BERLIN – Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who helped secure Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s release on Friday, was a tireless advocate for East-West cooperation during his lengthy tenure as foreign minister spanning some of Europe’s most dramatic events.
The 86-year-old is one of only a handful of German politicians to have left a strong personal mark on post-World War II history with his pursuit of Europe’s peaceful unification driven by his advocacy of consensus and European integration.
He became foreign minister in 1974 when Europe seemingly was spliced for ever into two nuclear-armed camps. He stepped down in 1992 when Germany was joyfully re-united and communism on the continent consigned to history.
In office he strongly favored better relations with the Soviet Union and the old eastern bloc, and after the introduction of “perestroika” in the mid-1980s insisted that the West should seize the historic opportunities for detente.
Even his advanced age has not deterred his continued involvement in reaching out to Russia, nor his support for the European Union as the bloc has struggled to battle its financial and debt crisis in recent years.
Welcoming Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise pardon of ex-oil tycoon Khodorkovsky, who flew to Germany on Friday, Genscher said he had supported the case “for humanitarian reasons,” and had met Putin twice to discuss it.
Genscher had written in the Tagesspiegel newspaper a year ago that Putin was “our partner.”
“The EU should cooperate with Russia more closely since we belong to the same continent. For the modernization of the country we are the right partner,” he said.
Genscher was born in 1927 to a farming family near Reideburg, near the city of Halle in eastern Germany. Despite his frail health — he contracted tuberculosis while young and spent 3½ years in a sanatorium — he was drafted into the German army in the closing stages of World War II and was taken prisoner.
On his release he studied law at universities in Halle and Leipzig, becoming a barrister in 1949. In 1952, three years after the creation of the communist German Democratic Republic, Genscher fled west to find work as a lawyer in the northern city of Bremen.
He also joined the Free Democratic Party and quickly rose in its ranks in Bremen.
In 1965 he was elected to the Bundestag as a deputy for western North Rhine-Westphalia state and began forging the minority party into a kingmaker that could make or break governments.
Beginning in 1969, the FDP joined the dominant Social Democratic Party in forming a coalition government, in which Genscher became interior minister.
Five years later he won the chairmanship of his party and took over at the foreign ministry, where he was to play out the rest of his career.
In 1982 the FDP switched its coalition allegiance to the Christian Democrats and Genscher remained in office under Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mentor Helmut Kohl.
He proved the FDP’s last bright star before its 11 years in opposition.
Genscher loosened West Germany’s alignment with U.S. strategy and steered the country toward closer ties with the Soviet bloc.
His policies often dismayed British and U.S. diplomats who viewed him as a fudger who weakened NATO and nuclear deterrence.
But to millions of West Germans, Genscher in his trademark yellow pullover was a counterweight to unbridled conservatism and a brake on the arms race whose sponsorship of East-West contacts kept the faith of East Germans alive.
And of all Western politicians, it was Genscher who inspired most trust in Mikhail Gorbachev, the reforming Soviet leader, and their close relationship proved invaluable during the epoch-making events of 1989.
He was thus ideally placed in 1990 to become the first foreign minister of a reunited Germany.
In 1991 he was criticized by his Western allies for Germany’s failure to take a decisive role in the Gulf war.