The passing of Hans-Dietrich Genscher marks another milestone in the unique history of the leadership of the Federal Republic of Germany. His life and career embody the path of the Republic and its emergence out of its Cold War birth into a unified nation. Genscher was intricately involved in its evolution, serving as foreign minister for eighteen years. He was also a long-time friend of the Institute, and among the earliest speakers at the newly-created AICGS. It is with this special affiliation that we are pleased to offer some comments and insights about his legacy from several contributors affiliated with AICGS.
Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s path began in the town of Halle, where he was born, and his eastern German roots were always part of his identity. Having fled the German Democratic Republic (GDR) at the age of 25, Genscher found his political home in West Germany in the Free Democratic Party (FDP) where he not only became its leader, but also served as a minister in two different governing coalitions in Bonn.
Genscher’s foreign policy craft was forged in the cauldron of the Cold War confrontation played out so vividly in a divided Germany. While he shared the firm conviction that the Federal Republic of Germany was safest embedded in a Western alliance, he consistently held open the door to dialogue with Moscow or East Berlin. During the eighteen years of his term, he held strong on a firm stance toward the Soviet Union, particularly when it came to the balance of military forces on the continent. But he was always open to the possibility that a reduction of the Cold War conflict was plausible if he kept a bridge open between East and West—and that Germany would benefit. He ultimately became convinced that the bridge became much stronger when Mikhail Gorbachev arrived on the scene in Moscow in 1985.
During the following few years leading up to unification in 1990, Genscher read the changing political map in Germany, across Eastern Europe, and in Moscow without knowing for certain that the GDR was about to collapse under the pressure of its own citizens but consistently weighing the opportunities to play a complicated diplomatic game of chess with multiple partners. That tactic would earn the name of “Genscherism”—and not always in a complimentary way. Yet Genscher was to eventually stand on the steps of the Reichstag on 3 October 1990 in a celebration of German unity, in no small measure earning his own legacy next to Chancellor Kohl. And yet, shortly after this triumph, he retired.
One interesting question about Genscher’s decision to step down right after unification remains an area of speculation. Was it because he thought his style of negotiating would not be effective in a post-Soviet world? Joe Joffe argued this point in a 1998 essay in Foreign Affairs. “Genscherism,” he said, entailed a Germany that was in and of the West, but not always with the West. The more Reagan turned up the heat on Brezhnev and his successors, the more Genscher sought to keep a separate détente alive, one that would shelter the East German-West German relationship and subtly—never disloyally—propitiate the Soviet Union.
Genscherism meant giving to Peter (Russia) without taking from Paul (the West), and there was profit in the giving, too. By leaning ever so slightly toward Moscow in the name of peace, détente, and “responsibility,” Bonn could acquire leverage over Western policy and garner IOUs in the Kremlin. But that approach might no longer work after unification—or so Genscher might have thought.
Genscher suggested that his precarious health was the primary reason for his retirement from political office in 1992.
Yet whatever his motivation, there remain elements of Genscherism in German foreign policy today, a quarter century after the end of the Cold War. Current foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently described Germany’s foreign policy role as one of “Chief Facilitating Officer” in Europe. In similar fashion, Genscher saw himself as a chief facilitator between East and West in another era of global negotiations. During the Cold War, the prize for that negotiation was German unity, and Genscher was able to help steer the ship to arrive at that destination. During the last twenty-five years, however, the world has become a very different platform of both conflict and competition in which playing a facilitator role has become even more difficult.
During the final period of his life, Genscher saw the danger that Europe was facing in its battle to sustain its momentum toward a deeper and wider European project—a project he dedicated his career to supporting. Like many others of his generation, those who experienced the ashes of World War II and the challenges of rebuilding Europe were devoutly committed to sustaining the goal of a Europe no longer willing or able to see another such catastrophe occur. Hans-Dietrich Genscher wanted to leave behind a stronger, larger, and more powerful Europe than he found when he began his career. He also saw Germany develop into a stronger, larger, and more powerful leader of Europe. It is now up to those to whom he passed the torch to see how they can sustain and maintain the project begun so many decades ago.
Dr. Jackson Janes is the President of AICGS. Read his earlier analysis of Genscher’s impact on German-American relations, “Genscher und die Vereinigten Staaten,” in In der Verantwortung: Hans-Dietrich Genscher zum Siebzigsten, ed. Klaus Kinkel (Siedler Verlag, 1997).