Hans-Dietrich Genscher, German Unity Architect, Dies at 89

  • Former German foreign minister negotiated 1990 reunification
  • Dealmaker led Free Democratic Party, served two chancellors

Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who was Germany’s longest-serving foreign minister and helped negotiate the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990 at the end of the Cold War, has died. He was 89.

Genscher suffered heart failure Thursday night at his home near Bonn, his office in the former West German capital said in an e-mailed statement. He died two weeks after one of his successors both as foreign minister and chairman of the Free Democratic Party, Guido Westerwelle, who succumbed to leukemia at age 54.

Genscher, who fled then-communist East Germany in 1952, paved the way for East European nations to break with communist rule by helping forge the reunification agreement between West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. He was foreign minister for 18 years until his retirement in 1992, outlasting six U.S. secretaries of state while in office.

“Germany has lost a statesman respected worldwide and I personally have lost a very valuable counselor,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement Friday. “I offer my deepest respect for the life achievement of this great liberal patriot and European.”

Huge Cheer

Inspired by his own experiences as a young refugee, Genscher was instrumental in sparking the process that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 when he negotiated the safe passage of East German refugees at the West German Embassy in Prague to the West. His announcement from the embassy balcony, drowned out by a huge cheer from the crowd, became an iconic moment as Germany’s 45-year division after the Nazi regime’s defeat in World War II hurtled toward an end.

East Germany “could not survive what happened in Prague,” Genscher said in a 2009 interview with Deutsche Welle. “Nobody could say when and how this would happen, but it was clear that this grave blow to the Wall had to have a lasting impact.”

Two decades later, Genscher was still an advocate for those seeking refuge from political oppression. In December 2013, he was credited with having secured the early release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the onetime head of the oil company Yukos, after a decade in prison. Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovsky was pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin and permitted to leave the country in a private plane arranged by Genscher. The former German foreign minister said he had lobbied for more than two years to gain Khodorkovsky’s release with the help of Merkel and Westerwelle, according to an interview with ZDF television.

Yellow Sweater

Often recognizable for a trademark yellow sweater under his suit, Genscher helped create the conditions for German reunification by supporting democratic change in Eastern Europe. As early as 1988, he gave recognition to Poland’s Solidarity leader Lech Walesa by meeting with him, two years before Walesa became president of the former communist country.

Genscher also risked his political career by backing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in its standoff with the Soviet Union over the deployment of Pershing missiles in Europe, ultimately leading to a stalemate that prompted Gorbachev to accept a disarmament deal in 1987.

Yet it was at a meeting with Gorbachev in Stavropol, Russia, that Genscher’s historical legacy was cemented when he joined Kohl to secure Soviet permission for a unified Germany with full sovereign rights and NATO membership. Genscher helped sweeten the deal by assuring the Soviets that NATO forces wouldn’t expand to the east. A dozen mostly eastern European nations later joined the alliance.

Germans Reunited

On Oct. 3, 1990, the German Democratic Republic ceased to exist and a unified Germany absorbed five new federal states: Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia. East and West Berlin also merged as part of the unification treaty that Genscher had signed.

Genscher was born on March 21, 1927, in the eastern German town of Reideburg. After serving in the German army in World War II, during which he became a prisoner of war, he pursued studies in law and economics at universities in Halle and Leipzig. Fleeing the East German regime’s oppression, Genscher settled in the West German city of Bremen, and practiced law.

In 1952, he began his political career by joining Germany’s Free Democratic Party and entered the federal parliament in 1965. He remained a member of parliament, or Bundestag, for 33 years.

His five years as German interior minister were marred by the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes held hostage during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Genscher’s attempts to negotiate with the Palestinian Black September group were in vain, even after he met with the terrorists’ leader and offered to be taken captive himself in exchange for the release of the athletes.

The Free Democratic Party, a center-right political group that ruled in coalition with Helmut Schmidt’s Social Democratic Party, elected Genscher as its chairman in 1974, when he also took over as foreign minister. In 1982, he played a key role in the FDP’s switch of coalition support, replacing Schmidt with Kohl of the Christian Democratic Union. Genscher stepped down in 1992, citing health reasons.

Genscher was married twice, the second time to the former Barbara Schmidt. He had a daughter, Martina.

(An earlier version of this story was corrected to identify one of the eastern states in reunified Germany as Saxony-Anhalt.)

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