Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the international symposium in honour of Hans-Dietrich Genscher

28.03.2017 - Speech

Barbara Genscher,
Maxim Kantor,
Klaus Kinkel,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to welcome you all to the Federal Foreign Office today.

A few moments ago, we formally renamed the Europafoyer behind this room in memory of Hans-Dietrich Genscher.

The Federal Foreign Office has a tradition of naming rooms after great political figures. And there’s something you should know about this building: it used to house the Central Committee of the SED, the Socialist Unity Party of the GDR. And the room where the Politbüro used to meet is now protected – as is the way here in Germany – as a historical monument. But, civil society has had its ultimate revenge on the SED. The wallpaper, which is of course also protected, shows traces of the pictures that used to hang on the walls – but the modern Foreign Office has simply hung a big portrait of Bismarck on top and called it the Bismarck Room. Now that’s what I call society’s revenge!

I admit that, as a Social Democrat, I am much happier about a room being renamed the Hans-Dietrich Genscher Forum.

I am really pleased that we have managed to make this happen here at the Federal Foreign Office – at Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s initiative and in collaboration with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

Few people have left a more lasting impression on Germany than Hans-Dietrich Genscher. I am now 57 years old. I was 15 or 16 when I started getting interested in politics, and Genscher – even though he was in a different party – has been a feature of my entire political life.

For me, Genscher always stood for an idea of liberality that we need more of in Germany. It encompassed more than his party-political affiliation; it shaped our country’s constitution and our way of life in a manner that transcended political differences. Genscher is one of our country’s outstanding liberal figures, who have advanced its development in a liberal direction. That did my generation good. And I believe that, at a time when we are sometimes not entirely sure where to go next, that memory of liberality, in the best sense, is one of the great traditions this country ought to preserve. And that goes beyond party politics. Genscher’s contribution to this liberal Europe gives us a reason to look back at his life, but it is also a reason to take something with us as we face what lies ahead. His idea of a tolerant, liberal, free and surely also social Europe – that is a Genscher idea we can carry into the future.

Ladies and gentlemen,

That being said, Hans-Dietrich Genscher never really left the Federal Foreign Office. Despite the intervening move from Bonn to Berlin, you can sense his presence particularly clearly if you head down into the subterranean levels of this building. Below us here, under your feet, there are vaults with fat doors where the Nazis once stashed their gold. These days, they house our political archives.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave me a good tip for finding my way around down there. It’s quite simple, really. All the files are just arranged into two categories. There are those that DO involve Hans-Dietrich Genscher – filling metres of shelving as high as your head – and there are those that DON’T involve Genscher, in a little box.

It was 43 years ago, in 1974, that Hans-Dietrich Genscher took office. And he did so in a very interesting constellation.

Genscher became Foreign Minister, and his predecessor, a good friend from the same party, became Federal President... I find it very easy to imagine what that might have felt like!

From his very first day, Genscher left no‑one in any doubt as to how passionately the new Foreign Minister would fight for his visions. I found a note in the archives that made this abundantly clear. According to this note, there was a meeting held just a few days after Genscher took office. It was chaired by the head of Genscher’s personal office, a certain Mr Kinkel. The staff who would work most closely with the Minister came and listened to Mr Kinkel outlining the new boss’ expectations.

In future, according to Kinkel, all information prepared for the Minister on important topics should be not just concise and precise – but “pin sharp”. That is what it says.

Kinkel went on to warn that Genscher had a tendency to call ad‑hoc meetings and, for those looking forward to the upcoming summer lull, that the Minister would be in the office VERY LATE – until 10 p.m., to be precise. And he would apparently expect the same from his close colleagues and his State Secretaries.

Well, Klaus Kinkel, I must say that was a pretty clear message.

And perhaps it was already clear back then, in those first days of his tenure, how Genscher would do the job: pragmatically, with a keen eye on outcomes; with a firm hold on his principles; and with his already legendary, self-deprecating humour.

Genscher said once, “They say God couldn’t possibly be everywhere at once – but a Foreign Minister is expected to manage it, naturally.” He was probably on the way to the airport yet again at the time.


Genscher left his mark on this country as only few others have. The fact that our country, that Germany is an integral part of a liberal and peaceful Europe today is thanks to courageous people like Hans-Dietrich Genscher. He understood early on that it was essential to find some balance between the interests of East and West. He threw himself passionately into the Germany policy and Ostpolitik that Willy Brandt had started and Helmut Schmidt had continued.

What made Genscher so remarkable in this work and earned him so much respect – in Germany and abroad – came down chiefly to two qualities, I think.

The first was his outstanding ability to communicate. Genscher could build trust even among the most difficult of negotiating partners. He really could put himself into the other man’s shoes. When talks stalled again and again, he never gave up. He insisted that they had to go on – patiently but firmly.

