Issue Briefs

Isaiah Berlin and Elie Kedourie: Recollections of Two Giants

Isaiah Berlin and Elie Kedourie: Recollections of Two Giants

Martin Sieff

September 27th, 2021

Sir Isaiah Berlin, one of the most eminent historians of political philosophy of the past century, passed away in 1997. Elie Kedourie, one of the leading experts on the 20th century political history of the Fertile Crescent, died five years earlier. Both men were among the most profound thinkers and analysts on the nature and problems of modern political nationalism. From 1969 through 1976, I was privileged to study and work under both of them in various capacities. It proved to be a life-defining experience.

Champion of pluralism

Isaiah Berlin is now primarily remembered as the champion of pluralism and toleration in political thought. He was a pioneering historian of the European radical rightwing reaction against French enlightenment values in the 18th and 19th centuries. He is perhaps most famous for his warning that any attempt to create a utopia, however well-meaning and regardless of the ideology involved, can only result in the inevitable creation of a hell on earth instead. For, just as human beings are infinitely variable in their backgrounds, interests and passions among each other, each individual is also the sum of many conflicting desires, experiences and cultural layers, some of which will inevitably be in conflict with each other. Therefore to Berlin, some level of conflict, and even of tragic choice is inevitable, not just between individuals, but within them.

Classical liberal

Berlin, however, did not despair of the human condition, as his famous appreciations of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt showed. He was a classic liberal in the sense that he believed it possible, desirable and necessary to ameliorate the human condition and to push for peace in the world, the extension of political freedoms and the avoidance, where possible, of unnecessary conflicts. It is no coincidence that Timothy Garton Ash, who was so courageously and personally involved in human rights activities in Central Europe in the decade before the collapse of communism, proudly described himself as a continuing disciple of Berlin, adopting John F. Kennedy’s legendary declaration, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Empires work

Where Berlin was essentially optimistic about the human condition, Kedourie was intensely pessimistic about it. He believed that empire was the most stable, successful and therefore morally desirable form of government known to humankind. He made no secret in his writings of his admiration for the Ottoman Empire that, he contended, had solved the problems of governance throughout the Middle East far more effectively than any of its predecessors or successors ever managed to.

This fear and loathing of the excesses of the mob, and his Hobbesian understanding of the need for firm and stable government as the essential prerequisite to every other human attainment, could result occasional in strange remarks or insights. Once, in 1986 as I recall, Kedourie was speaking at the Washington Hilton Hotel as a guest of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. It was the early days of what proved to be a very happy series of associations for him with the institute and with Washington in general. One questioner made a comment about Syrian President Hafez Assad’s ruthless and, indeed, horrific record of torture and repression, including the crushing of the Islamist popular revolt in the city of Hama in 1982. Kedourie had been a fearless trailblazer among Western scholars documenting the atrocities carried out by the Ba’ath regimes in Syria and Iraq. But on this occasion, he only nodded approvingly and said, “Yes. That fellow knows how to handle them.” In Kedourie’s eyes, even Assad was preferable to anarchy. He wholeheartedly agreed with the Roman historian Tacitus–better Tiberius than a committee.

Berlin was popular

Berlin and Kedourie were vastly different figures in their reputation, personality, public persona and even in the nature of their work. They were indeed a study in contrasts. Berlin became a nationally known figure while still in his early 20’s when he became the first Jew to be accepted as a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. He was at the heart of the British Establishment all his life. His weekly dispatches on domestic U.S. politics as a British diplomat in the United States through most of World War II were much prized by War Premier Winston Churchill. Fast talking, charming, brilliant, warm and gregarious, he counted President Franklin Roosevelt and many eminent Americans among his personal friends. In the early 1950’s, his series of radio lectures on liberty, broadcast nationally by the British Broadcasting Corporation, made him a national celebrity in Britain. In addition to his academic work, he was a major figure in British academic institutions for much of his long life. He was the architect of Wolfson College, Oxford. It was through his Wolfson College eminence that I was introduced to him by his close friend, my tutor the late Dr. Hans Schenk, an expert on modern European history, culture and political thought, who had served as dean of Wolfson.

