Hans-Dietrich Genscher was German foreign minister when I first met him. On 1 October 1982, I was in Bonn to consult with Wolfgang Ischinger, his office director. Our meeting was suddenly interrupted by the televised report about Genscher, who announced he and his party, the FDP, were leaving the governing coalition with Helmut Schmidt and the SPD. He then formed a new government with Helmut Kohl and the CDU in a dramatic shift in German domestic politics. The change, known as “Die Wende,” took Americans by surprise, particularly Ambassador Arthur Burns, who was close to Helmut Schmidt. Americans questioned the change and asked whether trust could be built between politicians who competed in such a way. The reason for the shift in Germany was deeply intertwined with President Ronald Reagan’s advocacy of supply-side economics that FDP economics minister Otto Graf Lambsdorff proposed for Germany in opposition to the Social Democrats.
Genscher’s shift in domestic strategy paralleled his vision for German unification and European unity. When Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev called for the reforms known as glasnost and perestroika, Genscher urged the Reagan administration to take Gorbachev at his word. Reagan’s administration was skeptical, seeing the Soviet move as diversionary, but Genscher was insistent that Gorbachev was a new kind of Soviet leader.
A steadfast defender of German unity, throughout 1989 Genscher championed the Hungarians’ efforts as they opened the Iron Curtain to fleeing East Germans. From my post as the deputy chief of mission in East Germany, Genscher’s support for courageous East Germans fleeing to freedom became legendary. Genscher’s career high point came on 30 September 1989. Some five thousand East German refugees fled the GDR and sought refuge in the West German embassy in Prague. Genscher announced from the balcony of the West German embassy that their passage to freedom was secured. Genscher’s announcement from the balcony was iconic.
Genscher and Chancellor Kohl would go on to align the German government with President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III in concert with Mikhail Gorbachev to achieve German unification. Genscher’s tactics and his leadership during the 2+4 negotiations were impressively effective. He worked with the new, democratically elected East German foreign minister and counterpart Markus Meckel to win trust. Baker conceded that Genscher was right about Gorbachev’s reform movement, and the two foreign ministers became friends.
I was privileged to share with Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Henry Kissinger, and James A. Baker the German celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution in Leipzig on 9 October 2014. They reflected on the dramatic 2+4 negotiations that led to German unification. Baker praised Genscher’s advocacy for Gorbachev’s reforms in the mid-1980s. Gorbachev’s “New Thinking” was an opportunity to defuse the Cold War nuclear weapons confrontation. German unification also forged a strong bond between Americans and Germans committed to President Bush’s call for a Europe “whole and free.”
My last meeting with Hans-Dietrich Genscher was in Bonn a few weeks ago when he presented his book “Meine Sicht der Dinge.” He fondly recalled the Leipzig days and his respect and fondness for Henry Kissinger’s strategic thinking and James Baker’s collaboration in the unification of Germany. This encounter with Genscher is among my finest memories of a great German statesman who worked to bring down the Iron Curtain, to end the Cold War, and to steer negotiations for German unification.
Ambassador James D. Bindenagel is the Henry Kissinger Professor at the Center for International Security and Governance, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn.