OPINION: Kissinger – the diplomat who shaped the world but remained a riddle

The latest Jewish News

Read this week’s digital edition

Click Here

OPINION: Kissinger – the diplomat who shaped the world but remained a riddle

By Prof Colin Shindler, a Senior Research Fellow in Israel Studies at SOAS

Henry Kissinger in the West Wing when he was National Security Advisor
Henry Kissinger in the West Wing when he was National Security Advisor

“This absurd character with horn-rimmed glasses, beside whom James Bond becomes a flavourless creation. He does not shoot, nor use his fists, nor leap from speeding automobiles like James Bond, but he advises on wars, ends wars, pretends to change our destiny and does change it.”

So wrote the Italian writer, Oriana Fallaci, over 50 years ago after interviewing Henry Kissinger who has passed away at the age of 100.

In 1972, Kissinger was at the height of his fame. The media dubbed him ‘Superman, Superstar, Superkraut’.

He was the ultimate diplomatic fixer and the subject of satire, songs and novels. Yet for many who wrote about him in depth, the diffuse undertone was always ‘ Kissinger the closet Jew’.

Heinz Kissinger — as he was then known — was born into the troubled Weimar Republic and witnessed Hitler’s dramatic rise in his home town of Fürth.

His family finally left in August 1938, spending a week in Golders Green before travelling on to New York. Thirty years later he emerged from academic obscurity to become the Dr. Strangelove of President Nixon’s administrations.

Kissinger’s family were orthodox Jews and German patriots, brought up on Goethe and Heine but who were distant from Zionism.

He joined the youth group ‘Ezra’ of the non-Zionist orthodox Aguda. His writings from that time indicate that he could write in Hebrew.

Kissinger’s distancing himself from his background occurred during his teenage years and his integration into American society.

Kissinger was a complex character, not exactly a Republican, sometimes a liberal, sometimes a conservative, but at all times someone who embraced reality — as he saw it — and disdained moralising.

He brought the Vietnam war to a close and forged a relationship with Mao’s China but also instigated the carpet bombing of Cambodia and the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government in Chile in favour a brutal military dictatorship.

When Israel was beleaguered at the onset of the Yom Kippur war, he and Nixon authorised an urgent airlift of arms. American pressure subsequently froze the war and prevented a further advance of the IDF.

Kissinger subsequently brought the warring parties together in Geneva in the hope of securing a meaningful peace but his shuttle diplomacy was an unproductive failure. The Israeli Right held demonstrations against Kissinger’s visits to Israel, labelling him as ‘a Jew boy’ who was not wanted.

Some years ago, I was fortunate to have lunch with a few other Israel Studies academics with Henry Kissinger.

We could ask just one question to our guest. All my American colleagues addressed him as ‘Mr Secretary of State’ and asked his views on Israel.

As the only European present, I decided to ask him a question about Soviet Jewry and his striving to achieve détente with Moscow often at the cost of demoting the cause of Soviet Jews.

I also asked him whether the dream of a new Russia of the Nobel Peace Winner and great supporter of Soviet Jews, Andrei Sakharov, was now dead and buried.

In replying to me, Kissinger’s teutonic growl became louder and his speech more animated.

He implied that Russia today was not Brezhnev’s Soviet Union but that Sakharov’s aspiration of a Russia, based on democracy and the rule of law, was not dead but enfeebled. This, of course, was a time when there was opposition to Putin and the hope that things would change.

Kissinger said that he met Putin a couple of times a year for discussions. Yet he also commented that he got nowhere with him and found him unfathomable.

Kissinger’s technique was to use caveats to qualify his last explanation, leaving his listener perplexed as to his actual opinion. But on Putin, he was unequivocally clear.

Henry Kissinger’s private life was indeed private and few had access to the inner man, including his biographers. How he understood his Jewishness is still difficult to perceive apart from the odd reference to Spinoza’s rationalism.

Kissinger would sit silently when Nixon made antisemitic outbursts while US Jewry did not warm to him and regarded him in part as a shtadlan – a court Jew.

Kissinger now belongs to history and he will be listed amongst the great diplomats of the past whose vision shaped the world they lived in.

Support your Jewish community. Support your Jewish News

Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.

For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.

Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.

You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.

100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...


Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.


There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.


In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.


Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.

Easy access

In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.

Voice of our community to wider society

The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.

We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.

read more: