Former German foreign minister Genscher dies aged 89

1st April 2016, Comments 0 comments

Germany's Cold War-era veteran foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who was the country's top diplomat when the Berlin Wall fell, has died at age 89, his office said Friday.

"Hans-Dietrich Genscher died on Thursday night at the age of 89 in the presence of his family at his home in Wachtberg-Pech, of cardiovascular failure," said a statement from his private office.

Genscher was among a select few politicians who left a strong personal mark on postwar European history.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's deputy spokesman Georg Streiter said "I almost feel too small... to honour this great statesman, this great European, this great German."

Genscher's marathon 1974-92 tenure as foreign minister broke longevity records in Europe and spanned some of the continent's most dramatic moments.

When he took office, Europe looked to be forever divided into two nuclear-armed camps. When he stepped down, Germany was reunited and Soviet communism had been consigned to history.

Genscher, who served in both centre-left and conservative governments, was a tireless advocate of East-West cooperation in the pursuit of the peaceful unification of Europe.

He strongly favoured dialogue over demonising the Soviet Union and argued early that Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika reforms presented an historic opportunity for detente.

Genscher is credited with negotiating Germany's peaceful 1990 reunification and the withdrawal of Soviet forces with his US and Russian counterparts James Baker and Eduard Shevardnadze.

His landmark moment was a 1989 speech at the German embassy in Prague, where the courtyard was packed with thousands of East Germans desperate to head west.

Genscher spoke from the balcony to announce a deal with the Czech communist government allowing them safe passage.

"We have come to you to tell you that today your departure..." he told them. The rest of the sentence is lost to history as it was drowned out by jubilant cheers.

- Cold war mediator -

Genscher often exasperated US and British diplomats who believed his mediator role weakened NATO and its nuclear deterrence.

In 1991 he was criticised again by western allies for Germany's failure to take a decisive role in the Gulf war.

And there was also reproach for his policy on Yugoslavia, which some saw as contributing to the breakup of the old six-republic federation by encouraging Croatia's nationalist aspirations.

But to millions of West Germans, Genscher was a counter-weight to hardline conservatism and a brake on the arms race whose sponsorship of East-West contacts kept the faith of East Germans alive.

Few politicians travelled as far and frequently as Genscher, who often left his accompanying press corps exhausted with his dynamism.

His hangdog expression and jug ears, a cartoonist's delight, were emblazoned on masks and T-shirts and even featured in a comic strip, where a caped crusader known as "Genschman" leapt into action to upset the machinations of the right.

Despite his perennially sad demeanour, he was long Germany's most popular politician.

In retirement, he kept working his Moscow contacts, brokering in 2014 the early release from jail of Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, after secret talks with President Vladimir Putin.

- Kingmaker role -

Genscher was born in 1927 to a farming family near Halle in what later became communist East Germany.

Despite his frail health -- he contracted tuberculosis while young -- he was drafted into the German army at age 16 in World War II and taken prisoner by Allied forces.

On his release he studied law and economics. In 1952, he fled the young communist German Democratic Republic to the west.

He worked as a lawyer in Bremen where he joined the small, liberal Free Democrats (FDP).

He became a member of parliament in 1965 and began forging the minority party into a kingmaker which could make or break governments.

From 1969, the FDP joined the Social Democrats in a coalition government, in which Genscher became interior minister.

Five years later he won the FDP chairmanship and took over at the foreign ministry, where his work has since been seen as the gold standard in German diplomacy.

In 1982 the FDP controversially switched allegiance to the Christian Democrats, ending the reign of chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

Genscher remained in office under Schmidt's successor Helmut Kohl, who would become the "father of reunification".

In retirement, Genscher outlived his FDP protege Guido Westerwelle, who also served as foreign minister and who died two weeks ago at age 54.

FPD chief Christian Lindner honoured Genscher, saying that he "made history and shaped our country. We have much to thank him for. Our sorrow could not be greater."

© 2016 AFP

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