For the just-deceased former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the expression “Rest in peace” is entirely fitting. In office from 1974 until 1992, he contributed more than any Western European except Willy Brandt to the end of the Cold War. Proof of his effectiveness is the use of the term “Genscherism” by official and unofficial adversaries to typify his position, perceived as too conciliatory, toward the USSR. In fact, he infuriated conventional thinkers by describing them as irresponsible risk takers, gambling with the terrible possibility of nuclear confrontation in Europe.
Ordinary in appearance and brusque in manner, Genscher was hardly a tribune of the people. Yet his fellow Germans—in both halves of the divided nation—trusted him to act for political freedom, and for termination of the incessant threat of war. He developed an entire generation of West German diplomats utterly remote from the conformist mediocrity of their predecessors. He left Communist Germany before it was walled in, and as a prominent West German politician, he repeatedly visited family in the old university city of Halle—not far from Luther’s Wittenberg. At the height of his influence as foreign minister, in 1987, the two German states celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation as an event that signified an indivisible national heritage.
Genscher’s party was the Free Democrats. Attached to the market, and supported by large and especially small business, it seemed an unlikely agency for radical approaches to peace. It did have a strong belief in civil liberties—and a pronounced option for European integration. It drew free spirits. It was also, if secularist, close to the Protestant Church, aware that the division of Germany gave West Germany a Catholic majority, while East Germany was preponderantly Protestant. Its electoral score varied around 10 percent, and it used that to magnify its influence in a system in which for decades it was indispensable to the formation of any coalition government.
From 1969 to 1974, Genscher was interior minister, and experienced two disasters that would have terminated the political life of someone less stolid. He was in command of the response to the seizure of Israeli athletes by Palestinians at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. He ordered a police action to free them, but a bloodbath ensued. Then, in 1974, he mishandled the case of the East German spy in the office of Chancellor Brandt. Brandt resigned, and Genscher took over the foreign-minister post under the new Social Democratic chancellor, Helmut Schmidt.
Genscher’s brush with political oblivion turned him into a master tactician in resolute pursuit of remote historical gains. Free Democrats and Social Democrats continued Brandt’s policy of Ostpolitik, the opening to the Communist nations and rapprochement with the Soviet Union and its German satellite. Genscher used the Helsinki Agreement of 1975 to deepen cultural, economic, and political relationships with the nations of the Soviet bloc. He also intensified West Germany’s engagement in Western Europe and outside it, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Henry Kissinger, secretary of state in Washington until early 1977, was aware that Schmidt and Genscher were moving toward more West German independence from the United States, but could not—perhaps would not—stop a project built of a thousand small steps. Meanwhile, the West German army had roughly 300,000 soldiers (vastly more than the American forces in Germany )on active service and a million reservists. It also had an intelligent officers corps, which could be described as post-bellicose, often grandsons and sons of those who had died in the two world wars. (I once asked a German general, a retired Central Front Commander for NATO, about his conception of a feasible German military policy. His answer: “Avoid fighting Russia.”)