“Dear fellow Germans, we have come to you in order to inform you that today, your departure…” It was the most famous half-sentence in German diplomatic history. Standing on the baroque balcony of West Germany’s embassy in Prague, Foreign Minister Hans-Dieter Genscher addressed himself to the thousands of East German refugees encamped on the embassy grounds. The refugees, waiting with anguish to find out whether or not they would be allowed to flee to the West, exploded with jubilation at that magic last word, cutting Genscher’s speech short with a kind of statement far more eloquent than any official diplomatic communication. (Video here.)
Born in Halle, Germany, Genscher was twelve years old when the Second World War broke out and at the end of the war was briefly forcibly drafted. After the war, he pursued his studies in law under the Communist East German regime. Asked by a professor why, if he was well-read in Marx and Engels, he hadn’t joined the ruling Socialist Unity Party, he replied that it was precisely because he was familiar with their work. With no future for himself as a jurist in East Germany, he fled to the West in 1952.
Intimate with the totalitarianisms of both left and right, he joined the liberal Free Democratic Party and rose quickly through its ranks. Elected to the Bundestag in 1965, he became deputy national chairman in 1968. In 1969, he was named Interior Minister by the Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt. After Brandt’s succession by Helmut Schmidt in 1974, Genscher was named Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister—positions he would retain, despite shifting political coalitions, for the next eighteen years, giving him a role of immense importance in the history of postwar Germany and Europe as a whole.
As an exiled Easterner, Genscher had a deep fellow-feeling for Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, the “Eastern Politics” of engagement with the Communist bloc. He championed détente with the Soviets, but also provoked the ouster of Helmut Schmidt in favor of Helmut Kohl in part because he believed Schmidt’s Social Democrats were not sufficiently committed to NATO missile defense. He was not trusted by some NATO allies because of his dedication to bridging the gap between East and West, a deal-making attitude derisively dubbed “Genscherism.” Yet it also meant that he was early able to recognize Mikhail Gorbachev as a possible partner for dialogue, and had built up enough trust with Soviet Bloc to peacefully negotiate the end of the Cold War in Europe and the reunification of Germany. In addition to the unification of his own country, he was a passionate advocate for European integration.
Although he remained active in public affairs through the end of his long life—in 2008, he helped negotiate the release of Russian political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky—his time in the limelight ended upon his sudden resignation of his ministerial post in 1992, and his exit from the Bundestag in 1998. Upon his death last week on March 31, Angela Merkel eulogized him as a “great liberal patriot and European.” The Chancellor, as an East German herself, well understands the transformational impact this statesman made during his two decades at the helm of German foreign policy.