Former West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher died overnight between Thursday and Friday due to cardiovascular failure, his consulting firm in Bonn said on Friday.
Genscher served as West Germany's Foreign Minister and then Vice-Chancellor during the Cold War, from 1974 to 1992, overseeing the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequently German reunification.
He is perhaps most widely remembered for a speech delivered to thousands of East Germans who had fled to Prague when he announced that the West German government would take them in, helping catalyze the eventual collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Many prominent politicians mourned the death of the legendary foreign minister on Friday.
“With his death, Germany has lost a world-renowned statesman, and for me personally, a highly esteemed advisor,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement.
“He gave the call for human rights and freedom of movement [during the Cold War] a distinct voice that could not be missed, that for me and millions of other people in East Germany and Eastern Europe gave us hope for change.
“I bow with great respect before the lifetime of achievements of this great, liberal patriot and European, and remain personally grateful for all of the conversations and meetings with him through his final years that allowed me to draw from his world experiences and worldly wisdom.”
Others took to social media to express their condolences.
“Last night Genscher died: the architect of unity, one of the founders of the EU and our fatherly friend,” wrote the leader of Genscher's Free Democratic Party (FDP) Christian Lindner on Twitter.
Gestern Nacht ist #Genscher gestorben: der Architekt der Einheit, einer der Begründer der EU und unser väterlicher Freund. CL
— Christian Lindner (@c_lindner) April 1, 2016
Justice Minister Heiko Maas expressed “profound sadness” on Twitter at Genscher's passing, saying “Germany lost a great statesman” and quoting Genscher: “It is not the rights of the strong, but the strengthening of rights that all nations should be interested in protecting.”
— Heiko Maas (@HeikoMaas) April 1, 2016
From prisoner of war to liberal party leader
Genscher was born in the East German town of Reideburg, now part of Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, in 1927.
During the Second World War he was conscripted into the German Luftwaffe aged 16 and was briefly held as a prisoner of war by American and British forces.
After the war he began studying law and economics at the universities of Halle and Leipzig and became a member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPD) in 1946.
In 1952, he fled East Germany for the West and joined the Free Democratic Party (FDP) the same year.
He went on to qualify as a lawyer in Hamburg and worked as a solicitor in Bremen before working for the FDP for many years.
Genscher rose through the Liberal party ranks, becoming a member of the Bundestag and was named Interior Minister by Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1969, before becoming foreign minister five years later.
Bringing down the Berlin Wall
In 1989, 4,500 East Germans fled to Prague in then-communist Czechoslovakia to find safety at the West German embassy.
The Czechoslovakian government forbade them to enter West Germany due to travel restrictions from their communist allies in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) so they camped out in the embassy grounds.
Genscher was serving as West German foreign minister and could sympathize with the refugees as a former refugee from East Germany himself.
He decided to reach out to Russian and GDR officials to negotiate a deal to allow them to cross into the West.
On September 30th, 1989 at 6.58pm, Genscher stepped out onto a balcony of the West German embassy.
He only managed to say these words: “Wir sind zu Ihnen gekommen, um Ihnen mitzuteilen, dass heute Ihre Ausreise…” (“We have come to you to tell you that today, your departure..), before the crowd erupted into cheers, tears and screams that drowned out the rest of his speech.
That same day, at 8.50 pm, 1,200 refugees left Prague on the first of the so-called “freedom trains” towards Dresden before turning to the Bavarian town of Hof.
Those few thousand started a flood. The number of East Germans leaving for West Germany soon became too great, and led to the announcement on November 9th 1989 that the GDR’s borders would open.
The Berlin Wall was no more.
“Those refugees who were in Prague took their fate in their own hands, but in reality they made history,” Genscher said in 2014 at a commemoration of his speech.
“For me it was the most beautiful and happiest day of my political career.”