupils at George Washington were Jewish, compared with around 20 percent who were white Protestant, 5 percent who were African American, and 4 percent who were Italian or Irish. In this period, Jewish boys were conspicuously overrepresented in academic clubs and the honor society Arista, and underrepresented in all sports except basketball. However, they were also underrepresented as presidents and as editors of the school newspaper, among the most prestigious positions a student could hold. Here the native-born students were still dominant.84

For an intelligent Jewish boy, George Washington High offered not just formal education but socialization. Born in the United States rather than in Germany, the future chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan recalled more clearly the pleasures than the pains of his years at George Washington: watching the Giants at the Polo Grounds, following the Yankees on the radio, going to see Hopalong Cassidy at the cinema, and listening to the Glenn Miller band at the Hotel Pennsylvania.85

Yet there was another, less appealing side to teenage life in Washington Heights. As many had feared, the outbreak of war exacerbated already serious ethnic friction. Gangs like the Amsterdams and the Shamrocks attacked Jewish boys with cries of “Kill the Jews!”86 Anti-Semitic groups like the Christian Front and the Christian Mobilizers carried out attacks on synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in Washington Heights.87 Coughlin’s NUSJ explicitly protested against the Jewish community, mobilizing the local Irish population against supposedly job-destroying Jewish innovations like self-service stores.88 To German-Jewish refugees, the failure of the authorities to clamp down effectively on such violence and intimidation was a sobering reminder that they could not be complacent about their new home. As one journalist complained, “We are tired of approaching a police captain, hat in hand, saying ‘Please Captain McCarthy (or O’Brien)_._._. My boy was hit because he is a Jew. Will you send a cop?’ And we are damned sick and tired of watching the sickly Hitler-like grin and hearing the usual answer: ‘Ah, the boys are just playing.’”89 It was not until 1944 that any gang members were prosecuted and the Catholic hierarchy openly disavowed their behavior.

Until the end of their lives, many of the refugees of Washington Heights felt—and were made to feel—more “American Jewish” or “German Jewish” than “American.”90 As the character of their neighbors changed—as African Americans and Puerto Ricans moved into the area south of 158th Street—the Jewish population of Washington Heights felt even more beleaguered—one reason for their political switch to the Republican Party in the early 1950s.91


What impression did New York make on the fifteen-year-old Heinz Kissinger? Many years later, in his memoirs, he stressed the contrast between Germany and America.

Until I emigrated to America, my family and I endured progressive ostracism and discrimination._._._. Every walk in the street turned into an adventure, for my German contemporaries were free to beat up Jewish children without interference by the police. Through this period America acquired a wondrous quality for me. When I was a boy it was a dream, an incredible place where tolerance was natural and personal freedom unchallenged._._._. I always remembered the thrill when I first walked the streets of New York City. Seeing a group of boys, I began to cross to the other side to avoid being beaten up. And then I remembered where I was.92

As we have seen, however, the risk of being beaten up also existed for a Jew in Washington Heights. Another writer has speculated that the young Kissinger found assimilation relatively easy (“as a German Jew [he] was prepared by his own culture to take on, in large part, the trappings and spirit of another culture while retaining his inner integrity”).93 An alternative hypothesis is that his parents’ membership in an Orthodox community in fact prevented assimilation and, in particular, “reinforced Henry Kissinger’s now deeply rooted discomfort with mass democracy.”94 Such assessments are surely wide of the mark.

From the moment the Kissingers’ ship docked at the terminal on Manhattan’s West Side (“Hell’s Kitchen”), the family was preoccupied with practicalities. Although they had sufficient means to have their papers processed on board, sparing them the indignities of Ellis Island, the Kissingers had painfully little to live on. There had been five bedrooms in their apartment in Fürth. Now they were reduced to two. After a brief stay with their aunt, they moved to Washington Heights, first at 736 West 181st Street and then in a cramped apartment at 615 Fort Washington Avenue (well to the west of Broadway, in a solidly Jewish neighborhood). The fact that they got an apartment at all was no mean feat; in the rush of immigration that followed Kristallnacht, many new arrivals initially found themselves in communal accommodations like the Congress House on West 68th Street run by Rabbi Stephen Wise and his wife.95 Kissinger later recalled the hardships of the time.

