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In Memoriam: Helmut Schmidt (1918 – 2015), German Chancellor 1974-82

Yesterday, on November 10th 2015, Germany mourned the loss of former Chancellor and – in later years – national icon Helmut Schmidt.

A lieutenant in World War II and economist by trade, Helmut Schmidt first gained national fame when managing the 1962 flood in his native Hamburg as a local politician and rose to be the Minister for Defence, for Economics and for Finance consecutively throughout the chancellorship of fellow Social Democrat Willy Brandt. Schmidt succeeded Brandt as chancellor of West Germany in 1974 and led Germany as the head of a coalition of social democrats (SPD) and liberals (FDP) through the oil crisis of the 1970s as well as the high time of left-wing terrorism in Germany. When his coalition with the liberal party finally broke in 1982, he briefly led a minority government, a time in which he as well headed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, making him the politician that has led the most federal ministries in the countries’ history.

Having coined the phrase “People with visions need to go see a doctor” Schmidt was fiercely set in Realpolitik and making the best of what is possible at any given point in time. This lead him to not negotiate with terrorists in the 1970s and to supporting the deployment of middle-range nuclear weapons in Europe should the Soviet Union not disarm in the 1980s. Together with French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing he is counted as one of the fathers of the world economic summits and signatory of the Helsinki Accords to create the CSCE, precursor to today’s OSCE and took first steps to creating a shared European currency.

Following his defeat in a vote of no confidence in 1982, Schmidt was succeeded by Christian Democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl who was to lead a then-unified Germany until 1998.

After his tenure as Chancellor, Mr. Schmidt became co-publisher of the weekly DIE ZEIT and prolific political author with more than 30 books and numerous other publications to his name, the last one being “Was ich noch sagen wollte” (transl.: Things that I still needed to say) published earlier this year.

Germany lost a great political figure, the last and most visible of a generation of politicians that were born before the first German republic was, that fought as soldiers in World War II – and that were so very important in rebuilding the country and democratizing it in the decades after the war.

Helmut Schmidt is often credited with ‘keeping the ship afloat through treacherous waters’ which certainly is true, his stances and fights for what he believed to be the right thing to do, be it a hard line against terrorism (leading to the death of Hanns Martin Schleyer, President of the employers’ association who had been taken hostage in 1977) or the need to keep up the pressure in the arms-race between the USA/NATO and the USSR in the 1980s are equally as impressive, and part of that legacy.

Helmut Schmidt at a party convention in Munich, 1982

To many, especially us younger folk, Helmut Schmidt has been and will continue to be a legendary man and a character from a time beyond our imagination. Ten years older than most of our grandparents, all we had to go and make a judgement from were indeed epic tales of a young republic; there was the legend of the man who, as part of the government of the city state of Hamburg told off his superior, the mayor of the city, claiming ‘I got this’ when crisis-managing  the flood of 1962 and who took command of local army forces without having even the slightest bit of authority to do so; there was the legend of the brilliant rhetorician, his parliamentary battles with the oppositional Franz-Joseph Strauß were oratory events, – and then there was the legend of the man who could do no wrong, having led three different ministries before taking office and having had numerous other political positions before even that, Schmidt seemed to be a master of all he attempted.

Steeped in knowledge and classical education of morality and philosophy, an able pianist, chess player, loyal husband for 58 years to his partner Hannelore, fierce defender or peace, even if that meant arming oneself, Helmut Schmidt seemed to us like the closest thing we had in a long time to the all-capable, all-wise philosopher king of Plato’s lore.

We will never know how the world and the Germans would have remembered him if he only had lived for five years after leaving office. Having played a significant part in creating the Green movement in the late 70s/early 80s, leading his governments as a former officer would, shy of emotion and with no lack of directness, the grievances after a political career like his were many.

Alas, he didn’t die young. To us, he became the preeminent example of a public voice. and wise elder statesman. Fluent in English and with long-standing political friendships across nations and continents (France’s Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was one of his closest allies and the US-American Henry Kissinger went on the record saying that he wished to pre-decease Helmut Schmidt because he would not want to live in a world without him), Schmidt was a European and an arbiter of international cooperation.

While keeping out of day-to-day politics, he said what no one else would dare to say, would explain the world to us, his children, and tell us what and whom to be aware of.

And we? We adored him, we admired him, we forgave him his failings faster than they could come to light, and we gave him every bit of attention he could bear, he who would always have one more last bit of wisdom he needed to impart on us.

For most of us, Helmut Schmidt was a foil, a foil to be inspired or at times annoyed by. Especially for us leftist people, he was a living statue that somehow hadn’t been made into a statue yet. We would always feel safest when he was in sight, but we didn’t have much urge to look and listen too closely. When we did though, he would fulfil every expectation of grandness and wisdom because he actually was that good.

Germany and the world have lost one of its wisest and most capable politicians of the last century, in office and beyond, and both are a lesser place for it.

Helmut Schmidt 23.12.1918 – 10.11.2015

Thank you.

Helmut Schmidt and Jean-Claude Trichet discuss the European Crisis in 2013

Deutsche Welle showcases Schmidt’s life on the occasion of his 90th birthday

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