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At home on the world stage

Head shot of a man (Volker Wagener) with gray hair and a beard
Volker Wagener
November 10, 2015

He had that distant gaze, shrouded in smoke from his menthol cigarettes. That’s how we knew the older Helmut Schmidt. As chancellor, he was an authority figure. Not loved, but respected, says Volker Wagener.

Deutschland Altkanzler Helmut Schmidt auf Intensivstation
Image: picture alliance/Geisler-Fotopress

Helmut Schmidt was an icon. He set standards. His speeches in the German parliament are still standouts today. And not just because of the distinctive way he modulated his voice. He was a master of the spoken word, someone who made punctuation audible. His aura was that of the strict, always deliberate, and only sometimes lenient paterfamilias. He was someone who explained the complex world to several generations simultaneously, or, as his biographer put it, the youngest old man.

Worlds separated him from his fellow party member and predecessor in the chancellor's office, Willy Brandt. Both stood for very different sociological and ideological spectrums of social democracy. Brandt swayed people's hearts and reawakened an interest in politics. He was the man of political dreams. Schmidt was a man of the people. Pragmatic to the point of being boring, he wanted to reach people's minds. He was an expert in crisis management, and there were enough of them during his time as chancellor. For him, political visions were the stuff of nightmares. People who had visions should go see a doctor, he said laconically.

An elite average citizen

Helmut Schmidt was a phenomenon. Those who don't just remember the Schmidt of the post-political era, but also the chancellor of the 1970s and early 1980s are now almost at retirement age. And they remember a sometimes grumpy, head teacher type of figure who often displayed a know-it-all attitude.

But he always remained true to himself, regardless of the current zeitgeist, as evidenced countless times by his constant violations of no-smoking policies. When it came to smoking, he could be terribly politically incorrect. Schmidt lit up even in the strictest no-smoking areas, and no one dared stop him. There was something elitist about it, and yet he always saw himself as an average citizen. The social democratic salutation "comrade" rarely crossed his lips. But his adherence to the polite "Sie" form of addressing people in German - including close friends - remained an old-fashioned lifelong trademark.

Wagener Volker Kommentarbild App
DW's Volker Wagener

Polyglot in Langenhorn

In many respects, Helmut Schmidt was someone who was above norms and images. For a social democrat, he was remarkably attuned to the needs of the market, the workings of which he understood very well. And as a member of the educated class, he would not have been amiss in the ranks of the conservatives and liberals. It must have been these atypical characteristics of a left-winger that led to Schmidt becoming friends with the French liberal conservative Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

The aristocratic French president, entirely representative of the Grande Nation, must have had to catch himself more than once when he visited Schmidt officially at the chancellery in Bonn and privately at his home in Hamburg-Langenhorn. Both the comparatively small, functional chancellor's residence on the Rhine, as well as the modest private home in Langenhorn were unlikely to have impressed the grand seigneur from Paris. But Schmidt didn't need status symbols. His relationship with Giscard worked on an intellectual level. Schmidt was a man who could distinguish the arts from the crafts. He played more than passable piano, wrote books and hundreds of newspaper articles. He was, in the best sense, a man of the world, and vain as he was, not afraid to show it. As Helmut Kohl once said, he "bristled with urbane arrogance."

Chancellor of the possible, not the desirable

His qualities served him best in a crisis. Every era has its protagonists. And in the post-Brandt era starting in 1974, Helmut Schmidt's hour arrived. Two big oil crises occurred during his tenure. At the same time, he took action against the kind of costly social greed that was awakened under his predecessor. It wasn't economic success, but his crisis management skills alone that made him a head of government to be reckoned with.

The terrorist activities of the Red Army Faction tested the state and were Schmidt's greatest challenge. His hard-line approach in the fight against terror was successful, true to his motto that "even democracies need leadership."

Governing against the zeitgeist

Less dramatic, but just as much a test for German society, was Schmidt's role in the rearmament debate of the early 1980s. The Soviet Union's arms upgrade demanded a response. It was Schmidt who first made the Americans aware of the medium-range nuclear missiles that Moscow had positioned against Western Europe. During the pacifist movement, which saw the founding of the alternative Green party, Schmidt's politics were diametrically opposed to the zeitgeist. He didn't just go against a large section of the population, but also the majority of his party. The concept of the NATO dual track decision - arms upgrades and negotiations - was a concept shared by Schmidt and one that ultimately brought the Soviet Union to its knees economically.

It was only with the collapse of the Soviet Union that he was proved right; while he served as chancellor, he found himself isolated. Schmidt felt an obligation to the principle of the balance of power as a precondition for peace, similar to Bismarck's philosophy. And he was successful.

Helmut Schmidt did not just write a great chapter of German history as the nation's fifth chancellor. In the decades following the end of his chancellorship in 1982, he remained a much respected personality and elder statesman of German politics.

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Head shot of a man (Volker Wagener) with gray hair and a beard
Volker Wagener Writer for DW's Programs for Europe department