Walter Scheel, who helped shape West Germany's policy of reconciliation with the communist bloc as foreign minister and later served as his country's president, has died. He was 97.

President Joachim Gauck, whose office said Scheel died Wednesday after a long illness, called him "a politician who helped shape the destiny of our country for many years."

"Promoting European unity was particularly close to his heart," Gauck said. "Early on he recognized the importance of a European integration policy for our country."

Born July 8, 1919, in the western city of Solingen, Scheel trained as a bank clerk before being drafted into Nazi Germany's air force during World War II.

After the war, he rose to become a leading figure in the Free Democratic Party, the kingmaker in West German politics.

He served as development minister in the conservative-led governments of Chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard before becoming FDP leader in 1968.

Scheel helped open his party to an alliance with the center-left Social Democrats. In 1969, the two went into government together under Willy Brandt, post-war West Germany's first Social Democratic chancellor.

Scheel served as Brandt's foreign minister and deputy for five years. The new government quickly launched a drive for reconciliation with the communist bloc, and talks resulted in treaties normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and Poland.

"Without Walter Scheel and (his long-serving successor) Hans-Dietrich Genscher, there would neither have been such a powerful stimulus for a new `Ostpolitik,' nor would such a quick and, in foreign policy terms, problem-free reunification process of the two German states have been possible," a later FDP leader, Wolfgang Gerhardt, once said.

Scheel in 1971 became the first West German foreign minister to visit Israel. During a visit to Beijing the following year, West Germany and communist China agreed to establish formal diplomatic relations.

Scheel briefly served as acting chancellor between Brandt's resignation in May 1974 -- triggered by the unmasking of a top aide to Brandt as an East German agent -- and Helmut Schmidt's installation as the new chancellor.

Lawmakers later that month elected Scheel as West German president, a job he held for five years. The presidency is a largely ceremonial post, although Scheel in 1976 initially refused -- for procedural reasons -- to sign a draft law easing restrictions on conscientious objectors to military service.

In 1978 Scheel acknowledged that he had been registered as a member of the Nazi party during the war, but insisted he never applied for membership.

He didn't seek a second term as president and was succeeded in 1979 by Karl Carstens, a center-right Christian Democrat.

Scheel made an unusual turn as an entertainer a few months before becoming president: a recording of the foreign minister and two choirs singing "Hoch auf dem gelben Wagen" ("High on the yellow wagon"). It made it to No. 5 in the West German charts early in 1974.

Scheel is survived by his wife Barbara and several children.