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Schmidt: Germany's elder statesman

Jeannette Seiffert / jpNovember 10, 2015

Schmidt, one of Germany's most popular politicians, will be honored with an act of state, a memorial of the highest order, on Monday. Among the speakers in Hamburg's "Michel" church: Angela Merkel and Henry Kissinger.

Deutschland Altkanzler Helmut Schmidt auf Intensivstation
Image: picture alliance/dpa/C. Charisius

Schmidt was a politician who believed in plain speaking and whose steadfast refusal to censor himself never detracted from his popularity. He was regularly voted the most popular politician in postwar Germany, despite being contrary and often opinionated.

In a television interview at the height of the European financial crisis, for example, he didn't mince words when asked what he thought of Chancellor Angela Merkel's leadership. "It would take me a while to come up with a diplomatic answer," he said. Asked what he thought of then Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle of the pro-business Free Democrats, his response was similarly caustic. "You can't seriously expect me to answer that," he said.

Schmidt remained consistently critical of developments in the EU, the feasibility of a multicultural Germany and the Bundeswehr's mission in Afghanistan, but continued nonetheless to enjoy the respect of the German public.

Uncompromising stance on the Red Army Faction

For many Germans, Helmut Schmidt earned that respect first and foremost with his handling of the infamous 'German Autumn' in late 1977, when West Germany was terrorized by the left-wing urban guerrillas of the Red Army Faction (RAF). The German Autumn reached its high point when the RAF kidnapped industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer and hijacked the Lufthansa airplane Landshut with the help of the allied Palestinian group PFLP, landing in Mogadishu, Somalia. Their aim was to force the release of RAF terrorists from German jails. But Helmut Schmidt dug in his heels, refusing to meet the kidnappers' demands.

He later explained that his goal was to demonstrate "the state's ability to protect the public against threats." Proving that the protective power of the state was deserving of trust had been his first priority, he said, and that entailed refusing to release the imprisoned members of the RAF. In a highly fraught mission, Schmidt had the West German counterterrorism group GSG 9 storm the Landshut airplane. All passengers were freed. Had any hostages died, it later emerged, Schmidt would have most certainly resigned as chancellor. As it was, the events marked the high point of a political career that began when Schmidt joined the Social Democrats in 1946, one year after the end of the Second World War. During the war, he had served in a Nazi tank division on the eastern front, ending up in a British prisoner-of-war camp.

Helmut Schmidt als Innensenator in Hamburg 1962
Helmut Schmidt called in the army to fight the flood in Hamburg in 1962Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Meteoric career rise

He first gained a reputation as a cool head in a crisis as the senator for the Interior in Hamburg, his home city, by successfully coordinating the Bundeswehr's rescue effort during the North Sea flood of 1962.

Infografik Life of Helmut Schmidt Englisch

He went on to climb the ranks of German politics, becoming chairman of the SPD parliamentary group in 1964 and then defense minister in the SPD-FDP coalition government led by Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1969. His skill and experience as a security expert grew steadily.

In 1974, when Willy Brandt resigned over what became known as the Guillaume affair, an espionage scandal revolving around the exposure of an East German spy within the West German government, Helmut Schmidt was his obvious successor. He later admitted in a TV interview that he was well aware that filling Brandt's shoes would be no easy task. "Willy Brandt raised the German public's expectations extremely high, he said. Such expectations could no longer be met, what with the oil crisis in 1973 and the subsequent recession.#videobig#

Schmidt did his best nonetheless, quickly gaining a reputation as a "can-do" politician willing to put his money where his mouth was. His expertise was demonstrated not only by the dramatic rescue of the hostages in Mogadishu, but also by his dogged perseverance in economic matters. Schmidt might not have been able to jump-start the German economy during those troubled times, but he made his mark on both the domestic and international stage as a world-class economist. His efforts were rewarded when the German public voted to keep him in office in 1976 and again in1980.

Difficult relationship

His relationship with his own party, the Social Democrats, was never an easy one. He was seen to belong to the more conservative end of the SPD and was not averse to pushing through decisions without majority support. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the debate surrounding the NATO Double-Track Decision heightened this tension. An ardent believer in NATO, Schmidt was willing to let the alliance station US nuclear missiles in West Germany. His detractors, within his party and among the German public, saw his stance as naive. He defended his position, arguing to those pushing for unilateral disarmament rather than contractually secured disarmament that "history has shown that surrender by no means prevents aggression on the part of the stronger power."

It was a stance that the SPD supported with considerable reluctance and wasted no time officially reversing when Schmidt left office in 1982. He resigned the chancellorship after a vote of no confidence, having lost his voting majority in the Bundestag over his refusal to cut West Germany's social welfare programs, which prompted the centrist Free Democrats to defect from his governing coalition. Schmidt described the FDP's stance as a "rejection of the democratic welfare state and a move towards a dog-eat-dog society."

Elder statesman

In subsequent years Schmidt withdrew from the political arena, becoming a co-publisher of the weekly newspaper "Die Zeit" and joining the international lecture circuit.

He had little affinity with the new generation of SPD top brass, Gerhard Schröder's election campaign in 1998 being one of the few occasions he came out in public support of a candidate. After years of reticence on his party's evolution and choice of leadership, in 2011 he unexpectedly gave his blessing to his long-term chess partner Peer Steinbrück, who ran as chancellor in 2013, saying unequivocally: "He's up to it." He later explained that he made the remark shortly after losing his wife, Loki. "I was under the impression that it was something I might not be in a position to say in a year's time because I might have passed on. So I spoke the truth. And I see it as still valid today."

In 2011, after a 12-year absence, he gave what was hailed as a landmark speech at an SPD convention in Berlin. He might have harbored mixed feelings about his party throughout the decades, but he remained a staunch Social Democrat till the end.