Genscher shaped not only our country’s politics with that great gift, but also the empathetic face Germany turned to the outside world. If there is one thing he can teach us, I believe it is this empathetic approach to the countries we Germans are in contact with. After all, there is a wide range of attitudes a country can take. With the clout our country has gained, we get a certain amount of attention all around the world. But I believe it is important, especially for a particularly strong country like Germany, to show our empathetic side in our dealings with others. The focus shouldn’t be on strength; there should be no demanding that others give us their allegiance. We know that Europe is made up of a lots of small countries and only a few large and medium-sized ones. We Germans must therefore not fall into the trap of thinking that we are the only people in Europe anyone needs to talk to. That is an assumption which the Chinese, Russians and Americans unfortunately have in common at the moment.

Helping even those countries that are weaker than us, whose governance we criticise and whose finances are in difficulties, and approaching them with respectful empathy – that is something we can learn from Hans-Dietrich Genscher. That empathetic face is something we can rightly take as a model for the way our country should present itself in the world today.

Genscher used that great gift to shape our country’s politics and engineer several crucial steps – from the CSCE to the Two-Plus-Four Treaty to the architecture of German unity.

Hungary’s Foreign Minister Gyula Horn, who ripped the first tear in the Iron Curtain in 1989, called his counterpart Genscher “the number one diplomatic politician of our time”. Former US Secretary of State James Baker saw him as a “Titan among diplomats” who could be “as tough as the leather of a Texas cowboy boot”.

I am convinced that Genscher’s readiness to seek pragmatic solutions even with the most difficult of partners can and must be our yardstick today.

Klaus Kinkel, I felt you said just the right thing a moment ago, when you told us what Hans-Dietrich Genscher would do today with respect to the United States, for example. The US is a country we are closely tied to, and it will remain so. This is a partnership to which we bring an outstretched hand – and self-confidence too.

Turning to Russia, obviously we frequently criticise and indeed are obliged to criticise the country’s policies, but at the same time we clearly have to be aware that trying to proceed without Russia would be more likely to exacerbate problems in the world rather than solve them. We just have to accept that we cannot choose our neighbours.

We have to keep working on political solutions, despite the conflicts that seem to grow from one day to the next, the new wars, new arms races and all the other setbacks. That is not an easy task, but we mustn’t take that as a reason to give up. Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s legacy also teaches us perseverance and patience – which he always paired, notably, with clarity about where he stood. He never pandered to his opposite numbers. After all, to be pragmatic does not mean giving up your own values; it means attempting to understand the other person’s interests without being led by them – and then seeking some way of accommodating both sides’ interests.

In Genscher’s own words, “You recognise a good pilot by a steady hand not the loudest voice.”


To come to the second quality I want to highlight, Hans-Dietrich Genscher was brilliant at drawing the right conclusions in a changing situation. He was able not only to spot changes and recognise the signs of the times, but also to use them and actively influence the shape those changes took. He was prepared to strike out in courageous new directions to do so, not infrequently facing resistance from others on the same side.

In his famous Davos speech in February 1987, Genscher called on the West to take Gorbachev’s reform efforts seriously and use them as an opportunity.

“Europe is our destiny. That is even more true for us than for all the other nations. Humanity is facing a choice either to be destroyed in confrontation or to survive together.”

His passion for a peaceful and free Europe shaped him throughout his life – a man who had lived through the war and had fled from the GDR.

Right up until he died, Genscher exhorted us to fight for that Europe.

And he was right. We need a strong Europe now more than ever. And now more than ever, we Europeans need to read the signs of the times and not only spot but also help shape the changes taking place around us.

A clear and brutally honest analysis also includes the realisation that we as Europeans have not yet completed the transition from the old to the new, constantly changing world order. And I don’t mean this as an accusation. After all, it is true that the European Union was not designed to be a global player. It was intended to ensure peace and prosperity for its members. However, what we haven’t managed to do is to learn how to get on top of the reality of the crises and wars in our neighbourhood outside the EU.

At the same time, we must keep a further point in mind, which has to do with a development at the heart of Europe. We are – and it is no exaggeration to say this – experiencing what can be termed a crisis of confidence. Instead of rapprochement in Europe, we are witnessing new levels of drifting apart every day.

But if we Europeans intend to continue to play an influential role in a changing world, then we must change ourselves; we need to develop a strong Europe ready to shoulder responsibility; and we need to ensure that our children are heard in the world of the future. They will not be heard if they only speak with a national voice. We will only be listened to in the world of tomorrow if we have a common European voice.

Perhaps Genscher’s empathetic face – the empathetic face Germany turns to our neighbours – is one of the most important ways for us to convince the sceptics, the critics and the fearful that they have a partner in Germany that is not only strong but also reliable and well disposed towards them and towards European unity. If we do that, I think we will not only be obeying the letter of Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s legacy but also rediscovering the Europe of tomorrow in the spirit he would have wanted. Thank you very much.

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