Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who has died aged 89, was Foreign Minister of West Germany, and subsequently the reunified Germany, for 18 years, and Vice Chancellor in turn to the Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt and the Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl.
Genscher, who led the liberal Free Democrats for 10 years, was probably the first senior Western politician to see Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms as foreshadowing real change in the Eastern bloc. Other Nato leaders did not agree, but he was vindicated by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Born in what for three decades had been a separate, communist East Germany, Genscher was a passionate believer in the reunification of his country, and one of its principal architects. But even he did not expect the house of cards to collapse so quickly. The day the Wall was breached, the prevalent view in Bonn was that reunification might now come within 15 years. In fact – despite a spirited attempt by Margaret Thatcher to block it – a single Federal Republic was established in just 11 months.
Genscher was already the doyen of Western foreign ministers, and arguably the most powerful figure not heading a government. And with the shake-up in the Kremlin ending the career of the veteran Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, he became the most experienced statesman on either side of the soon-to-disappear Iron Curtain.
He argued that Gorbachev had created the opportunity for mutual disarmament and for West Germany to be a “bridge for unity”. However President George Bush senior feared a split in Nato, and Mrs Thatcher felt he was undermining efforts to force the Soviet Union to improve its record on human rights.
Such opposition left Genscher unmoved, having become a master of diplomacy and political tightrope walking; he had kept his Cabinet seat for 20 years, in a series of coalitions.
Genscher served in a government led by the Social Democrats from 1969, and kept the foreign ministry when, in 1982, he switched the FDP’s support to the Christian Democrats. Three years later he stood down as FDP chairman, but remained foreign minister.
He was voted West Germany’s most popular politician several years in succession. A 16 hour-a-day workaholic, he swam every day at 6am while listening to the news, and cycled to and from work. His travel schedule was punishing; diplomats joked that whenever two airliners passed in mid-Atlantic, Genscher would be on both of them.
In Europe, he was closely involved in the creation of the Single Market and the Genscher-Colombo plan for greater federalism, and later pushed hard for monetary union.
Hans-Dietrich Genscher was born on March 21 1927 at Reideberg, near Halle in Saxony. His father was a farmer who studied law but never completed the course; his mother had only elementary schooling. Hans-Dietrich was 10 when his father died from the effects of a war wound.
A year later he joined the Hitler Youth, and on his 16th birthday in 1943 while still at school he was drafted into a Luftwaffe auxiliary. He was transferred the next year to the national labour service, then joined the Wehrmacht early in 1945. He was serving with an anti-aircraft unit when he was captured by American forces, who handed him over to the British Army.
When the war ended, Genscher could have stayed in the West. But he chose to return to his mother in East Germany, where he resumed his education after a spell working as a building labourer. From the Friedrich Nietzsche Oberschule in Halle he went to Martin Luther University to study Economics and Law. During his studies he fell seriously ill with tuberculosis, which dogged him for many years. He qualified as a lawyer in 1949.
As a student Genscher became fascinated by politics. Determined to play a part in ensuring that a dictator would never rise again in Germany, he joined the Liberal Democratic Party, a fringe party tolerated by the communist regime. He chose them for their strong anti-socialist line, and because he could rise faster in a small organisation.
As the regime grew more repressive, he fled in 1952 to the West where he settled in Bremen, joined the Free Democrats and entered legal practice. His political talents were soon recognised and in 1959 he was elected general secretary of the FDP.
In 1965 he was elected to the Bundestag for North Rhine-Westphalia. Four months later, he was chosen as the party’s leader in the lower house. In 1968 he was elected deputy to Walter Scheel, the party chairman.
Genscher’s big chance came when the 1969 elections gave Willy Brandt’s SPD enough seats to form a coalition with the FDP, who since the formation of the Federal Republic in 1949 had partnered the CDU.
Brandt and Scheel, his vice-chancellor/foreign minister, chose Genscher as Minister of the Interior to face increasing terrorism. He garnered wide support for tackling extremists on the far Right and Left, bringing down the full force of the police on the anarchist Baader-Meinhoff, most of whose leaders were soon behind bars. The cost was high: several innocent civilians were killed as civil liberties were brushed aside in the drive to smash the terrorists.
When in September 1972 Palestinian terrorists took 11 members of the Israeli team hostage at the Munich Olympics, Genscher rejected Israel’s offer to send a special forces unit. With the Munich police chief and the Bavarian interior minister, he offered to take the place of the hostages.
