The Making of Peter Thiel’s Networks: A Review of Max Chafkin’s “The Contrarian”
Thiel was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1967. The following year his parents, Klaus and Susanne, moved to Cleveland, so Klaus could study at Case Western Reserve University. The city was on fire that summer; a four-hour shootout between police and a group called Black Nationalists of New Libya resulted in days of looting, arson and further police crackdowns near campus. Klaus continued his engineering studies. After graduation, the family moved. They spent time in Johannesburg in South Africa, then in Swakopmund in South West Africa (now Namibia), where Klaus worked on the construction of a uranium mine.
Chafkin sketches an itinerant childhood. There is the scene where the strict German father, like a character in a Michael Haneke movie, says to little Peter: “Death happens to all animals. Everybody. It will happen to me one day. It will happen to you. (The boy had asked him about their cowhide rugs.) There is a horrific fact, according to a 1992 report cited by Chafkin, that at the uranium mine, white workers were handing out wages. weekly to black migrant workers behind glass, apparently to avoid radiation exposure. The workers, according to the report, “were dying like flies.”
Although childhood passes in a few pages, Chafkin gives the reader inclined to chair psychoanalysis something to work on. It’s not hard to imagine how this boy could grow into an intense, awkward man, still determined to earn admiration, if not love, for the sheer coldness of his intellect. Later in the book, Chafkin describes Thiel as incapable of truly believing in any basis of human connection other than power, or in relationships that are not all about transactions. “From what I could understand from my reporting for this book,” he writes, “Thiel’s life has been full of important relationships, but few that seem to transcend money or power. Visitors to Thiel’s mansion in San Francisco tell Chafkin that there were no photographs or items of sentimental significance on display. “Thiel’s houses,” said one of them to Chafkin, “look like stage sets, and it’s hard to say that anyone actually lives there. “
The story really took off when Thiel entered Stanford University in the mid-1980s and began to develop the character of a provocateur, as well as the social network that would set up his career. He does not seem to have sought popularity. Chafkin talks to classmates who recall behavior that ranges from plainly odd and obnoxious to aggressive. One student recalled conspicuously taking his daily vitamins in front of a public drinking fountain, “as if he intended to show his classmates that he was, in all respects, superior to his hungry peers. Of wood “. Chafkin also writes that “on at least two occasions he has told his peers that he thinks their concern about apartheid is exaggerated.” (Chafkin’s book includes a statement by Thiel’s spokesperson that Thiel had “no memory of a foreigner demanding his take on apartheid” and that he “never supported” him. ) “He was a weird, weird boy,” a classmate told Chafkin. . But by the mid-1980s there was a strong, well-funded conservative movement ready to welcome and arm students like him.