Low key Kedourie

Kedourie by contrast lived life in a minor key. Where Berlin was embraced by the British academic establishment while still in his teens, Kedourie bucked it early. He never received his PhD because he refused pressure to amend it from hostile examiners at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford. The work was later published and proved a seminal study in the history of Britain’s imperial involvement with the Middle East in the first half of the 20th century. And although Kedourie rose to comparable heights of academic prestige and influence to Berlin, he never lost that sense of confronting what he regarded as the inanities of Conventional Wisdom head on.

Divergent politics?

Their politics were a study in contrasts too. Berlin, a tolerant social democrat and liberal, proudly and consistently referred to himself all his life as a Man of the Left. This should have been anathema to Kedourie, a skeptical minimal government conservative who skewered the efforts of post-war British Labour governments to micromanage society and bureaucratically plan for prosperity, most notably in his classic essay “The Crossman Papers.”

Yet beneath the surface, the two men had far more in common than met the eye, and this, I believe accounted for the real and lasting bond of respect and trust between them, as well as for their hidden strength.

Early years

Isaiah Berlin was a Latvian Jew whose family escaped the Bolshevik revolution. As a young boy, his most searing memory was of seeing a policeman murdered by a mob. Kedourie grew up in a wealthy Iraqi Jewish family in Baghdad. As a 15-year-old schoolboy he witnessed the notorious farhud, or pogrom against the Jewish community of Baghdad in 1941. Hundreds of defenseless Iraqi Jews were killed and countless women raped. The farhud came after the British Army had foiled a military coup by the Iraqi Army to switch Iraq over to the side of the Nazis in World War II. In frustration, the Iraqi Army vented its fury on the Jews of Baghdad. But as Kedourie later documented in a celebrated article, the British forces were held back for days to score political points with the Iraqi population.

Both men came from eminent, even fabled Jewish families of ancient lineage. Kedourie was a devoutly religious Orthodox Jew who was strictly Sabbath-observant. Berlin was related to Menahem Mendel Scheneerson, the Hasidic Grand Rabbi of Lubavitch in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But as far as I know they never met and Berlin greatly distrusted him. He was passionately secular all his life. He did not feel comfortable with intense religious devotion. However, he was a proud Jew who attended synagogue on Yom Kippur and was very active in supporting Jewish student activities at the University of Oxford. The shy, retiring Kedourie by contrast was seldom seen socially among even his postgraduate students at the London School of Economics.

Different personalities

Dealing with both of them personally, as I can testify, was a vastly different experience. Berlin was by nature ebullient, witty and outgoing. He was a born raconteur. He loved to tell the story of a party he had attended in the 1930’s where Zionist movement leader Chaim Weizmann, later the first president of the State of Israel, was asked by an aristocratic British lady admirer, “Dr. Weizmann, I do not understand. You are a member of the most cultured, civilized, brilliant and cosmopolitan people in history and you want to give it all up to become–Albania?” According to Berlin, Weizmann pondered thoughtfully and slowly on the question, then his face lit up like an electric light bulb. “Yes!” he exclaimed. “Albania! Albania!” The story gave Berlin–a cosmopolitan rather than an Albanian to the core of his soul–endless delight.

He was the soul of generosity and he always judged people’s motives with an excess of charity. On one occasion, I was involved in fund-raising to send some Oxford students to a conference in Philadelphia and much to my chagrin could not go myself because I had been sucked into another student bridge-building adventure in, of all places, Yugoslavia. Sir Isaiah was sympathetic to my plight. “So, Mr. Sieff,” he said. “You made it possible for others to go but you didn’t go yourself. That was very noble, very noble.” “No, sir” I replied with my usual Northern Irish directness and lack of tact. “It was very stupid.” “No! No!” he cried. “It was noble! It was noble!”

