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How Henry Kissinger’s Catastrophes and Triumphs Changed the World

Derek and Atlantic writer George Packer discuss the many ways in which Henry Kissinger shaped the world we live in today

Dr. Henry A. Kissinger Photo by White House via CNP/Getty Images

Today’s episode is about the controversial life and legacy of Henry Kissinger, who died last week at the age of 100. First as Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state, and then as an author and diplomacy whisperer in almost every subsequent administration, Kissinger had a life overstuffed with achievements and disasters and breakthroughs and catastrophes—many of which continue to shape the world we live in. Today’s guest is George Packer, an Atlantic staff writer and the author of several books, including Our Man, a biography of Richard Holbrooke: another towering American diplomat who was Kissinger’s rival and partner in diplomacy.

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In the following excerpt, George Packer recounts an exchange he witnessed between Henry Kissinger and Dr. Ruth Westheimer at a dinner with Angela Merkel.

Derek Thompson: In a new article in The Atlantic, you write, “[Henry] Kissinger is a problem to be solved: the problem of a very human inhumanity. Because he was, undoubtedly, human—brilliant, insecure, funny, gossipy, curious, devious, self-deprecating, cruel.” Before we dive into Kissinger’s complex legacy, I want to start with a very personal anecdote from your piece that reflects on this very human inhumanity, as you call it. You’ve met Kissinger several times, including one dinner in 2015 with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the sex columnist Dr. Ruth [Westheimer]. Tell me about that dinner and the surprising showdown between Henry Kissinger and Dr. Ruth.

George Packer: I was surprised to see Dr. Ruth there. I didn’t know why she had been invited. It turned out that she and Merkel were friends. I was not surprised to see Henry Kissinger there. Henry Kissinger had a way of showing up at all sorts of high-flying, elite events, including dinners at the German consul’s residence for the German chancellor. This was in the middle of the migrant crisis, when Germany was announcing that it would admit a million or more Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi and other refugees from war, to sort of the shock of the rest of the continent, because the other countries were in varying degrees of resistance to letting them in.

Henry Kissinger, over dinner, sitting on the other side of Merkel from Dr. Ruth, began criticizing this decision and speaking in rather apocalyptic terms in that baritone of his and saying, “This will alter German civilization.” He didn’t say “destroy,” but it seemed to be something close to that. “I can understand letting in a few refugees, you know, as a humanitarian gesture, but a million is like the Romans opening the gates of the city to the barbarians.” And we were all listening to this, and Merkel was quietly taking it in, and to my right and Merkel’s left was this tiny figure, Dr. Ruth, who—both of them, Dr. Ruth and Dr. Kissinger, were in their [late 80s to] 90s.

Dr. Ruth was so small that I had to push in her chair a little bit so that she could eat her soup. She began to tell us that when she was 10 years old, she lived in Frankfurt. It was 1938, and the gestapo came to her house shortly after Kristallnacht and took her father away. And the last she saw of him was waving to her as she stood looking out the window as he was bundled into a police van. Shortly after that, she was put on a train to Switzerland in what was called the Kindertransport, which [was] a rescue of some German Jewish children just before the start of the war. And she spent the war in Switzerland. She never saw her father or her mother again. Both of them died in the camps.

And she told us that ... just before Kristallnacht, there had been a conference in Geneva, or near Geneva, called the Évian Conference, where the world’s countries debated what to do about Jewish refugees. And, essentially, no countries, including ours, expressed any willingness to take in Jewish refugees except the Dominican Republic. And she said, “So nothing came of that conference. I hope more will come from this dinner, where it concerns the Syrian and other refugees, than came from Évian when I was a little girl.” And she said, “If it had not been for the Kindertransport, I would not be here today to talk to you.”

I was looking at Kissinger while she was finishing this story, and I was realizing, “Uh-huh, now I know why Dr. Ruth is here,” and this seems to be a way of telling a man who was very close to her age and who also was a German Jew in the ’30s and who also escaped and came to this country, “You don’t seem to remember what it means to be a refugee, but I still remember.” And that was it. She didn’t even say that much. But you didn’t need to hear it. It was pretty stark and dramatic, and there was this silence, and then the topic moved on. And she had hardly spoken before, and she hardly spoke after. That was what she was there to say.

This excerpt was edited for clarity. Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow the Plain English feed on Spotify.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: George Packer
Producer: Devon Manze

Subscribe: Spotify