BERLIN -- Ill, tired and hoping to give his successor the chance to grow into his big shoes, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher caught Germany off guard yesterday by quitting after 18 years in office.
The world's longest-serving foreign minister, Mr. Genscher is also Germany's most popular politician. His resignation is expected to further weaken the government's attempts to come to grips with a host of domestic and foreign challenges.
Mr. Genscher, 65, said he was not stepping down because of the government's problems or because of his poor health. Instead, he said he had accomplished his main goal in life, German reunification, and had stayed in office long enough afterward to secure friendship treaties with all of the nation's neighbors and to anchor Germany in the European Community.
"There's nothing lacking in my ministry. The coordinates of German foreign policy have been firmly set. What I could bring to my post I have brought," Mr. Genscher said, adding: "I think I spent most of the past 18 years flying from one capital to another. Now it's time to do something at home."
The resignation is due to take effect May 17, the 18th anniversary of his taking over the Foreign Ministry. He will remain member of Parliament.
His successor is to be Irmgard Schwaetzer, 50, the minister of regional planning, housing and urban planning. Mrs. Schwaetzer, fellow member of the liberal Free Democrats who served four years under Mr. Genscher in the Foreign Ministry, will be the first woman to hold the position.
Although Mr. Genscher has been criticized for appearing confused by the post-Cold War world, few analysts believe he was any different from other world leaders. After his much-criticized decision to hold Germany out of last year's war on Iraq, he later vigorously pushed for recognition of the breakaway Yugoslav republics, a policy now accepted by most countries.
"He had some problems adjusting, but most of his recent moves have been proven correct. In retrospect he was probably the most successful foreign minister in German history," said Christian Tuschhoff of the Free University of Berlin.
Mr. Genscher said he wanted to go out "when I could set the time." By going now, he said, Mrs. Schwaetzer will have a chance to gain stature before national elections in 1994.
In a television interview last night, Mr. Genscher emphasized that he wants to return to his hometown in eastern Germany, which he left in 1952, and work for national integration and reconciliation.
"As foreign minister I didn't have time for this," he said.
While Mr. Genscher will largely be remembered for guiding Germany to reunification in 1990 and anchoring the new country in the West, he was sometimes viewed with distrust at home and in the United States.
Many voters viewed him as an opportunist when he led his party out of a coalition with the Social Democrats in 1982 to join Chancellor Helmut Kohl's conservatives.