How Henry Kissinger’s Holocaust escape shaped his powerful and polarising foreign policy

Master diplomat or war criminal, there’s no denying that Kissinger’s story is one of the American dream: a tale of a boy who fled Nazi Germany to become one of the most powerful men in US and world politics. Rachel Sharp reports

Thursday 30 November 2023 15:30 GMT
<p>Henry Kissinger died on 29 November aged 100 </p>

Henry Kissinger died on 29 November aged 100

Henry Kissinger’s life could have gone very differently.

Born in Germany in 1923 to Orthodox Jewish parents, the boy back then known as Heinz Alfred Kissinger spent his formative years living under Nazi rule.

But, aged 15, the family made a decision that spared him from the Holocaust – and paved the way for him to become one of the most powerful diplomatic figures in American - and world - history.

It was August 1938 – not long before Kristallnacht and as Adolf Hitler’s reign continued to grow – when the teenage Kissinger and his family fled to New York City.

While the escape saved him from the Holocaust, at least 13 of his close relatives stayed behind and were killed in Nazi concentration camps.

But, there was another personal experience of the Holocaust that Kissinger rarely spoke about during his decades of public service.

In April 1945, while serving in the US Army, the then 22-year-old Army sergeant was part of the American 84th Infantry Division when it helped to liberate a Nazi concentration camp in Ahlem.

Henry Kissinger (left) with mentor Fritz Kraemer in Germany, 1945, during World War II

In the rare comments he did make about that day, Kissinger recounted in harrowing detail how they stumbled across the camp by chance – seeing all the “dead eyes” and “empty faces” of those still clinging to life.

“I see the huts, I observe the empty faces, the dead eyes,” he wrote.

“You are free now. I, with my pressed uniform, I have lived in filth and squalor, I haven’t been beaten and kicked. What kind of freedom can I offer?

“I see my friend enter one of the huts and come out with tears in his eyes. ‘Don’t go in there. We had to kick them to tell the dead from the living.’”

Kissinger described what he saw as an embodiment of “humanity in the 20th century” – as the world reeled from the murders of more than six million Jews in the Holocaust.

The German-born, Jewish refugee was acutely aware that – had they not fled a few years earlier – he and his family could have been among the victims.

He would later call that day “one of the most horrifying experiences of my life”.

His experiences would go on to pave the way for him to become America’s first Jewish secretary of state and first top diplomat not born in the US.

When he was sworn in as secretary of state in 1973, he spoke of his experience seeing what can happen when a society is driven by “hatred”.

He also spoke of the magnitude that someone with his background could be taking office.

“There is no country in the world where it is conceivable that a man of my origin could be standing here next to the President of the United States. And if my origin can contribute anything to the formulation of our policy, it is that at an early age I have seen what can happen to a society that is based on hatred and strength and distrust,” he said.

“America has never been true to itself unless it meant something beyond itself.

“As we work for a world at peace with justice, compassion and humanity, we know that America, in fulfilling man’s deepest aspirations, fulfills what is best within it.”

This experience also shaped his hugely influential – and yet also hugely divisive – approach to foreign policy.

As then-president Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Kissinger was responsible for negotiating the US’s exit from the unpopular Vietnam War and for reaching the Paris Peace Accords with North Vietnam.

He also bolstered ties between China and the US – as the first US official to visit the communist country – and pushed through landmark US-Soviet arms control talks.

US President Nixon’s special advisor Henry Kissinger during a press conference in 1973

He won a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic work – but his legacy was then tainted when it emerged years later that he had authorised the secret carpet-bombing of Cambodia, leading many to regard him as a war criminal.

On foreign policy in Israel, Kissinger is known for carrying out what became known as a 32-day “shuttle” mission in 1974, shuttling between Israel and Middle East nations.

By the end of the mission, Kissinger had helped to build a long-lasting disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria.

But, like the entirety of his diplomatic career, his support for his fellow Jews was not without controversy.

In 2010, a damning tape surfaced of a 1973 conversation between Kissinger and then-president Richard Nixon.

In it, Kissinger was heard opposing the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union to the US – saying it was “not an American concern”.

“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” he said.

“And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

The release of the tape sparked uproar.

Kissinger came out in defence of his comments, saying they should be taken in the “context of the time”.

This came not long after a 2005 biography on the divisive diplomat claimed that he once made shocking comments about Jewish people in a Washington Special Actions Group meeting.

“If it were not for the accident of my birth, I would be antisemitic,” he allegedly said.

“Any people who has been persecuted for two thousand years must be doing something wrong.”

He also infamously opposed the creation of a National Holocaust Museum, claiming it would pave the way for further antisemitism.

President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger on Air Force One

His latest comments came just last month – days after Hamas launched its surprise 7 October attack on Israel, killing 1,200 victims and taking hundreds hostage.

In a Politico interview, he said it was “painful” to see what happened and warned that the world should not make “concessions” for Hamas’ actions.

“Of course, the first instinct is to bring back peace but you can’t make concessions to people who have declared and demonstrated by their actions that they cannot make peace,” he said.

Despite the controversies, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the first world leaders to release a moving tribute to Kissinger as news of his death broke.

“It is with a heavy heart that I mourn the passing of a great statesman, scholar, and friend, Dr. Henry Kissinger, who left us at the age of 100,” he said in a statement posted on X.

“Dr. Kissinger’s departure marks the end of an era, one in which his formidable intellect and diplomatic prowess shaped not only the course of American foreign policy but also had a profound impact on the global stage.”

Mr Netanyahu went on to call him “a giant of a man”.

He added: “As we bid farewell to this giant of a man, I extend my deepest condolences to his family, friends, and admirers around the world. His legacy will continue to inspire and guide future generations of leaders and diplomats. May his memory be a blessing.”

Several other world leaders also paid tribute to the towering figure including former president George W Bush.

But, Kissinger proves to be just divisive in death as in life, with other reactions being far from glowing.

Ally or foe, war criminal or master diplomat, there’s no denying that Kissinger’s story is one of the American dream: from the boy who fled the Holocaust to one of the most powerful men in US politics.

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