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Germany

'Genscher will be remembered as a quintessential German character'

The late German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher played a key role in keeping Germany aligned with the West, Philip Zelikow, a former US diplomat, told DW.

DW: You served in the White House, where you worked on German unification in the late 1980s, and later also wrote a book about it together with Condoleeza Rice. Can you describe the role Hans-Dietrich Genscher had in making German unification happen?

Philip Zelikow: He was one of the handful of central players in managing an extremely complicated set of diplomatic negotiations to achieve German unification peacefully. Of course, he was working in partnership with Chancellor Helmut Kohl. His role was to orchestrate negotiations with the Russians, with the allies, the arms control talks, to work with others in Europe who were concerned, like the Poles, and help juggle all those interests in partnership with others.

Genscher played and continued to play during this period a really historic role in anchoring a kind of center in German politics, and Germans understand this very well. Historians will never forget the role that Genscher played when power transferred from the Social Democrats to the Christian Democrats in 1982 and 1983 during the great Euromissile crisis. And Genscher played a critical part in keeping Germany aligned strongly with NATO and with liberal economic principles that the FDP had long represented.

USA Historiker und Diplomat Philip Zelikow

Historian and former US diplomat Philip Zelikow

But Genscher also played a part in trying to bridge the differences between East and West. He had a peculiar sensibility, as a refugee from East Germany, in trying to understand others. He had great confidence in his own skills and had earned the respect of all the foreign ministers who worked with him. He was aggravating sometimes to American ministers, but during the period of German unification he worked in very friendly partnership with the highly skillful American Secretary of State James Baker. The Baker-Genscher combination and the combination of their respective aides, people like Bob Zoellick and Frank Elbe and Dieter Kastrup, turned out to be at the core of the diplomatic machinery that orchestrated unification so superbly.

How did Genscher sometimes irritate American diplomats?

The Americans were sometimes in discussions about arms control issues or other problems where they wanted the West Germans to follow the US and NATO line. And Genscher was reluctant to toe anybody else's line (laughing). And there were times, especially in the 1980s during the Reagan years, when Americans found that frustrating. They felt that he was leaning over too far to accommodate Soviet interests and not displaying sufficient solidarity with his partners. But thoughtful Americans realized that in the most difficult moments and on the most serious issues, Genscher was indeed a reliable partner, as West Germany was. I mentioned the example of the Euromissile crisis, but there were others during the period surrounding unification.

In my own work I encountered several examples where the Americans proposed ideas that Genscher did not like, but Genscher also proposed ideas that the Americans didn't like. And they listened to each other. And sometimes Genscher pulled back from his ideas even after he had already publicly floated them, because he was persuaded by the arguments of his partners.

You mentioned the role Genscher's biography and the fact that he hailed from East Germany played in his diplomacy. Can you elaborate on that?

I think it gave him credibility as a person who passionately believed in Western values. But it also gave him credibility as a person who emotionally empathized with people trapped by the Cold War and therefore a sense that he wanted to bridge the differences of the Cold War and humanize this conflict.

What will be the legacy of Genscher?

I think he will be remembered as a person who was both a highly skilled diplomat, but also a person who tried as a diplomat to bridge the differences of East and West. I think he will be remembered in Germany as a quintessential German character - shrewd, skilled, with a little bit of ego, but also great attention to his craft and a great sensitivity to the core values that he believed Germany needed to represent.

Philip Zelikow is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Earlier, he worked on German reunification as a senior National Security Council official under President George H.W. Bush. Together with Condoleezza Rice, he is the author of "Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft" (1995). Zelikow also served as executive director of the 9/11 Commission and as the top adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.