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The Meaning of History: Dr. Henry Kissinger's Undergraduate Thesis

In March 2022, the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) distributed the first print edition of Dr. Henry A. Kissinger’s renowned undergraduate thesis, The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee, and Kant, completed at Harvard College in 1950, to the world’s leading research university libraries.

Long acknowledged as a work of great intellectual insight, Dr. Kissinger’s nearly four-hundred-page thesis examines the political philosophies and intellectual perspectives that three scholars—Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and Immanuel Kant—respectively took towards the role of the individual in shaping the course of history. As one of the most influential actors in the fields of diplomacy, strategy, and international relations, Dr. Kissinger's thesis provides great insight into the foundations of his worldview and his extraordinary career as the nation’s preeminent scholar-practitioner of foreign policy and world order.

Published by the Swedish Bokförlaget Stolpe with the generous support of the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit in Stockholm, Sweden, this first edition of The Meaning of History will allow readers around the world access to some of Dr. Kissinger’s earliest academic thinking.
Stolpe's Binding

Major biographies of Dr. Kissinger, including Niall Ferguson’s Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist (Penguin Press, 2015) and Walter Isaacson’s Kissinger: A Biography (Simon and Schuster, 2009) have referenced Dr. Kissinger’s undergraduate thesis. The historian Bruce Kuklick has argued the thesis is a “work of genius.” Despite its importance, the document’s accessibility was limited to printed, type-written copies in the archives of Harvard University. In late 2019, Dr. Kissinger began discussing the possibility of publishing the thesis with Professor Francis J. Gavin, Director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs; Mattias Hessérus in collaboration with Kurt Almqvist of the Ax:son Johnson Foundation; Marika Stolpe, Founder of Bokförlaget Stolpe; and Professor John Bew, Director of the Centre for Grand Strategy at King’s College London, with the support of Andrew Wylie of The Wylie Agency. A research team assembled by the Kissinger Center produced a scan of the original, type-written thesis. However, its readability was limited, and the text needed to be transformed letter by letter into a digital document to begin the publication process. In March 2020, the scan was transformed manually into a digital text document, and over the next year, Lyndsay Howard and copyeditor William Palmer prepared the manuscript for publication in concert with Dr. Kissinger.
Stolpe's Interior Work

Historians Professor Francis J. Gavin and Professor John Bew began writing the foreword to the text. Professor Bew read much of Dr. Kissinger’s work for his own research on western thinking about world order and “was surprised to learn it had never been published - and was quite hard to obtain.” Professor Bew added,
In the context of Niall Ferguson’s biography of Dr Kissinger there was more interest in his fascinating backstory and the formation of his worldview - with the undergraduate thesis obviously central to that. So I discussed this with Mattias Hesserus and the Ax:son Johnson Foundation who had just opened up a new publishing house and we began the project with Frank. It was the natural outgrowth of our shared work on applied history and world order. We were delighted when Dr Kissinger gave his consent to the project. In essence it is the perfect example of how our ideas of historical development are intimately tied up with our view of foreign policy.

Dr. Kissinger added a new introduction as well as a personal note to the research libraries, an excerpt of which is included below.

My hope is that the revival of this work will help fuel the aspirations of current and future generations of young scholars and leaders to acquire a fuller perspective in the study of history and philosophy.

By Spring 2021, the final version was completed and shared with Bokförgalet Stolpe for publication. Their expertise transformed the text into the bespoke, silk-bound volume featured above. Printed in Germany, the books were shipped to the United States at the start of Summer 2021. “The process of working with Dr Kissinger’s The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant has been nothing but delightful,” says Marika Stolpe, founder of Bokförlaget Stolpe. “Not least by virtue of the collaboration with The Kissinger Center. Our publishing house focuses on specialist books within fields such as art, history, architecture, and philosophy, placing great emphasis on design, reproduction, printing, and binding.” This led to an “an immediate alignment with the content of Dr Kissinger’s thesis and are proud to know that we have been able to contribute to the distribution of this important piece of work.” Stolpe added that “our aim was to give the text an appropriate design, which we believe we succeeded in thanks to talented designer Patric Leo. The book is half bound with Cabra regina, and the cover UV-printed with a marble effect. Corners and stickers have been affixed by hand. Copies printed and bound by Narayana, Denmark.”

Over the next several months, the Kissinger Center at SAIS began discussions to design the custom packaging and coordinate the distribution of the volume with Stephen Vanilio (SAIS MA, ‘77) and John Paul Greenawalt of Gallery Books Arts, bespoke bookbinders of Washington, DC, whose portfolio has included diplomatic gifts on behalf every president of the United States since President Jimmy Carter. By March 2022, the Kissinger Center and Gallery Book Arts distributed the books to the world’s leading one hundred university libraries.