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HENRY KISSINGER
Columns
Opinion articles written in the style of their author. These texts are to be based on verified facts and must be respectful towards people, even though their actions may be criticized. All opinion articles written by individuals from outside the staff of EL PAÍS shall feature, along with the author’s name (regardless of their greater or lesser renown), a footer stating their office, academic title, political affiliation (if any) and main occupation, or the occupation related to the topic being assessed

Kissinger and his crimes

Once you have killed more than 100 people, it doesn’t matter if you have killed a thousand or a million, you enter the category of statesman. You do it according to a strategy, a vision and for an idea, a country

Henry Kissinger
A news program where the death of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was followed live on November 30.PEDRO PARDO ( AFP )
Íñigo Domínguez

Kissinger has died, and it will be left to the history books to decide who he really was, though the conclusion will be hard to draw. Already, the obituaries recognize the good and the bad he did, leaving the reader to make up their own mind about him. The journalist Christopher Hitchens, who wrote a whole book on Kissinger called The Trial of Henry Kissinger, concluded that he should have been arrested, tried and left to rot in prison. As with Netanyahu, you would have to pick up the phone and say there’s a possible war criminal at large and please go get him. But the world doesn’t work that way. Nobel Peace Prize winner Kissinger gave conferences until late in life, so let’s not rule out a Nobel Peace Prize for the Israeli prime minister yet.

Kissinger lived for 100 years and represents the anti-communism battle that marked a century, waged at a level where everything could be justified to combat the scourge of communism. On the other side of the fence, others were blinded by their pro-communism stance — Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, for example, wrote odes to Stalin. Within this framework of fanaticism, action entails a lack of scruples and degenerates into suicidal utopia. As Juan Gabriel Vásquez writes in Volver la vista atrás, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, conscientious young people decided that it was inadmissible that red, the color of the revolution, meant they had to stop at traffic lights. So they turned the rule on its head: red meant go and green meant stop. After a few days of traffic chaos, the authorities reestablished order. In the end, everything is a question of pragmatism, and communism basically failed because it did not produce the desired results. In politics, you judge by results, just like in sports.

At a certain level of power, it seems inevitable to be party to a massacre, a bombing or a fascist coup d’état, or all of these things, as Kissinger was. Once you have killed more than a 100 people, you don’t care if you kill a thousand or a million, you enter the category of statesman. You do it in accordance with a strategy and a vision, and in the name of an idea and a country. You are working for history, beyond the boundaries of morality. And while these individuals are repugnant, over time they can morph into complex, interesting characters. They can even be the subject of a movie. Napoleon, for example, was responsible for massacres like the one in Jaffa, where he had thousands of Turkish prisoners stabbed to death in 1799. Then there was the slaughter during the retreat from the Berezina River, in 1812, where Napoleon blew up the bridge and left thousands of men on the other side to be murdered by Cossacks. His contemporaries were clear about who he was. But now we see films of him portrayed with a heart.

Then there’s the political chameleon, Napoleon’s chief diplomat, Talleyrand. In Ridley Scott’s 2023 film, Napoleon, Talleyrand hardly features, but this gentleman, who began as a bishop of the ancien régime, was to join the French Revolution and propose the nationalization of Church assets, before becoming a minister for Napoleon, only to conspire against him, and lead the Congress of Vienna before finally ending up at the court of Louis XVIII. He made the full tour of ideologies during the battle of his century.

After the execution of the Duke of Enghien, he said — although the phrase is also attributed to Fouché, Chief of Police: “It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.” In other words, a crime well carried out is an achievement. These great cynics always make phenomenal politicians, if we understand politics as doing whatever it takes to serve whatever it is. But it is necessary to leave a written account of all their actions, so that posterity will see that they didn’t go unnoticed, and so that they get portrayed on screen as the twisted individuals they really were.

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