His mediation attempts failed, and a police rescue attempt resulted in a bloody shootout which left all the hostages, five terrorists and one German policeman dead. In retaliation, he banned two Arab organisations suspected of links with terrorists and expelled several Arabs from West Germany.
Gerald Ford, Hans-Dietrich Genscher (second from right) and Helmut Schmidt at a NATO summit in Brussels in 1975
Crucially, Genscher survived the 1974 spy scandal when one of Brandt’s top officials, Gunter Guillaume, was exposed as an East German agent. He had warned Brandt for a year that Guillaume was under investigation, but advised against arresting him in the hope that he would lead spycatchers to his contacts.
When the scandal broke, Genscher was accused of not having acted quickly enough, but he fought off demands for his resignation. Recriminations between the coalition parties culminated in May 1974 in Brandt resigning and taking full responsibility.
Genscher cleverly used his party machine as a brake on the SPD’s more extreme policies while letting it be seen as vital to any coalition. This enabled him to change horses in 1982 when the CDU triumphed at the polls.
In 1987, with Gorbachev starting to make changes, Genscher declared that it would be a mistake of historic proportions to ignore an opportunity to achieve “a turning point in the 40-year confrontation between East and West.” And in April 1989 he outlined his vision for Germany as a whole:
“The members of the Federal government have sworn an oath to dedicate their efforts to the well-being of the German people. The obligation deriving from that oath does not stop at the border cutting through Germany. The responsibility of the nation established by that oath does not exclude my native region, the town where I was born, nor the people in the GDR.”
When in September 1989 thousands of East Germans sought refuge in West German embassies in Czechoslovakia and Poland, Genscher held talks at the United Nations with the foreign ministers of Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany and the Soviet Union.
On September 30, he addressed thousands of East Germans from the balcony of West Germany’s embassy in Prague. At East Germany’s request, Czechoslovakia had denied them permission to travel to the West, but Genscher announced that the Czech government had changed its mind, saying: “We have come to you to tell you that today, your departure…” The rest of his speech was drowned by cheers.
With Bush’s secretary of state James Baker, the Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, and Markus Meckel, his counterpart from the GDR, Genscher secured Germany’s peaceful unification and the withdrawal of Soviet forces. And in November 1990, Genscher and his Polish counterpart signed a treaty establishing the Oder–Neisse line as Poland’s western border.
Genscher was responsible for Germany in 1991 recognising Croatia as an independent state in the face of warnings from the UN secretary general Javier Perez de Cuellar. He concluded after Croatia and Slovenia had declared independence that Yugoslavia could not be held together, and believed speedy recognition would avert civil war. In the event the opposite happened, with a bloodbath in Bosnia.
During the Gulf War, Genscher tried to keep diplomacy with Baghdad going after other western nations had resolved to recapture Kuwait. Germany contributed to the cost of the operation but, citing constitutional restrictions, provided little military assistance. Afterward, Genscher suggested the time had come for Germany to be given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Genscher left the government in May 1992 after suffering two heart attacks, having become the world’s longest serving foreign minister. He returned to the law, and started his own consulting firm. In 2001 he headed an arbitration that ended a month-long standoff over pay between Lufthansa and its pilots’ union.
In 2013 Genscher played a key role in securing the release from prison and flight to Germany of the Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of Yukos. He had first met Khodorkovsky in 2002, and chaired a conference at which Khodorkovsky attacked President Putin’s pursuit of his oil company.
Khodorkovsky asked through his lawyers for Genscher to mediate his release, and Chancellor Angela Merkel instructed her officials to lobby for Putin to meet Genscher. The two met at Berlin’s Tegel airport, and again in Moscow.
Genscher and Khodorkovsky’s lawyers spent months developing scenarios that could allow Putin to release his former rival. When Khodorkovsky’s mother was in a Berlin hospital with cancer, Genscher passed her a message suggesting that Khordorkovsky write to Putin, seeking a pardon and emphasising his mother’s ill health. Putin pardoned him “for humanitarian reasons” that December, and Genscher had him flown to Berlin for a reunion.
Hans-Dietrich Genscher is survived by his widow, the former Barbara Schmidt, and his daughter from a previous marriage.
Hans-Dietrich Genscher, born March 21 1927, died March 31 2016