One of many students

I was only one of many thousands of young students whose paths he crossed over the decades, and whose future career was launched or greatly enhanced through his care and enthusiasm. I last spoke with him in 1976 before going to Israel where I worked for several years on The Jerusalem Post. More than a quarter century later, and well after Sir Isaiah’s death, I was dining with my old friend, then-chief at UPI, John O’Sullivan–formerly a senior policy advisor and speechwriter for many years to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher–and I mentioned to John what a fortunate day it had been for me when I started to contribute for him when he was editor of the National Review. “My dear boy,” John laughed, “I knew all about you long before that.” “But how was that?” I exclaimed. “We never met before 1989. I would have remembered.” “Yes,” John replied. “But when I came over to work in the United States a few years before that, I received a note of congratulation from Sir Isaiah saying he had heard that one of his disciples, Martin Sieff, had preceded me over and he recommended you most enthusiastically to me.”

By contrast, early meetings with Kedourie, when I did my postgraduate work under him at the London School of Economics, could be nerve-wracking. This was not because Kedourie was harsh or unkind in any way. What he was, I finally came to realize after many months, was profoundly shy. He would speak at meetings softly and often elliptically. He would have made an excellent police interrogator because by saying as little as possible, he drew his interlocutors out as much as possible. A short, wintry smile from him was the equivalent of a warm embrace or a slap on the back from many others.

British civilization and Zionism

Where Kedourie and Berlin came together was in their celebration of British civilization and political values.

Their attitudes towards Zionism were also a study in contrasts. Kedourie, as his early writings indicate, long blamed the activities of the pre-State and early State Zionist movement for setting off the firestorm of anti-Semitism that destroyed the ancient, wealthy, and fabled Jewish community of Baghdad, and Jewish communities throughout Iraq. In later years, his attitude towards the State of Israel dramatically mellowed. I suspect this was in significant part due to the toppling of the long-time Labor Party ascendancy in Israel, which he loathed, and its replacement by the nationalist Likud leadership, especially when it was led by Menahem Begin. Begin, a traditional Jew who often wore his kipa or religious skullcap at public functions, was much more emotionally reassuring to the privately devout and traditional Kedourie than the Labor leaders with all their talk of social engineering, secularism and a superficial rationalism and confidence that they, and they alone, had solved “the Jewish Question.” In his last years, Kedourie contributed regularly to Commentary magazine, and his engagement with them, I believe, would have continued to go had his life not been cut short by a heart attack.

Berlin active with the Zionist movement

Berlin was a close personal friend of Chaim Weizmann and was extremely active in the British Zionist movement in the 1930’s, when it was far from the respectable, mainstream establishment cause that it became in the early decades of the state. Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, thought so highly of Berlin that he asked him to become his chief of staff and run the prime minister’s office right after the state was formed. When Berlin turned the job down, it went to Teddy Kollek instead; but after the Likud takeover in 1977 and the commitment to major settlement on the West Bank, his level of comfort with Israel appears to have significantly declined.

Both men were realists

Beneath Berlin’s support of human rights and Kedourie’s advocacy for tough, long-lasting empires, however, lay a shared, clear-eyed and “realist” recognition about the unavoidably flawed condition of human nature. Berlin loved to quote the late in life admission of a despairing Immanuel Kant that, “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing can be made.” The term “crooked timber” indeed serves as the title for one of the collections of his essays edited by Henry Hardy.

Kedourie believed in empire because he believed, along with Rabbi Hanina in the Ethics of the Fathers, that but for the reality of government, men would swallow each other alive. His greatest criticism of the British Empire, and one that made him astonishingly anomalous to the prevailing fashions of British culture and academia from the 1950’s through the 1970’s, was that it was not tough enough to sustain and defend itself. He regarded the retreat from empire–not the creation of it–as the most shameful period in British history, involving as it did the abandonment of many millions of ordinary, decent people of ethnic, religious and political minorities around the world to the merciless passions of mobs and triumphant extremist ideologies.

