The man who helped bring down the Berlin Wall, former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, has died at the age of 89.
Genscher, a one-time refugee from the Communist East, died of heart failure at home surrounded by his family on Thursday night, his office said in a statement on Friday.
As Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor over a period of 18 years, Genscher was West Germany’s top diplomat during a crucial time.
While a divided Germany was pushing ahead with opposing ideals, Genscher always favoured East-West dialogue and eventually guided his country to reunification.
FDP leader Christian Lindner said on Twitter that Genscher had made history, calling him “the architect of unity (and) one of the founders of the EU”.
German government spokesman Georg Streiter said that Genscher was “a great statesman, a great European and a great German”.
Born on March 21, 1927, at Reideburg, near Halle, Genscher served in the Luftwaffe (air force) towards the end of World War Two. He said it was only many years later that he learned his name was entered in the rolls of Nazi Party members.
After the war, he studied economics and law in East Germany before fleeing to the West in 1952 where he joined the liberal Free Democrats (FDP).
In 1969 he was appointed Interior Minister in Willy Brandt’s Social Democrat government.
He suffered his worst political moment in 1972, as interior minister, when a police operation to rescue Israeli athletes kidnapped by Palestinian gunmen at the Munich Olympic Games ended with the deaths of 11 members of the Israeli team.
In 1974, Helmut Schmidt succeeded Brandt as Chancellor and it was then that Genscher became Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor and began shaping the so-called Ostpolitik which preferred dialogue over hostility with the Soviet Union.
“Genscherism” was a theory that Germany could be a bridge between East and West.
As a key NATO ally, this position often riled the Reagan administration in Washington.
Genscher strongly supported European integration, believing it to be the key to the success of German reunification. He was also a ferocious advocate of political reforms in Poland and Hungary.
On September 30 1989, his speech from the balcony of the German embassy in Prague was a turning point.
Thousands of East German citizens, who were refused entry to the West, gathered in the embassy courtyard as Genscher announced the agreement with the Communist Czechoslovakian government that the refugees could leave.
Here is a video of former FM Genscher in Prague announcing to E. German refugees that W. Germany would take them in. https://t.co/yBvXoGENDr— German Embassy (@GermanyinUSA) 1 avril 2016
Genscher later negotiated German reunification in 1990 with his counterpart from the GDR, Markus Meckel.
Current German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is among those paying tribute.
In 1991, he successfully pushed for Germany’s recognition of Croatia. After Croatia and Slovenia had declared independence, Genscher concluded that Yugoslavia could not be held together.
The decision was controversial, however. Germany’s quick recognition of an independent Croatia was considered by many to have been a trigger for the uncontrolled breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the region’s subsequent slide into war.
A passionate supporter of the European Union, Genscher also helped pave the way for the euro with a memorandum on a European central bank and a unified currency area, one of the early steps that led to the launch of the common currency in 1999.
In December 2013 he was a key negotiator in the release of Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky when Angela Merkel charged him to negotiate with Vladimir Putin.
And, after a decade behind bars, Khodorkovsky’s first trip was to give thanks in Germany.