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Hans-Dietrich Genscher, architect of German reunification, dies at 89

Hans-Dietrich Genscher

Former West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, left, with former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 2009, two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

(Rainer Jensen / AFP/Getty Images)

Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who crowned his career as Germany’s longest-serving foreign minister by brokering an end to the painful 40-year division of his homeland, has died at 89.

The soft-spoken yet determined diplomat, who died Thursday at his home outside Bonn, reached the pinnacle of his public service with reunification in 1990, but only after persevering for decades through the most tragic and destructive phases of Germany’s 20th century history.

A member of the Hitler Youth corps and then a soldier in the Nazi Wehrmacht, Genscher managed within a year of the Third Reich’s defeat to move from being a prisoner of war in the Soviet-occupied East to studying law and economics—skills that eventually allowed him to move to the West.

With his early life spent in the eastern agricultural area around Halle and later years in the corridors of the West German government in Bonn, Genscher became known as “the man in the middle.” That image of evenhandedness served him well during the volatile negotiations that led to unity after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

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Genscher’s self-effacing demeanor and disdain for the limelight masked a workaholic character whose single-minded pursuit of unity was as much a personal crusade as a professional challenge.

During the 18 years he served as foreign minister in coalition governments that paired his Liberal Democrats with the left and then with the right, Genscher’s only respites from shuttle diplomacy and extinguishing political flare-ups in his party were his annual summer sojourns to visit his mother in Halle.

His eastern roots and regular exposure to the growing economic disparities between East and West Germans probably made him more vigilant than other politicians to the opportunities for mending his homeland’s divide.

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“He has made an essential contribution to reshaping the destiny of Germany, of Europe and, it must be said, of the whole world,” former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev said of Genscher in his 1995 memoir.

Genscher lobbied Western allies to back Poland and Hungary during their early efforts to loosen the shackles binding them to Moscow, including Hungary’s bold decision to tear down its barbed-wire barriers along the Austrian border.

That first hole punched in the Iron Curtain inspired fed-up East Germans to begin pouring out to seek asylum in the West after summer vacations in Czechoslovakia and Hungary in 1989. By autumn, tens of thousands thronged West German embassies across Eastern Europe demanding evacuation from lives they considered to hold little promise as long as East Germany was ruled by Erich Honecker, an inflexible Communist ideologue.

Hans-Dietrich Genscher

Hans-Dietrich Genscher at his home in Wachtberg, Germany, in 2014. 

(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)

Genscher later described his proudest moment as the brief address he made to East German refugees crowding the squalid grounds of Bonn’s embassy in Prague to tell them he had just negotiated their release. Typically modest and unemotional, Genscher’s one-line announcement was drowned out by the crowd’s thunderous applause and jubilation.

It was a moment captured by television crews covering the long standoff and replayed repeatedly in documentaries about the steps that culminated in Germany’s Oct. 3, 1990, reunification.

Born March 21, 1927, in the farming village of Reideburg, near Halle, Genscher was the only child of a country lawyer, Kurt Genscher, and his wife, Hilde. The future diplomat was only 9 when his father died of blood poisoning, leaving him alone to care for his mother as Germany was on the march toward another world war.

Genscher learned English, Latin and French at school and, like millions of other young students, was part of the Hitler Youth before being compelled at age 16 to join the Nazi dictator’s flagging quest for world domination. He was trained in antiaircraft operations and served with a Wehrmacht unit near his home in Halle, enduring the ferocious Allied bombardments in the waning months of the war.

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He was serving on the last front line along the Elbe River between Soviet and U.S. forces when the war ended and surrendered to U.S. troops. He and other POWs in the region were soon handed over to British forces and put to work on farms to help feed the occupying troops and vanquished population, but eventually fell under Soviet jurisdiction when the Red Army asserted control over what was to become East Germany.

Little is known of Genscher’s year as a POW in the hands of the Russians, and his long-awaited memoir published in 1995 shed disappointingly little light on that era. But by May 1946, he had enrolled at Martin Luther University in Wittenberg to study law and economics.

While still a student, Genscher joined the Liberal Democratic Party in 1946, helping shape first the state organization in his native Saxony-Anhalt and later the federal party structure he was to head from 1974 until his retirement in 1992. He served as honorary chairman for the rest of his life.

His work with the political party put him in touch with liberals across the inter-German border, and it was during a 1952 visit to Bremen that he decided to resettle in the West German state.

Genscher won his first parliamentary seat in 1965 and four years later was appointed interior minister under the coalition government of Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt. In May 1974, after a government shake-up following an espionage scandal, Genscher moved into the Foreign Ministry leadership, a position he was to hold for the next 18 years. 

As West Germany’s chief diplomat, Genscher carried forward and enhanced Brandt’s much-celebrated “Ostpolitik,” the policy of easing tense relations with Cold War adversaries in Communist-ruled Eastern Europe. Often to the dismay of NATO allies in Washington and London, especially after conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl came to power in 1982, the foreign minister made overtures to Moscow in pursuit of detente that prompted the policy’s doubters to disparage what they called “Genscherism.”

But after Gorbachev came to power in Moscow and introduced political and economic reforms that eventually allowed the people of the East to vote out their Communist leaders, Genscher’s approach to relations across the Iron Curtain was vindicated.

Genscher is survived by his wife, Barbara, and a daughter from an earlier marriage.

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Williams is a former Times staff writer.


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