If we don't count Bismarck, the Reich chancellor who was always his own foreign policy man, Hans-Dietrich Genscher is good for at least two superlatives. With 18 years at the helm of the Foreign Ministry, he was the longest-serving German foreign minister of all time. And he was probably the smartest of them all-more intelligent than the Kaiser's minions Holstein and Bulow, Hitler's diplomatic hustler Ribbentrop, or the men who came before and after him in the Bonn republic.

Was Genscher also the greatest? No, that accolade must go to Gustav Stresemann, the foreign minister of the Weimar Republic. Within three years, from 1923 to 1926, this brilliant manipulator had turned Germany the pariah into the road master of European diplomacy. He got the French occupiers out of the Rhineland, and he separated them from their wartime British allies. He wheedled the Dawes Plan out of the Americans, which lightened a crushing reparations burden and also helped distance the United States from the vengeful French. While securing Germany's western borders through the Locarno Pact, he set up a revisionist game in the East. Finally, he drew Soviet Russia into the German orbit: in the Treaty of Berlin, each country undertook not to join in Western combinations against the other. By 1926, Stresemann had vastly improved the strategic position of the Reich. For he had broken the encirclement by France, Russia, and Britain that had proved the Kaiser's downfall.

Stresemann was the master strategist, but Genscher was the master tactician-so much so that Richard Burt, the U.S. ambassador in the early 1980s, would end up calling him a "slippery man." The compliment was hardly misplaced, for Genscher was indeed hard to pin down. What did he want, and where did he want to take his country? From his rhetoric, it was usually impossible to tell.

He loved to wrap himself in the fog of bienpensant oratory. Genscher, the diplomat's diplomat, was an exemplar of political correctness before PC was even a gleam in a deconstructionist's eye. His favorite shibboleths were "bloc-transcendence," "peace order," "responsibility," "cooperation." He would drive his Western allies to distraction by drenching them with verbiage, and before the stuff was translated into halfway comprehensible English, he was off on yet another trip to yet another capital where the nuances of his d‚marches were ever so slightly different. He probably spent more time in the air than in his office on Bonn's Adenauerallee.

Did he say one thing and do another, as the Americans and the British always suspected? Such an indictment would hardly hold up in a court of law because Genscher's discourse was so voluble and so cloudy as to flummox even the most hardened prosecutor. To do an interview with him meant transcribing 6,000 words and then whittling them down to about 1,200-and usually without the benefit of a single memorable quote.


Do his memoirs help ex post facto? In 1992 Genscher abruptly resigned from office after 18 years, during which he had survived 6 American secretaries of state. Three years later he published his memoirs in German, a tome that weighed in at 1,030 pages of pure text (plus glossary and index). Mercifully, the English translation encompasses only 752 pages total, and the type is bigger too. But reading through them will hardly crack the enigma. Was he a soft-spoken nationalist draped in a European flag? Was he a compulsive schemer who set up a new game every day-or a cold-eyed calculator who wanted to rearrange the chessboard permanently in favor of Germany?

Genscher the author is hardly more crisp than was Genscher the foreign minister-though in private, he is one of the wittiest and most amusing interlocutors this reviewer has ever encountered. "Discretion" was and remains Hans-Dietrich's middle name. So what made him tick?

A good place to start is at the beginning, in 1974, when he moved to the head of the Foreign Ministry. "After a few months spent familiarizing myself with the tasks of the German foreign minister, I began to immerse myself with the tasks of the German foreign minister, I began to concern myself with the question of how Germany's voice could make itself heard within the Western Alliance." This was the leitmotif: Genscher as Voice of Germany-a game that would elevate the man and the country. Plus, not to forget, his Free Democratic Party (FDP), which, though the holder of the electoral balance that had made and broken many a government, was always struggling for survival.

The FDP, which Genscher led from 1974 to 1985, has been an extraordinary force in German electoral politics. With one exception (1966-69), it has always been part of the governing coalition. Making and unmaking chancellors, it helped Konrad Adenauer rule from 1949 to 1963, when it forced him to resign in favor of Ludwig Erhard. In 1969 it abandoned its traditional Christian Democratic partner to throw its support to the Social Democrat Willy Brandt. In 1982 it toppled Brandt's successor, Helmut Schmidt, by switching to the Christian Democrats, putting Helmut Kohl into the chancellor's office. In all these maneuvers, Genscher played a decisive role.

How was Genscher to amplify the country's voice? West Germany, merely a half-nation, was both pivot and victim of the global conflict between the superpowers. While bound to the West, it was also drawn to the East-to the threat and the promise that was the Soviet Union. Moscow's best divisions, backed up by plenty of nuclear weapons, were encamped just across the border, and the Kremlin held the key to the barbed-wire and concrete gates between the two German states.