I saw Kedourie quite often during my early years in Washington. He found academic and social life in the city congenial and spent increasing periods of time there at institutions such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was living and working in Washington when he died. I dined with him and his brilliant wife Sylvia Haim a few months before he passed away. It was a delightful evening and none of us, I think, had any intimations of finality. The Washington media at the time was full of reports about the controversy over the hapless April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad who had somehow failed to realize in a crucial 1990 meeting that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was actually asking her for U.S. permission to invade and conquer Kuwait. Glaspie’s bungling fitted into one of the central themes of Kedourie’s great corpus of work–the crucial role that obscure government bureaucrats, no one in the general public has ever heard of, can hold in shaping crucial policies of war and peace that decide the destiny of nations. In Kedourie’s eyes, Glaspie was cut from the same cloth as Sir Gilbert Clayton, Sir Mark Sykes, Sir Ronald Storrs and other British bureaucrats who had shaped the future of the Middle East during World War I, based on their limitless ignorance and even greater confidence in their own ineptitude. The last words I remember him saying to me that night were: “Remember Martin, nothing changes. Nothing ever changes.”


The posthumous reputations of both men have also been a study in contrasts. Berlin’s reputation soared thanks to two typically wise and shrewd personnel decisions he made during his lifetime. He chose Michael Ignatieff as his biographer and Henry Hardy as his editor.

Ignatieff’s biography is luminous. For anyone who knew and loved the man, it is like being privileged to enter his company again. For anyone who did not, it captures the largeness of heart, the genius and generosity and the sheer fun of Berlin, as well as his insecurities.

Hardy has produced a steady stream of collections of Berlin’s writings that have forever buried the two sneering asides that were often made about him while he was still alive–that while a lecturer and raconteur of genius, he never actually produced an impressively scholarly body of work, and that he was too much of a “fox” by his own definition–a talented fellow who never seriously focused sufficiently on one issue or theme.

However, when the body of his work was assembled from the many obscure specialist journals, in which so much of it had appeared, it turned out to be an impressive, multi-volume achievement after all. And far from being a “fox,” according to his own definition of political thinkers, Berlin emerged as a “hedgehog” after all, a figure who “knew one great thing.”

For in the brief 1990’s breathing space between the collapse of communism and the global challenge of extreme Islamism, it emerged that there was indeed a single, overriding theme to much of Berlin’s work–a sustained, highly original and serious engagement with the nature of political extremism, and, most especially, the forms it takes in reacting fearfully to the challenges of modernism.

This in turn has led to a new series of sniping attacks on Berlin from some conservatives and from the likes of Christopher Hitchens–bizarrely enough, a long-time Trotskyite–that Berlin lacked moral courage, never took stands on issues and that his work is irrelevant in an era when the West needs to renew its moral, intellectual and political fiber to face the growing assault on its existence from the Islamists.

In brief response, I would first note that Berlin was outspoken in his public opposition to, and criticism of, Fascism, Nazism and Communism throughout his life, including on many occasions when doing so risked his professional and social standing and prospects. Also, unlike most, if not all, of his critics, his personal courage was demonstrated on many occasions. In the fall of 1940, he left political war work in the safe and prosperous United States to return home to a London under daily bombing attack from the Luftwaffe, for no greater reason than that he could not bear to think of the family, friends and country that he loved being under such assault without him being there to share it. (His letters to family and friends from New York and Washington through the war years are suffused with homesickness and a yearning for England.)

Berlin’s enduring relevance

As to the current relevance and moral fiber of Berlin’s work, one should start from the recognition that he tackles the underlying flaws of the political fantasies that killed up to a quarter of a billion human beings in the combined ideological slaughters of the 20th century. No living political thinker, nor any other who has lived and worked over the past century, arguably challenges the underlying philosophical delusions of ideological extremism and the conviction that humanity can and should be perfected within a few years so cogently.

