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Hans-Dietrich Genscher dies, aged 89

Heimo Fischer / dbApril 1, 2016

Hans-Dietrich Genscher was a politician who shaped Germany and a statesman who contributed to reunification. As a foreign minister, he was respected worldwide.

Berlin Gedenkveranstaltung 25. Jahrestag Unterzeichnung Zwei-plus-Vier-Vertrag Genscher
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/. Nietfeld

"We have to come to you to tell you that today, your departure ..."

It is that half-sentence, above all others, that will remain the living memory of Hans-Dietrich Genscher. He spoke the words on September 30, 1989, from the balcony of the West German embassy in Prague. The final three words - "has been approved" - were drowned by elated shrieks from thousands of East German citizens who had fled their country to camp out in the garden of the embassy building in Czechoslovakia, gambling their futures on the mercy of West German authorities.

It was the most moving moment in his political life, Genscher later acknowledged:

"It was a cry of joy that can hardly be imagined."

Now, the time has come in Germany to celebrate Genscher, who died from cardiovascular failure in his house in Bonn, his office announced on Friday. He was 89 years old.

"Genscher made history and left his mark on our country," said Christian Lindner, current head of the late politician's party, the Free Democrats (FDP).

Deputy government spokesman Georg Streiter also praised Genscher during a press conference in Berlin. Streiter told reporters he felt "too small to pay tribute to this great statesman."

A diplomat through and through

Through his uninterrupted willingness for dialogue and his ability to negotiate, Hans-Dietrich Genscher devoted himself to reconciliatory politics during the Cold War. "It's our goal in Europe to work towards a state of peace in Europe in which the German people, in free self-determination, regain their unity," he said in a 1975 speech before the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Genscher's credo was to "go to the other" - to listen, engage and talk. Through that strategy he was able attain a large role on the world stage, which he used, in one example, to condemn in the strongest terms the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On the other hand, he also used his diplomatic skill to remain well accepted as an interlocutor.

Genscher's finest hour as foreign minister occurred as Moscow began showing signs of a political about-face. The Soviet Union pursued an economic and social reform program which allowed Warsaw pact members - among them, the GDR - to conduct internal reforms.

Genscher stands on the balcony of the German embassy in Prague once again, 25 years after his legendary speechImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Filip Singer

Reunification twice over

German reunification was Genscher's dream come true - particularly since he hailed from eastern Germany. The "bulky man with big ears," as caricaturists lovingly depicted him, was born in 1927 near Halle. After reunification, he visited many times.

As a member of the FDP, he experienced the early years of communist rule in the GDR. In 1952, while the flow of East-to-West emigrants remained steady, Genscher left for Bremen in West Germany, where he became a lawyer.

Genscher held the role of interior minister from 1969 to 1974, his FDP party the junior coalition partner to the Social Democrats (SPD) under Chancellor Willy Brandt. The period witnessed the attack by Palestinian terrorists on the Israeli team participating in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. In that attack, the team members taken hostage, a German police officer and five terrorists were killed.

"That was the most awful day of my long tenure as a member of the federal government," Genscher said. "I wish for every other individual that they never have to have such an experience." He had tried to achieve the release of the hostages through peaceful means.

Changing sides

From 1974 to 1992, Genscher served as foreign minister and simultaneously held the vice chancellorship - first in coalition with SPD Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and then in 1982 with the center-right CDU/CSU. His initial decision to terminate the coalition with the SPD was viewed critically, and even resentfully, by members of his own party. Genscher later admitted that it was not an easy one, due in part to his appreciation for Helmut Schmidt's strong personality.

Genscher withdrew from an active career in politics in 1992. Many cartoonists lamented that decision; he was a favorite target. "Titanic," a satirical German magazine, had even created the "Genschman," based on Batman and portrayed as savior of the world who could master every crisis. Hans-Dietrich Genscher will be remembered as one of the few German statesmen of world renown.