Opinion: A master of diplomacy | Opinion | DW | 01.04.2016
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Opinion: A master of diplomacy

The architect of German unification, a smart tactician and powerful politician: Hans-Dietrich Genscher was an influential figure in postwar German history, DW's Verica Spasovska writes.

The famous balcony scene at the West German Embassy in Prague is deeply ingrained in the German people's collective memory. "We have come here today to tell you that your departure ..." Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher told thousands of East Germans who wanted to leave their country for the West - the rest of the sentence was drowned out by the frantic screams of the many East Germans who had been camping out in the embassy's garden for days, hoping to force their departure from the Eastern bloc.

Genscher's balcony speech was the culmination of a brilliant diplomatic feat that in retrospect turned out to be a milestone on the path to German unity. Tenaciously, skillfully and with great political instinct, Genscher had tirelessly negotiated the East German citizens' departure. And it paid off. The fact that the refugees camped out at the embassy in Prague were allowed to leave for the West accelerated the erosion of a disintegrating East Germany. The dynamics were made possible by Genscher's diplomatic skills.

For the foreign minister born in the East German city of Halle, this was the happiest moment of his political life. He also experienced low points in his career, however, for instance, the hostage drama at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, when the government didn't succeed in freeing the Israeli Olympic team from the hands of Palestinian terrorists. Genscher was West German Interior Minister and responsible for the failed rescue attempt.

His move to the Foreign Ministry two years later marked the beginning of a remarkable political career. He served as German foreign minister for 18 years, and held the position of vice chancellor, first in his party's coalition government with the Social Democrats under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and after 1982, with the Christian Democrats under Helmut Kohl.

Verica Spasovska

DW's Verica Spasovska

For many Germans, Genscher - who had a seat in parliament for 33 years - was a fixture; he was omnipresent as the tireless diplomat who traveled the world, full of energy, to represent German interests. Based on Walt Disney's Dumbo character, cartoonists lovingly sketched the man with the protruding ears as a flying elephant. Germany's satirical Titanic magazine named him "Genschman", based on the superhero Batman - saviour of the world.

Genscher was the country's most popular politician for many years. He had a knack for recognizing historical chances and acting on them. His efforts at finding a balance with Eastern Europe, in particular, East Germany and the Soviet Union, laid the foundation for German reunification. His conciliatory policies - branded as "Genscherism" - initially met with criticism, but in the end, they won him recognition.

Harsh criticism of Yugoslav policies

Genscher faced quite some criticism for the German government's early recognition of Croatia in 1991 during the Yugoslav Wars. That was a fire accelerant for the centrifugal powers of the federal state, opponents argued. But Croatia was thankful for the political support, and to this very day, streets and squares there are named after the former German foreign minister.

For decades, Genscher was also an important figure in German domestic policies. The longtime head of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) secured his small party a good deal of political influence for many years. The liberals always barely garnered more than the five percent of the vote needed to enter parliament - but they ruled the country as a junior coalition partner for almost 30 years nonstop.

In 2013, and years after leaving everyday politics, Genscher once more proved his standing on the international stage when he succeeded in brokering the release of Putin critic Mikhail Khordokovsky from a Russian prison and his transfer to Berlin. Khordokovsky's lawyers had asked him, the 86-year-old master of quiet diplomacy, for help.

With Hans-Dietrich Genscher's death, one of Germany's greatest postwar politicians has gone. His diplomatic achievements will remain unforgotten.

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