Shakeup in Strikebound Germany

April 29, 1992

It is strictly coincidental that for the first time in 18 years Germany is experiencing both a general strike by public employees and a change in the top post at the foreign ministry. Strictly coincidental, but not unconnected.

Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher, the West's senior statesman, is by far the most fervent advocate of a truly extraordinary transfer of wealth from west Germany to east Germany to finance the nation's reunification. And the cost of this bailout, now reaching $120 billion a year, is behind the shrinking living standards that sent thousands of west Germans out on the picket lines this week.

Yet Mr. Genscher is not drawing blame for his nation's economic troubles. He will leave office May 17 still unchallenged as Germany's most popular politician, far outstripping Chancellor Helmut Kohl. His magic lies in his reputation as a shrewd old fox who has a good sense of what is in Germany's interest and is willing to work adroitly, indefatigably, to accomplish his goals. Public onus for the economic fall-out from reunification falls on Mr. Kohl, who promised voters two years ago there would be no new taxes required to meet the needs of reunification and then promptly imposed them after he won re-election.

In his years as foreign minister, Mr. Genscher often annoyed Washington policy-makers by attempting, time and again, to ease tensions with the old Soviet Union and nations of Eastern Europe under Kremlin control. He was the first top NATO leader to take former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's reforms seriously and to oppose U.S. plans to modernize Europe-based tactical nuclear weapons. That he was proven right in both instances, and in some others as well, hardly endeared him to his allies. Instead, they felt he under-reacted to the Persian Gulf war, refusing direct German military participation, and over-reacted to the Yugoslav civil war by precipitously demanding recognition of independent Slovenia and Croatia.

The image of Mr. Genscher as "Genschman," a superman of foreign policy, was not universally accepted in Bonn, where he was seen as an elder statesman who, in the words of Defense Minister Volker Ruehe, "stayed too long." This was partly sniping between leaders of the two separate parties that make up the coalition government, but it also reflected a generational change that will be accelerated by Mr. Genscher's departure.

It may be that Mr. Genscher's resignation at this moment will later be seen as a move to seal his place in history as perhaps the most successful foreign minister Germany has ever had. The economic troubles reflected in the current strike will pass in time, and a reunited Germany will remain as a towering achievement he and Chancellor Kohl will share together.

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