My brother and I_._._. slept in the living room. We had no privacy. Today I can’t imagine how I did it, [but] in those days I didn’t think_._._. I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I didn’t think I was suffering._._._. Today when I visited my mother in that apartment, where she stayed until she died, I couldn’t believe I lived there and slept in the living room on the double couch. [I] did my school work in the kitchen. But all these books say that I suffered as a refugee._._._. [I]t’s not true_._._. it’s nonsense.96

The family’s single biggest problem was that Louis Kissinger could not find work. Handicapped by his imperfect English,* ill at ease in his new surroundings, he confided in his wife, “I am the loneliest man in this big city.” As she later recalled, “I didn’t know how to get started, he didn’t know how to get started.” At first, they lived on money from another relative in Pittsburgh.97 Although Louis finally succeeded in getting a bookkeeping job in the firm of a friend, he was plagued by ill health and depression; henceforth Paula was the family’s breadwinner, after the Council of Jewish Women helped train her as a servant and caterer.98 Younger and more adaptable than her husband, she mastered English quickly and lost no time in building a small catering business—a typical refugee story.99 The pressure was therefore on her sons—and especially the elder of them—to begin earning money. As soon as they were able to, the Kissinger boys enrolled at George Washington High School. It was a big school, with around three thousand students100 and an ethos of “sink or swim.” Surviving examples of Kissinger’s schoolwork suggest that he adapted swiftly to his new milieu.101 In January 1940, however, he switched to evening classes in order to take a full-time job, paying $11 a week, in the shaving brush factory owned by his mother’s cousin’s husband. The factory was located downtown, at 22 West 15th Street, and the work was far from pleasant. Kissinger toiled from eight a.m. until five p.m., squeezing acid out of the badger bristles from which the brushes were made, until he was promoted into the shipping department, which meant delivering brushes all over Manhattan. After the forty-minute subway ride back to Washington Heights and a hasty dinner, he then had to get through three hours of night school. Yet the sixteen-year-old’s performance did not suffer. That semester he achieved scores of 95 for Grade 3 French, 95 for Grade 2 American History, 90 for Grade 1 American History, 90 for Grade 6 English, 85 for Grade 7 English, and 75 for Advanced Algebra.102 For all its flaws, the Jewish Realschule in Fürth had put Kissinger ahead of his classmates in math, history, and geography.103 He was ahead in other ways, too, already reading Dostoevsky for pleasure.

The single biggest obstacle to overcome was of course linguistic. As Kissinger later recalled, “In those days nobody said, ‘These poor refugees, let’s teach them in German.’ They threw us into a school and we had to do it in English and_._._. I had to learn English very fast. I didn’t know any when I came here.”104 That was not strictly true, as he had studied English in Germany and had a rudimentary ability to read it. But there is a world of difference between studying a foreign language and studying in a foreign language. It was one thing to exchange “Heinz” for “Henry.” It was another to sound American. According to one account,

The school record noted that the new student had a “foreign language handicap.” It was a “handicap” that contributed to the shyness of his George Washington days as well as to his sense of being a loner. His command and use of the new language would later win the respect of diplomats throughout the world, but his accent—once described by a German-born friend of his as “ridiculously Bavarian rather than Prussian”—would stay with him until adulthood. “I was terribly self-conscious of it,” he would say years later.105

Much has been written about Kissinger’s distinctively Central European accent, the persistence of which seems strange, given that his younger brother largely lost his, in common with most refugees young enough to attend a U.S. high school.106 It was the older refugees who clung to German. As late as April 1941, the Kissingers’ synagogue was still debating whether to switch its services and newsletter from German into English.107 As one contemporary noted, “The importance of this can hardly be overestimated: often the German accent makes the difference between complete integration in American life and permanent status as an ‘outsider.’”108 It is indeed remarkable that someone so intelligent and ambitious retained his German accent for so long, at a time when speaking accentless English was seen as the prerequisite for social mobility.109 However, it was from his arithmetical rather than his linguistic skills that the young Kissinger hoped to make a living. After graduating from George Washington, he applied to City College of New York to study accountancy.110

The old world was losing its power over the young man. His father and mother devoutly attended the K’hal Adath Jeshurun synagogue. Leo Hexter, another refugee from Fürth to Washington Heights, recalled Kissinger’s “thirst for religious knowledge.”111 But in a first sign of rebellion against his parents’ Orthodoxy, he joined a youth group organized by the Reform synagogue Beth Hillel.112 Like many of the newcomers from Germany, Kissinger found his faith changing under the new influences he encountered in New York. He was, he recalled, “certainly not Orthodox” any longer, as he was regularly working on Jewish holidays, as was his brother.113 As one contemporary put it, writing not long after the war, “A great many of [the German-Jewish refugees] never come to shul except on High Holidays._._._. In the United States_._._. religious observance has been gradually abandoned._._._. The fight for a living in the new country, they claimed, was too exhausting._._._. There was also the argument that in a world where one’s relatives are burnt to death, there could be no God.”114

Of course, few people in the United States could anticipate at this stage the magnitude of the horrors that would later become known as the Holocaust. But none were better acquainted with the Nazi regime’s potential for violence than the refugees newly arrived in New York. Among the very few pieces of Kissinger’s writing to survive from this period is a sketch for a newspaper entitled “Voice of the Union: Eine Zeitung im Aufbau! [Newspaper under construction],” dated May 1, 1939, and marked “World-wide edition—Publication in Germany prohibited.” It is emphatically secular in tone, foreseeing the need to lend assistance to future waves of refugees from Nazism:

Members of the Union,

Six years have passed since a massive event—bigger in scale than any natural disaster—intervened deeply in our fate. Its effects are greater than anyone could ever remotely have anticipated. National Socialism is relentless in its will to annihilate and it acknowledges no restrictions!

