Hans-Dietrich Genscher, German foreign minister during reunification, dies at 89 – Washington Post

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Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the longest-serving German foreign minister who was one of the key architects of the country’s 1990 reunification between east and west, died March 31 at his home near Bonn. He was 89.

His personal assistant, Nicola Maier, confirmed the death. The cause was a heart ailment.

Mr. Genscher served as foreign minister, first of West Germany and then of the reunited nation, for 18 years under chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl. He remained active and well-connected long after his retirement, working behind the scenes in his mid-80s to help secure the release of former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Mr. Genscher championed detente with the Soviet bloc in the 1970s and 1980s, and was in the vanguard of those who took Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at his word when he declared Soviet aggression a thing of the past.

That trust, and West German insistence on reaching out to help Moscow, helped hasten the end of the Cold War. It also ultimately brought about German reunification at the heart of an increasingly integrated Europe.

“European unity is the answer to the mistakes of the Germans and of European history,” Mr. Genscher said as he announced his retirement from the German parliament in 1998. “It is the answer to a terrible world war. These reasons stand even today.”

In comments to the Interfax news agency, Gorbachev said Mr. Genscher was “a world-class politician, a gifted statesman.”

Mr. Genscher was center stage as cracks in the Iron Curtain opened up. In September 1989, thousands of East Germans had packed into the West German embassy in Czechoslovakia’s capital, Prague, seeking to escape to the West at a time when East German soldiers shot those who tried to flee across the Berlin Wall. After weeks of diplomatic maneuvering, Mr. Genscher told the East Germans on Sept. 30, 1989, that they could go to the West.

“I call you fellow citizens, and express a hearty welcome,” Mr. Genscher said from an embassy balcony. He told reporters outside it was “the most moving point of my political career.”

After the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, Mr. Genscher was at the forefront of efforts to unite East and West Germany — a goal achieved on Oct. 3, 1990.

Mr. Genscher was close to former U.S. President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, James A. Baker III, awakening Baker the night before a six-nation treaty approving German unification was to be signed in Moscow to help resolve a last-minute hitch.

“Germany, Europe and the world benefitted tremendously from the dedication, work and passion of this outstanding statesman,” Baker said. “The United States never had any better friend nor a more important partner in managing the peaceful end to the Cold War.”

Still, Mr. Genscher sometimes rankled his allies. He angered President Ronald Reagan’s skeptical U.S. administration by insisting on cooperating with Moscow early in Gorbachev’s tenure. His insistence in 1989 on linking the reduction of short-range nuclear weapons in Europe with cuts in conventional arms also initially provoked tensions with Washington.

After reunification, Mr. Genscher raised eyebrows in 1991 when he advocated that the European Community recognize Croatia — which had been a part of Yugoslavia — despite opposition from Serb-led groups of the country.

Germany’s assertiveness on the Croatia issue also raised worries that it could use its might of other European countries, anchored in its powerful currency at the time, the German mark. Yet Mr. Genscher was clear about the lessons Germany had learned from the horrors of its Nazi past.

“I have always considered it my generation’s responsibility to prevent a repetition of the events of the period from 1933-1945 in Germany, committed by Germany,” he wrote in his memoir. “That task will go on in perpetuity. We must prevent even a relapse into a new nationalism.”

During his long tenure, Mr. Genscher became a political cult figure. His ceaseless travel to foreign capitals earned him the nickname “Genschman” — an allusion to Superman — and the yellow sweater-vest he wore under his suit became his trademark. Referring to that heavy travel schedule, then-Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze once quipped that whenever two airliners pass each over the Atlantic, “Genscher is on both of them.”

Hans-Dietrich Genscher was born March 21, 1927, in Reideburg, near the eastern German city of Halle.

Drafted into the German army in the final months of World War II, he was captured by U.S. forces in 1945 and imprisoned in Britain. After the war, he studied law at Leipzig University, but became disenchanted with communist East Germany and escaped to the West in 1952.

There, he joined the small Free Democratic Party, starting a political career that would make him one of the country’s most popular and respected figures.

Mr. Genscher entered the cabinet as Chancellor Willy Brandt’s interior minister in 1969. He oversaw the unsuccessful effort to free 11 Israelis held hostage by a Palestinian group during the 1972 Munich Olympics — later describing it as “the most frightful time in my entire tenure as a member of the federal government.”

He moved to the foreign ministry under Schmidt in 1974. He was a driving force behind his party’s decision to switch its allegiance from the center-left Social Democrats, bringing down Schmidt and helping the conservative Kohl to power in 1982.

In April 1992, after a series of health problems, Mr. Genscher announced his resignation, saying he wanted to make way for a new generation of political leaders.

But he remained an influential figure in the Free Democratic Party and a national political institution. In December 2013, he welcomed ex-tycoon Khodorkovsky to Berlin following the Russian’s pardon and release after a decade as a prisoner.

It was revealed that Mr. Genscher had long been quietly working on the case with the German government’s support, twice meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss it, then arranging Khodorkovsky’s flight to Germany.

“Deeply saddened by death of former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher,” Khodorkovsky said in a statement. “As I now know he saved my life.”

Mr. Genscher’s survivors include his second wife, the former Barbara Schmidt, and a daughter from an earlier marriage.

— Associated Press

Hans-Dietrich Genscher, German foreign minister during reunification, dies at 89 – Washington Post