Politics Notebook | Two Prussians died this week, one...


Politics Notebook | Two Prussians died this week, one American and one Afrikaner

MAX DU PREEZ writes about the deaths of Henry Kissinger and apartheid-era prosecutor Klaus von Lieres, both of Prussian origin, and about the pee in the snow.


KLAUS VON LIERES, former attorney-general of the Witwatersrand, is no longer with us. He passed away this week at the age of 83.

I have a long history with Von Lieres, and it was not pleasant. It was his decision in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was the editor of the original Vrye Weekblad, to bring charges against me for every trivial matter.

I was almost more in court than in our newsroom, and our legal bills were higher than our printing costs. And I have a number of criminal convictions on my record, including under the former laws on the suppression of communism and national security.

Some of the charges were absurd, such as Vrye Weekblad paraphrasing Joe Slovo, then still a banned person, in an article — shortly after other publications had published full interviews with Slovo but were not prosecuted.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

There were charges that I published a state secret when I revealed that a Stellenbosch professor was an agent of national intelligence, and that Vrye Weekblad's registration with the Post Office was not done correctly.

I had no doubt then, and still don't, that Klaus abused his office to wage a vendetta against Vrye Weekblad, aiming to intimidate and financially weaken us.

We taunted him regularly. Every time we referred to him, we used his full name: Klaus Peter Constantin Otto von Lieres und Wilkau. And in our Brolloks and Bittergal column, we always added in brackets afterwards: Wasgoed Ingesluit (all that and the kitchen sink).

According to people in his office, it irritated him immensely. They saw him as an arrogant man and a bully who tolerated no opposition.

When I once accused him in print of conducting an improper vendetta against us, he sued me for defamation, demanding R1 million in damages. In his court documents, he not only denied the charge but added that our use of his full name with Wasgoed Ingesluit was intended to humiliate him.

By that time, Klaus had financially exhausted us to the point where we had to make a plan. We were still involved in a years-long defamation case with his friend Gen. Lothar Neethling, while another police general and PW Botha himself also served us with writs claiming compensation for defamation. These two cases were also intimidation and never went to court.

We then decided to make a settlement offer to Klaus: R150,000, if I remember correctly. He refused it, the case went to court, and the judge awarded him less than R150,000 — which meant we didn't have to pay him anything. It gave me great satisfaction.

Oh well, that's water under the bridge.

Klaus wasn't simply a puppet of the National Party, police or military — he was too arrogant for that. For example, he went against the government's wishes and prosecuted a security policeman who had assaulted a detainee.

He may have been a bully and a disciplinarian but colleagues also remember him as a hard worker and someone with a sharp legal mind who believed in “the system". And never a hint of corruption.

In a sense, he was the caricature of his formidable name: he was a military man, a brigadier in the citizen force and a showman. In  retirement he was active in the Stellenbosch Libertas theatre group.

He didn't like journalists. It was he who had Andries Cornelissen of Beeld charged in 1993 because he refused to testify against the leader of the ANC Youth League, Peter Mokaba.

Klaus retired at 55, just after the transition to democracy, then practised as an advocate. He denied that he left the civil service because he didn't want to work under an ANC government. After that, he also represented Inkatha in the infamous KwaMakhutha trial.

It was with that trial in 1995 that the renowned biographer Mark Gevisser, then still a reporter at the Weekly Mail, did a profile of Klaus. 

Here is a short excerpt: “Most of his colleagues acknowledge that he is a good prosecutor and a very clever man. But they also describe him as ‘brash', ‘bullying', ‘of obtrusive temperament', ‘rude, difficult and unhelpful'. I sit with Von Lieres in his temporary office in Schreiner Chambers, where he’s not quite at home yet. He is a large-boned man, but there is, today, none of his legendary fury. If he is the Bismarck of Pritchard Street, I see none of it.

“In fact, if there is any vestige of Prussian aristocracy in his demeanour (his father, a German nobleman, emigrated to South Africa in the 1920s), it is extreme courtliness. He answers my questions, talking to a point four paces behind my left ear.

“When pleased with himself, he allows the quickest of snake-lick smiles to flash across his features. He is opinionated and self-assured, yes, but in a most bland and evasive way.

“Except for the knuckles. Garlanded with chunky gold rings inlaid with stones — upmarket knuckledusters — I catch them cracking against each other as he makes a point about conflict. From that moment on, I cannot take my eyes off them. They move with a deliberation that borders on menace.

“They remind me that my subject is containing himself for the purposes of a media interview. They are involuntary signifiers that their owner is, in another context, a fighter."

Heinz Kissinger, ‘war criminal’

The other Prussian who died this week is Henry Kissinger, one of the most influential — and hated — diplomats of the last century. He turned 100 in May.

Kissinger was born in Fürth, Germany, as Heinz Kissinger. He was 15 years old when he and his parents fled Nazi Germany as Jews to America. He became a US citizen at the age of 20 and was soon sent as a soldier to Germany, where he took part in the Battle of the Bulge.

Kissinger retained his heavy German accent until his death, but once in Germany, he boasted in German that he could not speak any other  language without an accent.

He was secretary of state and national security adviser for presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He played a crucial role in establishing diplomatic relations between China and the West, was part of the arms control agreements between Russia and the US, the peace agreement with North Vietnam, and the détente between Israel and some of its Arab neighbours.

Kissinger was popular in Germany. Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once remarked: “He understood and convinced other world leaders that the Germans after 1945 had learnt their lesson and could be trusted. We have this man to thank for that. Henry Kissinger never forgot his German roots."

Kissinger also had a good relationship with John Vorster, prime minister of South Africa from 1966 to 1978. He visited South Africa shortly after the Soweto uprising in 1976.

Kissinger and Vorster conspired to persuade Ian Smith, the prime minister of Rhodesia, to suspend his unilateral declaration of independence and accept a democratic Zimbabwe, but also to support Unita in Angola and thus delay the independence of Namibia.

The latest edition of the American magazine Rolling Stone, under the headline “Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved by America’s Ruling Class, Finally Dies", referred to the infamous mass murderer Timothy McVeigh, who was executed after killing 168 people in a bombing.

“McVeigh, who in his own psychotic way thought he was saving America, never remotely killed on the scale of Kissinger, the most revered American grand strategist of the second half of the 20th century," Rolling Stone wrote.

In the snow

A long-popular joke in America: President Richard Nixon was furious when he saw the words “Fuck Nixon" written in yellow in the snow outside the White House one morning.

He ordered the FBI to immediately identify the culprits. Which they did. The FBI officer then had to report: “Mr President, the urine is Kissinger’s — and the handwriting is Mrs Nixon’s."

Image: © El Español

♦ VWB ♦

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