Sadness and civic pride as Helmut Schmidt laid to rest | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 23.11.2015
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Sadness and civic pride as Helmut Schmidt laid to rest

Helmut Schmidt has been buried in his hometown, where pride vied with sadness as thousands lined the streets to honor the former chancellor on his final journey through the city. Ben Knight reports from Hamburg.

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Germans bid farewell to Helmut Schmidt

No full-length church service, not too many speeches - those were among the stipulations that nonreligious former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who died on November 10 aged 96, set for his own state funeral. But the most important of these was that it should take place in his hometown rather than the nation's capital. Hamburg was the city he grew up in, the one he represented in the German parliament, the one he retired to, and the one he has now been buried in, alongside his parents and wife, Loki.

The sadness at his death was mixed with civic pride among the onlookers on the narrow cobbled streets around St. Michael's church, where Schmidt's state funeral was held - while another child of the city, Angela Merkel, gave one of the speeches inside.

"I can't sum up in words what he meant to this city," one woman told DW. "It was symbolized in so many gestures - that he'll be buried here, that he made sure he would live here later in life. I can't explain it, but it's a very deep feeling - in my belly, something to do with pride, the soul of Hamburg. It's really touched my heart that he's not here anymore."

The woman was one in a dense crowd of mourners who ringed the church beyond the police barriers, and who stayed put throughout the 90-minute service even though they could not see or hear any of what was happening inside. There was a hush among them as if they were inside the church, while the scene was lit up by bright clear wintry sunlight and a blue sky that emerged after the sleet of the weekend and somehow amplified the sentimentality of the day.

St. Michaelis Kirche Hamburg Drei Männer ehren Helmut Schmidt

After a sleety weekend, the skies parted to allow locals to bid farewell to the chancellor

Protector from the floods

One episode in Schmidt's Hamburg story was brought up again and again by those in the crowd, even those who were not alive to witness it, for the legend had apparently entered the local folklore: the time in 1962 when Hamburg was caught in a storm flood and Schmidt, as the city's interior minister, used his connections in the Bundeswehr and NATO to mobilize military helicopters to bring emergency relief despite lacking the legal authority to do so.

"He went up there and he said, 'If those helicopters aren't here in two hours, I'm going to kick asses,'" was how the garrulous shopkeeper in a small gift store opposite the church told the story. "How many people do you think would've have died if he hadn't done that? That's the kind of man he was - he got things done. He's the only politician who had any spine if you ask me."

"He was our best man, our best interior minister, the best chancellor we ever had," added Klaus Schulze, a member of a local sea chanty choir and one of several men who had come wearing the Hamburg marine cap that Schmidt made so popular in his heyday. "He had real courage and integrity."

St. Michael's, Hamburg, Helmut Schmidt

Schmidt, too, was fond of the marine cap

Security relaxed despite Brussels

Of course, the honor of the state funeral had the potential to be a nightmare for Hamburg, given the Paris terrorist attacks of November 13, last week's cancellation of a friendly football match in Hanover, and the ongoing security situation and manhunt in Brussels.

The city has only hosted one other state funeral (in 1995, for former Finance Minister Karl Schiller, another native), and about 1,800 guests were expected to attend Monday's service, with speakers including Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mayor Olaf Scholz and Schmidt's old friend and colleague the German-born former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Other notable attendees included NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, German President Joachim Gauck and former presidents of Italy and France.

Given this congregation of elder statesmen and the panic elsewhere in Europe, Hamburg police spokesman Timo Zill cut a notably unruffled figure ahead of the funeral. "We will carry out the operation according to the normal concept and normal strength foreseen for a state occasion," he told the "Hamburger Abendblatt" newspaper in an article published Monday.

Indeed, though there was a significant police presence around the church and along the 12-kilometer (7-mile) route Schmidt's hearse took to the cemetery, there were no bag searches, no officers armed with assault rifles (at least not visibly), and no barriers lining the motorcade route. "Of course I had my concerns - there are enough crazy people around," said Wilfried Schmidt, an onlooker. "But something could just as easily happen to me at work. I'm glad I'm here. The whole atmosphere is very peaceful, solemn, calm."

Then the man who shared a last name with the old chancellor paused and added: "You know, he was a very modest man. 'Don't make too much of a fuss about it,' he would've said."

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