Washington — Richard Holbrooke, the legendary U.S. diplomat who brokered a Balkan peace and who enjoyed talking about his Jewish roots, has died.
Holbrooke, who was the Obama administration’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan when he died, suffered a torn aorta on Friday and was hospitalized. The State Department announced his death on Monday. He was 69.
In a statement, President Obama said he was “deeply saddened by the passing of Richard Holbrooke, a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer, and more respected. He was a truly unique figure who will be remembered for his tireless diplomacy, love of country, and pursuit of peace.”
Holbrooke worked in foreign policy for Democratic presidents since the late 1960s, and spent his time out of government as an investment banker.
President Clinton named Holbrooke as ambassador to Germany in 1993. Holbrooke, whose confrontational style became legendary, prominently hung a photo of his grandfather in a German World War I uniform at the ambassador’s residence – and would point out to German visitors that this proud German patriot also happened to have been a Jew.
Holbrooke’s fame came after Clinton made him an assistant secretary of state for Europe in 1994, and assigned him the task of resolving the Bosnian war. He worked tirelessly and would brook no refusals; by the beginning of 1996 he had forged a peace deal, the Dayton accords, that seemed at first shaky, but which has endured. A number of Jewish groups honored Holbrooke for his breakthrough.
Both of Holbrooke’s parents were assimilated Jews whose families had immigrated to the United States from Europe – his mother from Germany, his father born to Russian parents in Warsaw.
He became more interested in his Judiasm when his third wife – and widow – Kati Marton, raised a Roman Catholic, discovered that her own parents were Hungarian Jews who hid their identity.
In his 1998 book about the Dayton accords, “To End a War,” Holbrooke couldn’t resist comparing the late Yitzhak Rabin to the Balkan leaders he had come to revile.
Rabin “had been murdered because he had been willing to consider a compromise for peace. The reaction of the Balkan presidents was cold-blooded and self-centered; this showed, each said separately, what personal risks they were taking for peace,” he said. “None expressed sorrow for Rabin or the Israeli people or concern for the peace process.”
Holbrooke is survived by Marton, two sons and two stepchildren.