Historian David Kaiser takes Henry Kissinger to task for sloppy history

Historians in the News

[David Kaiser currently teaches at the Naval War College and blogs at History Unfolding.]

Yesterday the New York Times printed one of the funniest corrections that has appeared in that august paper for some time. It read:

"Because of a production error, a review on the cover of the Book Review, about 'Bismarck: A Life,' by Jonathan Steinberg, omits the byline in some copies. As noted in the table of contents and in the contributor’s biographical note, the review is by Henry A. Kissinger."

The review arrived on my doorstep this morning and I read it with interest. Henry Kissinger has never been more than a part-time historian. He was trained as a political scientist and became a Presidential adviser, diplomat, and Secretary of State. While his books, such as Diplomacy, are full of provocative observations about historical events, they do not always show, shall we say, a determination to get to the bottom of them. My late adviser Ernest R. May noted in the Times when Diplomacy appeared that it was full of errors that would have drawn a marginal comment on an undergraduate paper. To my amazement, Kissinger's review of this book also contains two such errors.

The first error is subtle, but nonetheless highly significant. Bismarck, Kissinger writes,"won over public opinion by granting universal manhood suffrage--making Prussia one of the first states in Europe to do so." Now Prussia, Bismarck's country of origin, was the largest, by far, of the German states that Bismarck forged into a single unit in 1866 and 1871. But Bismarck made no changes to the suffrage laws in Prussia. Prussia had secured"universal manhood suffrage" as a result of a revolution in 1848-9--but not universal equal manhood suffrage. The voters in Prussia were divided into three classes based upon income, and votes of members of the richest class were worth about 20 times as much as those of the majority of voters in the poorest class. Bismarck never changed this system withing Prussia. He did grant universal equal manhood suffrage for the Reichstag, the legislative body in the new North German Confederation (1866) and German Empire (1870) that he created, but limited the powers of that legislature mainly to economic issues. He made certain, in short, that Prussia itself--which included more than half of the new German state--would be dominated by conservative aristocrats like himself. To confuse so badly the distinction between Prussian institutions on the one hand, and those of the German Empire on the other, is an astonishing mistake for one of Kissinger's background to make.

Secondly, Kissinger writes,"Until Bismarck appeared on the scene, it had generally been assumed that nationalism and liberalism represented opposite poles; he rejected that proposition." The exact opposite is true. Liberalism, especially in Germany, had been completely nationalistic, and German liberals had tried and failed to unify Germany in 1848-9. Conservatism and nationalism had been thought of as opposites before Bismarck, because conservatism believed in the rights of individual monarchs, which unification would reduce or even destroy. As a contemporary observer noted, “Count Bismarck made liberal ideas and energies subservient to conservative ends.”

When one reaches a certain level of eminence one's thoughts automatically become publishable. That in turn leads to temptations to which I am glad never to have been exposed. I'm glad I was taught to get my facts straight and to read the most authoritative works on subjects of interest. None of this is designed, by the way, to make any judgment about Jonathan Steinberg's book--I doubt very much that these errors originated with him.

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Gideon Remez - 4/11/2011

One needn't go as far back as 19-Century Germany. Kissinger was instrumental in inculcating several glaring misconceptions (to put it charitably)into mainstream historiography concerning processes and events in which he played a central role. Isabella Ginor and I analyzed one such case, the so-called "expulsion of Soviet advisers" from Egypt in 1972, in several papers. The most recent of these is "The Tyranny of Vested-Interest Sources: Shaping the Record of Soviet Intervention in the Egyptian-Israeli Conflict,1967-1973" in "Journal of the Middle East and Africa" 1:1 (2010).