At first, the Jewish people were hit the hardest, but the spirit of Hitler is spreading its poison further, over lands and seas; it destroys families, house and home, and penetrates into the smallest parts of our lives. Only a few people were able to grasp the full extent of this misfortune soon enough. Too many believed that there was still a way out and that the civilization of the twentieth century would protect us from the worst. Today we know that this hope was a great illusion. As the pressure became ever greater, there began the great problem of emigration. I need not say any more. We all know the sad road of emigration, made the rockier by the fact that many countries closed their doors to us. One country remained our hope: the USA. We who have had the good fortune to come here to the classical land of freedom wish to prove our gratitude by playing a part in the great system of assistance for those who will come in the future through the foundation of “the Reunion of Comrades.”115

Kissinger’s thinking on Zionism was also evolving. In 1937 he had described the idea of a secular Jewish state in Palestine as “unthinkable.” Before leaving Germany, however, he had written to a friend, “My future lies in America, but my hope lies in Palestine_._._. the land of our mutual yearning.” But by the summer of 1939 his attitude had changed: “Look at what has become of this illusion. ‘Our’ Palestine is a toy of great power politics, torn apart by civil war and handed over to the Arabs.”116 Some of those members of Agudath Israel with whom Kissinger had associated in Fürth had become even more strident in their anti-Zionism since moving to the United States. Indeed Rabbi Breslauer came close to supporting the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta.117 But Leo Hexter later denied that Kissinger followed this lead.118

The reality was that the teenage Kissinger found himself in the midst of a real-life “reunion of comrades”—one that was forcing him not only to question his earlier beliefs but also to lose faith in his former friends. Writing to one of them in July 1939, he candidly revealed his ambivalence about this new home, “New-York”:

My personal impression of America is very two-sided: in some regards I admire it, in others I despise the approach to life here. I admire American technology, the American tempo of work, American freedom. It is powerful what America has achieved in its short history. This is only possible in nations that live in such security and that have never experienced serious crises. You need to have been to the skyscraper area of New York to understand what modern technology can create. You need to have driven on an American highway into the countryside to be able to understand the exaggerated patriotism of Americans. But the greater the light, the greater the shadow sides are. Alongside the most beautiful houses in the world you see here the most wretched, alongside excessive wealth, unspeakable poverty. And then this individualism! You stand completely on your own, no one cares about you, you have to make your own way upwards.119

Much of this was in fact quite typical of German-Jewish refugees, who were at once dazzled by the scale of the American achievement as embodied in New York and dismayed by its more rough-hewn aspects.120 But Kissinger had a further, and deeper complaint: “The American trait I dislike the most is their casual approach to life. No one thinks ahead further than the next minute, no one has the courage to look life squarely in the eye, difficult [things] are always avoided. No youth of my age has any kind of spiritual problem that he seriously concerns himself with.” American superficiality had direct social consequences for the earnest young German: as he admitted, this was “one of the main reasons why I have had difficulty making friends with any American.”

Yet it was not the lack of new friends that was the real problem. It was the presence of old ones—three “former schoolmates” who, like Kissinger, had ended up in New York.121 One of these was Walter Oppenheim, whose family had made the same journey as the Kissingers, from Fürth to Washington Heights. The others were Hans (later John) Sachs and Kurt Reichold. On the surface, the young refugees were learning to work hard and play hard like true New Yorkers. They didn’t just slave by day and study by night. They went to baseball* and football games, following both the Yankees and the Giants. They played tennis.122 They went to dancing classes. They learned to drive. And they dated girls, among them Kissinger’s future wife Anneliese Fleischer.123

But it was another young women, named Edith, whose arrival from Fürth turned the reunion of friends into a maelstrom of romantic rivalry. In March 1940, Kissinger—already taking pride in his command of written English—had mailed Edith two of his school book reports. She had never replied. After simmering for two weeks, the young man penned a third missive, in which he laid bare his adolescent soul:

Since you do not seem to be in the habit of answering letters, even if one goes through considerable trouble in securing you one’s bookreports [sic], I am forced however reluctantly to write you a third and final time. I am indeed mystified over that silence of yours, the least thing you could have done was to confirm the receipt of the documents. But now as to the purpose of my letter: I would be very grateful to you, if you were to return to me as soon as possible the 2 bookreports and the essay, because I am collecting them. If you do not want to write to me, you can give them to Hans or Oppus [Oppenheim’s nickname] when you see them again.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Kissinger, Henry, -- 1923-
Statesmen -- United States -- Biography.
United States -- Foreign relations -- 1969-1974.
Kissinger, Henry, -- 1923- -- fast -- (OCoLC)fst00031425
Statesmen. -- fast -- (OCoLC)fst01131990
United States. -- fast -- (OCoLC)fst01204155