A long-time leader of West Germany's liberal party, the FDP, Hans-Dietrich Genscher (born 1927) was also his country's foreign minister beginning in 1974. While firm in his support of West Germany's ties to the United States and Western Europe, Genscher's tenure in office was also marked by persistent efforts to keep Ostpolitik and detente alive.
Hans-Dietrich Genscher was born March 21, 1927, to a middle-class family in the small Saxon town of Reideburg, Germany. In the last months of World War II he was drafted into the Wehrmacht (German army). After his release as a prisoner of war, Genscher studied law and economics at the Universities of Halle and Leipzig, graduating with a law degree in 1949. As the Stalinist regime in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) became increasingly oppressive in the early 1950s, Genscher became one of the thousands of refugees who moved to West Germany. In 1952 he settled in Bremen and took up private law practice in that city.
The future foreign minister developed an early interest in politics, and he remained a life-long Liberal. While still a student at Halle and Leipzig, he joined the East German Liberal Democratic Party (LDDP). Perhaps because he had to leave his home at an early age, Genscher showed little interest in state or regional politics. Instead, he concentrated on national and international affairs.
At the end of the 1950s Genscher became one of the proteges of Walther Scheel, a rising Liberal leader. Scheel became chairman of the FDP in 1961, succeeding the right-wing politician Erich Mende, who had led the FDP in virtual lock-step with the Christian Democrats since the early 1950s. In 1968 Genscher became vice-chairman of the FDP, and a year later, after Scheel's election as president of the Federal Republic, Genscher succeeded his mentor as leader of West Germany's Liberals.
Scheel and Genscher led the FDP away from its position as junior partner of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and opened the way for a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD). When the 1969 elections gave the FDP and the SPD a majority of the seats in the Bundestag (parliament), the two parties formed a coalition cabinet under the leadership of Willy Brandt. In this first "Social-Liberal" cabinet Genscher served as minister of the interior. Five years later when Helmut Schmidt succeeded Brandt as chancellor, Genscher became foreign minister and vice-chancellor, positions which he held continuously through the mid-1980s.
In attempting to steer a course as a Liberal leader in postwar West Germany, Genscher had to juggle the desire to preserve the classic principles of liberalism with the pragmatic need to assure the survival of his party. In the early 1980s the two major parties—the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats—between them obtained well over 90 percent of the popular vote, so that the FDP repeatedly faced the danger of not attracting the minimum 5 percent necessary for representation in the Bundestag. They avoided disaster at the national level during those years, but in a number of state elections the Liberals failed to clear the 5 percent hurdle.
Genscher's liberalism found its expression primarily in a particularly strong commitment to maintaining individual rights and civil liberties. As minister of the interior he effectively met the challenge of the terrorist attacks by the Baader-Meinhoff gang and other groups without violating the norms of the Rechtsstaat.
The FDP attempted to cope with the danger of political oblivion by being open to coalition agreements with both the political right and the political left. The result was to give the party and Genscher himself reputations as chameleons who change political partners for purely opportunistic reasons. In the 1960s the FDP abandoned its longtime coalition with the CDU and formed a government with the SPD. A decade later Genscher was instrumental in dissolving this partnership and leading his party back into the conservative camp.
In 1982, prodded by the then Liberal minister of economics, Count Lambsdorff, Genscher made possible the Wende (change of direction) which resulted in bringing Helmut Kohl and a CDU/FDP coalition to power. The turn to the right enabled the FDP to retain its influence in the national executive, but the abruptness of the shift also had severe repercussions for the party. Some well-known Liberal leaders resigned their party memberships rather than support the Kohl government. The party also failed to clear the 5 percent hurdle in a number of state elections. To appease the intra-party turmoil Genscher at the beginning of 1985 resigned as national chairman. He was succeeded by Martin Bangemann, Count Lambsdorff's successor as minister of economics in the Kohl cabinet.
Genscher's careers as party leader and cabinet minister were not marked by ideological or programmatic innovations. Rather, he acquired well-deserved reputations as a pragmatist and clever tactician. This is particularly true of his long-term service as West Germany's foreign minister. Genscher was head of West Germany's Foreign Office beginning in 1974 and became one of the most senior among the foreign ministers of the major powers. In the SPD/FDP coalition Genscher's administration of West Germany's foreign policy was strongly identified with the Ostpolitik, the efforts to improve West Germany's relations with the Eastern bloc. Genscher did not originate the Ostpolitik, but he became an effective supporter of this initiative. At the same time he did not neglect good relations with the United States and the Federal Republic's West European neighbors.
After joining the Kohl cabinet, Genscher was one of the focal points of continuity in West Germany's foreign policy. He attempted to conduct the Federal Republic's foreign policy along many of the same lines as before the Wende. This effort at times exposed him to severe criticism from some of the more doctrinaire Christian Democrats, who preferred a more confrontational course, especially in relations with the Soviet Union.
On May 17, 1992, Genscher, with surprising abruptness, resigned from his post as Foreign Minister providing little to no explanation for his decision. His rapid exit ignited a bitter power struggle as to who would fill his position in the FDP which some speculated would lead to the collapse of Germany's coalition government. Eventually, former Justice Minister Klaus Kinkel was chosen and pledged to continue Genscher's course of foreign policy.
In the years that followed his departure from government, Genscher continued to play an active role in world politics. Despite publishing his decidedly lengthy and somewhat erratic memoirs in 1995, critics say Genscher provided little true insight about the dynamics of the German government he was such an integral part of.
Literature in English on Genscher is scant; no full-scale biography of the foreign minister has appeared. Genscher himself has provided accounts of his foreign policy aims and ideas in two collections of speeches and papers: Bewährung: Diplomatie in Krisenzeiten (Test: Diplomacy in Times of Crisis) (1980), and Deutsche Aussenpolitik 1975-1980 (German Foreign Policy 1975-1980) (1981). General accounts of Genscher's influence on West Germany's foreign policy include Wolfram Hanrieder, West German Foreign Policy 1949-1979 (1980); Helga Haftendorn, Security and Detente: Conflicting Priorities in German Foreign Policy (1985); and Ekkehart Krippendorf and Volker Rittberger, editors, The Foreign Policy of West Germany: Formation and Content (1980). Additional references include Bilski, A.-Hollander, J. "A one two punch.", Macleans (May 5, 1992); Josef Joffe, "Rocking Germany's Boat," U.S. News and World Report (May 11, 1992); Tom Heneghan, "Genscher bores Germany with diplomatic memoirs," Reuters (September 19, 1995).