Hans-Dietrich Genscher

A Life of Longing for Stability

CORRECTS DATE OF DEATH TO MARCH 31, 2016 - FILE - In this Nov. 6, 2014 file photo former West German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher poses for the photographer at his home in Wachtberg, Germany, during an interview with The Associated Press. Genscher died Thursday evening, March 31, 2016 at the age of 89. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
Former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The complexities of Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s character help to explain the roots of today’s political culture in Germany.

  • Facts


    • Mr. Genscher served as Germany’s foreign minister from 1974 to 1992.
    • He was one of the main proponents of realpolitik.
    • He was instrumental in making Ostpolitik, the policy of engaging with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, palatable to conservatives.
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The resounding response from the press to the death of Hans-Dietrich Genscher reminds us of how much German political equilibrium depends on the existence of central, idealized, larger-than-life figures. Mr. Genscher’s career typifies German voters’ need for stability through long periods in office. Germans also seem to have a great need to keep important political figures relevant after they have left office and, no matter how controversial they were in life, to idealize them in death.

But as with former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Mr. Genscher’s biography is far more complicated and interesting than the celebration of a few supposed high points would suggest. It is the edges and inconsistencies of his character that help us to not only better understand Mr. Genscher’s achievements, but also to comprehend the origins of German political culture today.

Mr. Genscher was the main proponent of a selfless German foreign policy oriented toward compromise. At the same time, he was a master of defining and asserting purely German interests. Like Bismarck, he masterfully played with Germany’s role as an intermediary. But the country’s balancing act between public idealism and actual realism continues, and it often leads to misunderstandings over German objectives. Greece is only the latest example of this dichotomy.

The balancing act is also one of the main reasons why, to this day, the assertion of German interests is often obstructed by the widespread illusion among Germans that their country does not pursue any of its own interests and merely cooperates with others as a “civil force for peace.” The ousting of former President Horst Köhler because of his remarks on the German military mission in Afghanistan is an especially painful example.

Foreign allies found it especially difficult to understand Mr. Genscher’s methods. Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker called him “slippery.” There were serious differences between him and Mr. Genscher during the two-plus-four negotiations. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s remarks about Mr. Genscher are not suitable for a reputable newspaper. Anglo-Saxons, in particular, have little use for this reserved way of articulating fixed categories of right and wrong. Perhaps former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger characterized the German foreign minister best when he said: “Genscher sometimes disguised his real intentions in such a way that his overwhelming tactical abilities often completely concealed his higher objectives.”

But it was absolutely logical, given the country’s catastrophic defeat in 1945, to define German interests somewhat selflessly in the context of higher common goals. Protection, capital and partners were needed to ensure the continued existence of the German nation. At first it was only the Americans who were able to help. Later, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s rearmament and Germany’s accession to NATO made the Western partnership possible in Europe. And after construction of the Berlin Wall, an active Ostpolitik, or policy toward the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was a necessary tool to exert influence over the international integration of East Germany. Almost all leading German politicians shared Mr. Genscher’s tactics, but he was the one who turned a necessity into an art.

Mr. Genscher’s use of his tactical skills to gain the support of the coalition with the center-right Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union for his policy of détente was a historic step that has rarely been repeated to this date. Until then, the CDU/CSU had only grudgingly accepted the Ostpolitik.

It was absolutely logical, given the country's catastrophic defeat in 1945, to define German interests somewhat selflessly in the context of higher common goals.

The entry of Mr. Genscher’s party, the pro-business Free Democratic Party, into a coalition with the CDU/CSU meant that he and CDU leader Helmut Kohl could build a strong foundation to implement former Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik. Mr. Genscher’s somewhat reserved support for rearmament secured a consensus with the CDU/CSU and drove the SPD into the arms of the peace movement. Seven years later, leading members of the SPD, like Gerhard Schröder and Oskar Lafontaine, even spoke out against German reunification. Mr. Genscher, however, played a key role in the two-plus-four negotiations.

These are undeniable achievements of a proponent of realpolitik. But these heroic acts occurred 25 years ago. In the globalized world of 2016, a Germany that only wants to be a force for peace and accuses the West of not understanding Russia is no longer contemporary. After being convinced for so many years of the validity of its own “normality,” it seems difficult for Germans to support and accept the normality of eastern and southern members of the Western community.

Learning from Mr. Genscher always meant learning to be flexible. Today, the keys to the future are not in the hands of those who want to preserve existing structures, but those who know how best to employ capital and talent for a new form of interconnected civil society. I’m fairly certain than Hans-Dietrich Genscher would also support this new worldview. The politician who closes this circle will undoubtedly become the next member of the Pantheon of German politics.


To contact the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com

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