Further, I would argue that Berlin’s studies of the 18th century European reactionaries, their criticisms of the Enlightenment and of the French Revolution, and his engagement with Kant are more timely and essential than ever, as we contemplate the ruins of the American adventure in Iraq, and the gains that extreme Islamism has made in Egypt, Kuwait, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere, from the opportunities that ill-timed democratic elections have offered it. Globalism, free markets and democracy are under attack around the globe from forces suffused with the hatred and fear of modernism. Berlin’s work on the 18th century reaction against the Enlightenment gives us crucially needed insight into the roots and nature of this phenomenon.

Berlin believed in democracy passionately, and far more so than Kedourie. But he recognized that democracy was not, contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s famous argument in The End of History, the inevitable, eternal global victor in the endless battle of ideas for dominance over the minds of men–and women. Berlin’s much criticized so-called moral relativism is not an admission of despair or defeat but a cautious recognition that we cannot take the universal application or triumph of ideas that we hold admirable for granted, amid the limitless uncertainties and surprises of unfolding history.

Kedourie believed in enlightened empires

Kedourie would certainly have agreed with that. If anything, I think Kedourie was the greater visionary and romantic of the two, and Berlin the greater conservative. Berlin was cautious in his political prescriptions. Kedourie would certainly have embraced a Pax Americana over the Middle East to succeed the short and imperfect Pax Britannica, whose disintegration he observed at first hand. But he would, I have no doubt, be appalled–though in no way surprised–at the mess U.S. policymakers made of their adventure in nation-building in Iraq, so succinctly summed up in the title of Thomas Ricks’ book, Fiasco.

The pathetic collapse of the Afghan National Army and the shameless flight of the latest in the sad line of American puppet rulers in Kabul we have seen over the past 20 years also fulfils Kedourie’s trenchant criticisms of British imperial overlords similarly deluded for generations over their latest groveling puppets and favorites failing to rule in Egypt and Iraq.


Lessons lost

Kedourie was never a household name in Britain as Berlin was, but it did not, I think, bother him. He never sought it. He was secure in his professional reputation and his standing among colleagues he respected. He greatly welcomed the long ascendancy of President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher over the United States and Britain through the 1980’s as a reassertion of the basic moral and political values that he believed the West had abandoned for so long. He never wrote any single big, broad, ambitious sweeping work. But, like Berlin, he was prolific in producing articles of the highest quality and scholarly importance that were collected in a series of books. In his case, they almost all appeared within his own lifetime. However, since his death, they have been widely forgotten or ignored in the United States, as in Britain.

This is more than a pity; it has had extremely serious deleterious policy consequences for the American people. Had U.S. policymakers and opinion-makers, for example, simply read Kedourie’s scathing essay “The Kingdom of Iraq” before invading the country to topple Saddam Hussein in March 2003, they would have been left in no doubt that the rapid imposition of a theoretically democratic system in Iraq would not solve any of that unhappy nation’s longstanding political and social problems, but could only exacerbate them. For Iraq was democratic from 1925 to 1958, with Britain playing the “stabilizing” and “guardian” role that the United States did after 2003, not merely for three or five or even 10 years, but for 33 of them, and Kedourie chronicled the result: “Brief as it is, the record of the kingdom of Iraq is full of bloodshed, treason and rapine; and however pitiful its end, we may now say this was implicit in its beginning.”

Isaiah Berlin and Elie Kedourie were both titans. They were men who combined the greatest scholarly gifts and achievements in their chosen fields with a truly rare purity and generosity of soul. Their moral stature was immense in all their personal dealings as well as their professional standing. I admired and appreciated both of them in the years I studied and worked under them. Far from missing them, I feel their presence more constantly at my side as we enter darker days that would have saddened both of them, but certainly would not have surprised either of them.

The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the author.

Martin Sieff is a Global Policy Institute Fellow. He is the author most recently of Gathering Storm: The Seventh Era of American History and the Coming Crises That Will Lead to It.