Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s impact on politics in Germany did not begin with foreign policy but in domestic politics and that is where I met him first. As Minister of the Interior he was in charge of the environment, then a new field of politics, which the freshly formed coalition of Social Democrats and Liberals had taken up as a major endeavor of the government under Chancellor Willy Brandt, when today’s Green Party was still in its stage of sneaker-wearing young activists pursuing local initiatives.

Those were the happy days when America’s Republicans were not yet in their science-denying posture of today but a force of innovation in the field of environmental policy under President Richard Nixon. New federal institutions and laws were beginning to change the American landscape and providing the kind of ideas that a Germany in the midst of an environmental revival could use. Genscher and his team immediately adopted some of these ideas, among them the creation of a German version of the Council of Environmental Quality, the “Sachverständigenrat für Umweltfragen,” to which the Cabinet appointed me as a member. When he inaugurated the Council I remember him mentioning and recommending the inspiring model of American policy, and indeed, as we had to deal with resistance to our proposals, the existence of previous and successful American efforts— e.g., eliminating lead from gasoline—was an indispensable help to get new environmental initiatives off the ground.

Genscher became an international figure only when he took over the foreign ministry from Walter Scheel when he was elected federal president. Like his predecessors, he believed in the firm foundation of Germany’s policy in the West and its institutions, but at the same time he was a passionate advocate of reconciliation with Russia and Poland, and I was fortunate to accompany him on several missions. He had the foresight and courage to be the first to point out that the new Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, with his striking ideas of “glasnost” and “perestroika,” should be taken seriously. The German version of his “beim Wort nehmen” was thoroughly misinterpreted. Critics argued that “Gorbachev should not be judged by his words but by his deeds” (which the German version also implied). The notion of “Genscherism” was born, and I remember him being both annoyed and amused, occasionally poking fun at the concept. When the West, notably the U.S. administration itself, began to realize that Gorbachev did indeed represent a departure from Soviet orthodoxy, he was the first to be pleased to have been right. (However, this did not stop Gorbachev from almost dressing him down when he went to Moscow in December 1989 to inform Gorbachev about Chancellor Kohl’s famous ten points on reunification;  ironically, he had to take the blame although he had never been consulted on these points).

Genscher combined his understanding of strategy with a superb sense of tactics and realism. Indeed, it is frequently overlooked that Kohl’s somewhat pushy and robust style of advancing policy might not have produced the amazingly fast outcome of Germany’s unification and the accompanying European agreements had it not been combined with Genscher’s tactical and pragmatic finesse, aided by a competent and hard-working diplomatic apparatus. During the negotiations on unification I witnessed that pragmatic realism as a member of the advisory committee that he had created and chaired. During its deliberations a relatively highly placed German official proposed solving the problem of Germany’s alliance membership by having the reunited country be member of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, asserting that this idea would meet with great support in East Germany. Genscher, with a twinkle in his eyes, buried this obviously dumb idea with the simple question “And how do you reconcile two opposing alliance commitments?” but nevertheless made sure in personal talks with the GDR leaders that such ideas did not gain ground in the ongoing negotiations.

Karl Kaiser, former Otto-Wolff-Director of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), is Adjunct Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and Senior Associate of the Transatlantic Relations Program at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.