Helmut Schmidt, a man of principle | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 22.11.2015
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Helmut Schmidt, a man of principle

Helmut Schmidt was a politician of principles, which he would defend against his own Social Democratic party if need be. German historian Heinrich August Winkler remembers West Germany's fifth chancellor.

DW: Helmut Schmidt was seen as a chancellor who didn't lead the country in accordance with the Zeitgeist. His decisions at times even were contrary to big parts of his party, the Social Democrats. How was it he had such a good reputation; was a popular man whose authority counted?

Heinrich August Winkler: Helmut Schmidt had clear principles that he stood by. Once he had decided something was right, he would fight for it, even in the face of massive opposition and protests within his own political camp. He proved to be successful in particular as a man of action. During the world economic crisis that began with the 1973 oil price shock, he pulled Germany out of the crisis in a manner that was admired at home and abroad. He and Giscard d'Estaing were among the initiators of the World Economic Summits that kicked off in 1974 with six major western industrial powers.

In the crisis surrounding the Red Army Faction's terrorist acts, he put his chancellorship on the line when he resisted the leftist terrorists' attempts at blackmail in the wake of the kidnapping of the head of Germany's industry federation, Hanns-Martin Schleyer. We remember how well he embodied the Federal Republic's reason of the state back then. He would have been prepared to step down if the liberation of the kidnapped Lufthansa plane in Mogadishu had failed. And finally, he was unwavering in the debate about the military threat Soviet medium-range missiles posed to Germany - in the end, his stance meant that the West and the Federal Republic of Germany simply would not be blackmailed.

That historic merit is also reflected by Schmidt as one of the fathers of reunification. He contributed to the fact that the Soviet Union failed in its attempts to put pressure on Germany, and he prevented Germany from splitting from the West. At that point, he had a really tough stand in his own party.

That also makes Helmut Schmidt an unwitting co-founder of the environmentalist Greens Party - would you agree?

To a certain extent, that's true. At that time, the Greens weren't simply the political party opposed to nuclear energy, they were a national pacifist, neutralistic party that felt breaking with the West was inevitable in so far as the West was embodied by the US. The Greens questioned the state's monopoly on the use of force, and they felt that industrialization in its earliest phases was a historic folly.

SPD Party convention 1982

Schmidt faced opposition within the SPD to the double-track decision

As a Social Democrat, Helmut Schmidt had no choice but to see this party as a threat to the SPD, which is why he led harsh debates with the Greens. However, it's fair to ask whether he didn't underestimate the dangers of nuclear energy. He was thinking along the lines of his party's tradition, a party that in its 1959 Godesberg Program enthusiastically celebrated the possibilities posed by the peaceful use of nuclear energy. In that respect, Schmidt was a child of his times.

What was Social Democratic about West Germany's fifth chancellor?

For perfectly good historic reasons, Helmut Schmidt felt the SPD was the only party that consistently defended the first German democracy, the Weimar Republic, to the very end. He had a clear concept of social responsibility toward the needy. He had a concept of social justice that he was always prepared to update. He wasn't interested in social justice in the sense of domestic protectionism, in the sense of upholding social justice at any cost. He was prepared to ask over and over again whether our idea of social justice is in a position to stand up to the pressure of competition.

He also had a clear concept of the necessity of a state framework for entrepreneurial freedom, an idea he generally agreed with. That's where he ran into problems with the coalition partner, the liberal Free Democrats in the early 1980s. When the FDP increasingly embarked on a course of confrontation to the SPD in economic and social policy matters, he managed in that key crisis to point out the FDP's responsibility for the collapse of the coalition in 1982 , which, in turn, allowed him a glorious departure from the chancellorship and brought him new respect.

"Dropping the pilot", the famous British caricature from March 1890 that shows Bismarck's final falling-out with Emperor Wilhelm II, became popular once again in 1982, when Schmidt left the Chancellor's office. Why is Schmidt put on par with the founder of the German Empire?

I doubt that last sentence jibes with the general assessment. I believe that in 1982, people were wrong to think that Schmidt's successor, Helmut Kohl, would throw away Schmidt's legacy the way the legacy of Bismarck was squandered by his successors in 1890 during the reign of Emperor Wilhelm II. No, it was Helmut Schmidt who said much later on that Helmut Kohl consistently continued his legacy on security policy and concerning the refusal to be blackmailed as a state.

Heinrich August Winkler

Schmidt stood by his principles, says historian Winkler

So, in effect, he paid a tribute to his successor on foreign and security policy matters, and he recognized the historic merits due Helmut Kohl for continuing, along with Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, along the lines of Schmidt's re-armament policies. Even if that meant tensions with the US, which by no means had always remained steadfast under Jimmy Carter where European security was concerned. Helmut Schmidt credited Helmut Kohl in a manner that underlines his ability to come up with an independent non-partisan opinion.

Much has been written about the rivalry between Helmut Schmidt and his predecessor Willy Brandt. But letters that just recently emerged seem to indicate that Schmidt admired Brandt and sought his company.

There were times when Helmut Schmidt really wholeheartedly admired Willy Brandt, and there were times when the differences in opinion were unmistakable. That is true, in particular, for the times when Helmut Schmidt was chancellor and Willy Brandt was party leader.

We've already talked about Schmidt's relationship with the Green Party. Brandt was much more optimistic: he didn't rule out the Greens as a future coalition partner; he emphasized cooperation. In the long term, Brandt proved to be right, but in those days, that is, the late 1970s and early 1980s, Schmidt was much more realistic. Back then, the Greens couldn't be a partner for the SPD on a federal level - not as long as they stuck to their neutralistic positions and questioned the role of the state as owning the legitimate monopoly on the use of force.

The exterior security issue was another touchy issue. As long as he could reconcile it with his conscience, Willy Brandt tried to encourage Schmidt on security policy issues. But Brandt's reservations over the NATO double track decision had been obvious since 1980 and it naturally encouraged many Social Democrats to publicly take a stance against Schmidt. Many will remember how Oskar Lafontaine, at the time premier of the state of Saarland, massively attacked Schmidt as a man who possessed secondary virtues, like duty and discipline - virtues that also come in handy for running a concentration camp.

Such remarks deeply offended Schmidt and they weren't really compatible with SPD membership. Schmidt would have wished for more support from Brandt on all these matters. All the same, after Schmidt's chancellorship, their correspondence shows the two men grew closer again. It was very important to Schmidt that he managed to restore their friendly relations in the years before Willy Brandt died. They debated in writing and in person, and their mutual respect survived whatever phases of dissent they experienced.

Prof. Heinrich August Winkler is one of Germany's most renowned contemporary historians. He specializes in researching the labor movement and the history of the SPD.

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