His timbre was just one reason I always looked forward to hearing Henry Kissinger, who died yesterday after living a full century, expound on international relations. It was gravelly and deep, and grew only more so over the years. But it wasn't just the voice. It was his unique accent, eccentric to some but strangely familiar to me.
I've heard Kissinger, who was born as Heinz into a Jewish family in Weimar Germany, hold forth in both his native German and in English, his adopted language after the Kissingers fled Nazi Germany and he became Henry.
Visiting Germany -- which he did often, both as US Secretary of State and eminence grise later -- he liked to open in German, then switch to English with the joke that "I have reached a stage where I speak no language without an accent."
That always got a laugh out of German audiences. Kissinger was from Fürth, which I'll spell Fuerth because that's Bloomberg style. Politically part of Bavaria, the city belongs to a cultural region called Franconia, which is famous -- make that notorious -- for its distinctive and not entirely euphonious dialect. Heinz took traces of that accent with him as Henry, in both his tongues. Over the years, American patterns sedimented on top of the Franconian in his German, making it singularly Kissingerian. As for his accent in English, which wasn't typically German, nobody could ever mistake it for anything other than his own.
That unique mixture signalled that he was both an outsider and an insider in Germany, as in the US. It established him as transnational and transcultural even as he spent his life thinking deeply about the relative power and self-interest of specific nation-states, and especially his own country, America. "Realism" is the name for that approach to foreign affairs. Kissinger was held up as one of its main intellectual scions.
That air of worldliness fascinated more culturally autochthonous Americans such as Richard Nixon, who as president made Kissinger his National Security Adviser and then Secretary of State. It also cast a subtler but no less powerful spell on postwar Germans, who embraced him -- as guest and speaker, if not always as policymaker -- in part for not making them feel bad about being German.
This point always fascinated me about Kissinger the person. It was something I wanted to ask him about, but then couldn't get out when I shook his hand for the first and only time, at a dinner in his honour given by the American Academy in Berlin, of which he was founding chairman. My question would have been: Why haven't you spoken more about the Holocaust? Why didn't you make it a thing when dealing with Germany?
The Kissingers in Fuerth during the 1930s, like all Jews in the Third Reich, suffered terribly from the steadily worsening exclusion, discrimination, humiliation and hate directed at them. As it happens, my own family also lived in Fuerth and knew the Kissingers. My grandfather, I've been told, repeatedly urged the elder Kissinger, Louis, to emigrate. The Kissingers eventually did, but dangerously late -- in 1938, just before the nationwide pogrom called Kristallnacht. Heinz was 15.
Henry later found out that 13 members of his family, including his grandmother, were murdered in the Holocaust. He even personally helped liberate a concentration camp, near Hanover, when he returned as an American soldier to defeat and "de-nazify" his native country. The experience was traumatic, he later said, and simultaneously made him well up with pride at being American.
What those traumas did not do -- surprisingly, to me -- is make him hate Germans. Instead, Kissinger was open to studying and advising them and wishing them well throughout postwar history. He had the ear of chancellors from Konrad Adenauer, whom he profiled touchingly in his most recent book, to Angela Merkel, whom he gave the Henry A Kissinger Prize, his highest accolade. He accepted Germany's postwar atonement, celebrated its economic and democratic rebirth and supported its reunification.
This part of his legacy will not make headlines this week. Those belong to his diplomacy during the Vietnam War, toward China and the Soviet Union, in the Middle East and South America, all of which was controversial -- the late pundit Christopher Hitchens memorably wanted Kissinger tried as a war criminal. His lifelong relationship with Germany, though, tells a different story: of personal magnanimity and grand strategic sweep.
As he inhabited and embodied two continents, Kissinger also straddled at least two centuries intellectually. His undergraduate thesis was modestly titled "The Meaning of History," and his doctoral dissertation looked at the statecraft of Klemens von Metternich, to whom he's often been compared.
Metternich helped Europe re-establish order after the Napoleonic wars. He also had biographical similarities with Kissinger. He came from a small Rhenish principality not far from Kissinger's place of birth, at a time when there was no German nation, only a vague construct called the Holy Roman Empire, which was eerily similar in structure and ambiguity to today's European Union. (That may be one reason why Kissinger never took the EU seriously.)
But Metternich, like Kissinger, later made his name and career as chief diplomat of a great power, the Austrian Empire in Metternich's case. Kissinger would look at maps in the 20th century as Metternich looked at those in the 19th, searching for ways to balance powers and interests to maintain order.
This "realist" perspective and the long timeframes in Kissinger's intellect led him to his notions about Germany. When disunited and weak, it presented one kind of danger to Europe, he understood; when united and strong, another kind. So Kissinger regarded both Germany's reunification and its continental power as inevitable, but wanted to contain this resurgent might in democratic, pro-American and pro-Western structures such as Nato. If he worried at all, as he told Bloomberg earlier this year, it was about the "inability of Germany to understand the transformation of its own position" in the international system, and the need for moderation and wisdom.
Part of Kissinger's legacy is that he was able to deliver this message to the Germans and have them be not only receptive but also grateful for it. Somehow, he convinced them that, although he never forgot, he had also forgiven. Hating would have been psychologically easier. But as statesman, scholar and mensch, he chose to see Germans and their history in their vast, complex totality.
And in their individuality, too. For that, he always remembered Fuerth, whose hometown hero he is today, alongside Ludwig Erhard, West Germany's second chancellor (and my great-uncle).
The city has a soccer team with a strange name, SpVgg Greuther Fürth. Kissinger became its ardent fan as a child, when the squad was good, and remained devoted ever since, even as the team dwelt, with forgettable intermezzos, in the mediocre reaches of the second division. While in the White House and State Department, he had staff bring him the latest scores. When in Germany, he sang Greuther's praises. And all of Fuerth beamed with pride every time.
Henry Kissinger leaves a complex legacy with dark chapters for many people in the world. But he did a lot for his adopted as well as for his native country. "He understood and convinced other world leaders that the Germans after 1945 had learned their lesson and could be trusted," Helmut Schmidt, another chancellor, once said. "We have this man to thank for that. Henry Kissinger never forgot his German roots." He enters history as Henry, without ever having rejected Heinz. ©2023 Bloomberg
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering US diplomacy, national security and geopolitics. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.