Genscher's task was to conduct a more assertive foreign policy on a stage where the roles and the script were written by mightier players. Schaukelpolitik-jockeying for advantage between East and West-in the ways of Stresemann was out for a country tied to the West by treaty, affinity, and necessity. Hence Genscher would have to speak softly and move subtly. It was judo rather than boxing. Genscher would have to manipulate others to do for his country what he dared not do himself.

A good example was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also known as "Star Wars," which President Reagan began to hawk to his allies in early 1985. (This is one of the important stories that was excised from the English translation.) Genscher was afraid that too large a German role would provoke the Soviets. But a plain "no" would anger his American patrons. So he lured in the French. On April 13, 1985, Genscher recalls, he gave a speech extolling the need for a European high-tech project. Paris, always eager to take a swipe at Washington, was only too happy to oblige. "Only 30 hours later, on Sunday afternoon, Roland Dumas [the French foreign minister] called me." The speech had been reported to him; he had already talked to President Francois Mitterrand. On Monday Dumas "would propose a European initiative by the name of EUREKA."

With quiet triumph, Genscher notes: "And so it happened." As instigator of the purely civilian eureka (European Research Coordination Agency), France would draw the arrows of Reaganite resentment while allowing the Germans to avoid Soviet retribution. And yet, this was too clever by half. A masterful tactician, Genscher did not grasp the strategic impact of "Star Wars." Though eureka soon fizzled, SDI grew into a dreadful monster in Gorbachev's mind. Convinced that he could not afford another arms race, he must have decided right then to call it quits in the Cold War.


But formal surrender (Gorbachev accepted reunification in the summer of 1990) was still five years away. In the meantime, Genscher still had to make the best of a bad script in order to bolster Germany's voice on the bipolar stage. How? The one-word answer was "detente."

As Genscher puts it: "Again and again, I tried . . . to make clear that we Germans in particular would draw no benefit from confrontation in Europe. By promoting the process of détente, we could only win." The logic of wrapping a hard national interest in the cotton wool of peace-minded sentiment was simple.

The hotter the Cold War, the worse West Germany's dependence on the West-and the slimmer its room for maneuver. Also, only a climate of détente would allow Bonn to pursue its chosen strategy toward East Germany-call it "relaxation through reassurance" or "killing through kindness." Lulled into a sense of safety, the regime would lower its guard, loosen its totalitarian grip at home, and soften the rigors of partition. In the end, the two blocs-the Ur-cause of Germany divided-would wither away in favor of pan-European security and cooperation.

Ironically, this is exactly how the tale ended in 1990, but not because of Genscher; Gorbachev simply closed up shop and capitulated. In the meantime, though, the "subversive" logic of Ostpolitik regularly collided with the demands of Westpolitik. Hence American and British exasperation with "Genscherism," hence the "slippery man" tag. "Genscherism" entailed a Germany that was in and of the West, but not always with the West. The more Reagan turned up the heat on Brezhnev and his successors, the more Genscher sought to keep a separate détente alive, one that would shelter the East German-West German relationship and subtly-never disloyally-propitiate the Soviet Union.

Genscherism meant giving to Peter (Russia) without taking from Paul (the West), and there was profit in the giving, too. By leaning ever so slightly toward Moscow in the name of peace, détente, and "responsibility," Bonn could acquire leverage over Western policy and garner IOUs in the Kremlin.


Still, Genscher was no Weimar-type Schaukelpolitiker, no matter how inclined to maneuver and balance. An escapee from East Germany, and committed to liberal principles, he felt no affection for the Soviet Union. And he was far too intelligent to fancy, as did Social Democratic nationalists like Egon Bahr, that Germany and Russia in tandem could manage Europe's fate. Weimar had played East against West because it belonged to neither and feared both. But Bonn's biggest asset was the Western alliance, which is why Genscher "risked his political life," as he notes (in the German edition), to fight the Euromissile battle all the way to the deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles in 1983.

As desperately eager as he was to entice Moscow into negotiating away its SS-20 missiles in exchange for NATO's non- deployment, he had no illusions about the underlying Soviet game. The issue, he recalls, was "whether the Soviet Union would gain political power in Western Europe through military superiority, and whether it would succeed in separating Western Europe from the United States." There was a reason why he bolted from the coalition with Helmut Schmidt in 1982 to reemerge as Helmut Kohl's foreign minister. He was convinced that the Social Democrats, by then thoroughly infected with pacifism and anti-Americanism, would no longer stay the course of NATO's "dual track" decision: mutual disarmament if possible, counter-deployment if necessary. The Soviets conceded the game only in 1987 when Gorbachev accepted the "double-zero" deal proffered by NATO eight years before: neither SS-20s nor Pershings.

The West was home to Genscher, but more as a safe harbor whence to sally forth in search of opportunity. If the United States and Britain backed Iraq against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, Genscher remained on good terms with Tehran-as did his successor Klaus Kinkel with his fabled "critical dialogue." Adroitly, Genscher also managed to stay good friends with both Israel and the Arabs. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Genscher reflexively went for cover, emerging alongside the United States and Britain only after Thatcher had talked Bush ("now, don't go wobbly on me, George") into a hard line against Iraq.

