The Evil That Men Do

Heinz Kissinger, may there be a warm seat for him

Although I have never been anything but a professional dilettante, I have spent some time in a number of professions. One of these was political correspondent at the United Nations headquarters from 1985 until 1987. Another was as professor of English in Berlin after the GDR was annexed in 1989. In the accidents of my amateur activity, I have managed to meet or at least hear in person a few personalities of public life (in German: Personen öffentliches Leben). These include artists as well as politicians and other notorious people.

One September day, my spouse at that time and I went from our Westend home to one of Berlin’s many private theaters, the Renaissance Theater in Charlottenburg. The occasion was an event sponsored by the Bertelsmann Stiftung (a powerful Westphalian media conglomerate with the expected orientations). The Berliner Lektionen (Berlin Readings— or lessons) was lecture series with an eclectic choice of people from all aspects of public life. The program was directed by Ulrich Eckart, then director of the Berlin Festival.

My particular excitement, not shared by my far less politically interested wife, was the meeting on the stage of the then grand old man of foreign policy in US-occupied Germany and the semi-retired Rockefeller courtier, Heinz Kissinger, aka known as Henry. Well aware that Heinz Kissinger was born in Germany and recalling that he always spoke English with an atrocious accent, I was curious to hear the man in person in the once capital of the country in which he was born and — like Leo Strauss — abandoned for Columbia before the Great War against the Soviet Union began.

After a duly laudatory introduction by his junior, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Heinz Kissinger began his introduction in the language he learned at birth. My wife and I listened with incredulity as he told the audience he could not speak German. After this attempt at humility by a man notorious for his lack thereof, he began his lecture in English. My wife, although a native of the region north of the Rhine, was fluent in English. She looked at me with consternation. She could barely understand a word he spoke once he switched to English. As a teacher far more accustomed to the bandwidth in which English is spoken by non-native speakers, I was merely insulted by the rudeness of a man who lacked the courtesy to speak to his former countrymen in their own tongue.

Heinz Kissinger spoke his entire life to those for whom obsequiousness was a paramount virtue. It is difficult to say whether he was honored by so many because of the diplomatic readiness for self-deception or the vanity of power itself. It could not have been the talent for language or communication. For decades, Heinz Kissinger has been praised as a sober representative of balance of power politics. His entire career was based ostensibly on the lessons of the Congress of Vienna. However, the Metternich order was just the first step of reaction against the Peace of Westphalia and the attempt to democratize it in the French Revolution. His famous opening to China was nothing more than calumny to aggravate the divisions between the Soviet Union. And most recently the Establishment press propagated the same “mystique du Kissinger” when he travelled to Beijing. His recent homilies about Ukraine and Russia are the pathetic wheezing of a man who maybe felt in his last breaths that one or two sane words might save him from the Gates.

As I was considering my reaction to the demise of this grand courtier of capitalism, I searched for the date when I had the dubious honor of an audience. It was 11 September 1994.

Dr T.P. Wilkinson writes, teaches History and English, directs theatre and coaches cricket between the cradles of Heine and Saramago. He is author of Unbecoming American: A War Memoir and also Church Clothes, Land, Mission and the End of Apartheid in South Africa. Read other articles by T.P..