But in his memoirs, he can't resist taking a swipe at both. He, Genscher, had always understood that Saddam wanted "hegemony in the region" while "some of our important allies had supported [his] regime for years with arms shipments . . ." Having scored his point, he explains why Bonn could not commit armed forces to the allied cause. The army "was not prepared"; there was a constitutional ban on out-of-area operations (which the Constitutional Court has since declared nonexistent); there was the "fragile Two-plus-Four [reunification] process" with the Russians, who had, after all, been "close" Iraqi allies.

Seeking to avoid damage and to maximize their influence, brokers never commit completely to either side-that is the essence of their game, and Genscher was a virtuoso at it. Thus he took the same approach in the next post-Cold War crisis that erupted in Yugoslavia in 1991. True to instinct and style, Genscher avers, "It was important to me to keep in touch with all parties to the conflict."


So why did Bonn strong-arm the rest of the European Union (EU) into recognizing Croatia and Slovenia in the winter of 1991-92? The French and the British suspected a German (and Austrian) plot. By currying favor with these two former Hapsburg possessions, Bonn and Vienna were purportedly going for a "Teutonic bloc" in the Balkans. A better explanation is German domestic politics, where anti-Serbian sentiments ran high, stoking the pressure for early recognition. But in fact, as his cabinet colleagues have intimated, Genscher was the lone voice that opposed precisely such a power play as foreordaining the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Yet as elsewhere in the memoirs, the horse's mouth remains closed, leaving the reader frustrated. "What power play?" Genscher seems to say with an ingenue's intonation. Bonn, Genscher wants us to believe, was not pushing, just tagging along with the EU; "the decision was made by the Twelve." So "what is there to criticize?" After all, recognition by the EU "ended the first war for which Belgrade was responsible." Alas, this repartee is doubly dubious. The Slovenian war was over in the summer of 1991, long before recognition by the EU in January 1992. And the free-for-all between Croats, Muslims, and Serbs began in earnest later in the year.

The reunification process-November 1989 to October 1990-rates only one chapter in the English translation, and one that is about half as long as in the original. But the loss to the English reader is minimal. Again, it is meeting by meeting, demarche by demarche-slow slogging, hard reading, and with no eye- openers. There are two reasons for this dour assessment; one is named "Kohl," the other "Genscher."

To Genscher's undying chagrin, Kohl grabbed the wheel almost immediately after the fall of the wall, jealously hogging all the crucial contacts with the two key players, the United States and the Soviet Union. That is why the most interesting account of the reunification saga on the German side is still 329 Tage (329 days) written in 1991 by Horst Teltschik, who served as Kohl's security adviser. A more exhaustive treatment from an American perspective is Germany Unified and Europe Transformed written in 1995 by Philip Zelikow and Condoleeza Rice, two Bush administration National Security Council staffers.

But Genscher the author must be blamed too. Throughout the book he remains unwilling either to "show and tell" or to captivate the reader with a well-crafted account of a breathtaking drama. Page after page, his memoirs read like Foreign Ministry files stitched together by assiduous, faceless assistants. There is no plot and no philosophy; in vain do we look for sharply etched portraits of key players or gripping insights into the high drama of international politics. One wishes that Genscher's amply expressed admiration for Henry Kissinger had extended to the latter's literary skills. Instead it is "I talked with . . . flew to . . . received . . . met . . . met again . . ." Or: "After my return . . . ," "a few days later . . . ," "I examined the request," "pondered . . . ," "considered . . ." Those who know how brilliant a storyteller Genscher can be are rightly puzzled and frustrated.


Why did Genscher suddenly resign in the spring of 1992? His answer, "democracy means a regular transfer of responsibility," does not quite persuade. But it is not hard to second-guess. After the self-dismemberment of the U.S.S.R. on Christmas Day 1991, Genscher must have grasped instinctively that the stage on which he had maneuvered so masterfully had collapsed. Bipolarity was dead, and there was no market left for this restless impresario. With one of the two dueling giants gone, so was the demand-and the profit-for a compulsive broker and détente-monger.

As he watched Americans and Russians kiss and make up, Genscher must have felt like Bismarck at the Berlin Congress of 1878, which he had convened as an honest broker only to find that Britain and Russia had already settled their quarrels without him. So Genscher did the natural thing. He retired and went home to pen his memoirs. He wrote a long book, not a great book. But let's not count him out. It is a safe bet that the muted applause of the German reviewers has piqued his ample vanity and ambition. Also, enigmatically as always, Genscher has all but announced a sequel-in the first paragraph of his preface. "This is not . . . an attempt to describe and explain every aspect of eighteen years of German foreign policy. Not enough time has passed to undertake such an assessment." Look for another thousand pages soon.

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  • Josef Joffe is Editorial Page Editor and a columnist at Suddeutsche Zeitung and an associate at Harvard's Olin Institute for Strategic Studies.
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