What remains? What will Germans remember about him? Helmut Schmidt thought about such questions even when he was still in the Chancellery.
It was December 1977 and he was standing in front of the Tombs of the Nobles in Luxor, Egypt. The UNESCO World Heritage site is 3,000 years old. It commands reverence.
Just before Schmidt traveled to Egypt, he had played in a key role a historical drama. In Mogadishu, GSG-9 special forces had freed all hostages from the hijacked Lufthansa passenger jet Landshut on Schmidt’s orders. It was a great triumph. But the move also meant sacrificing the life of the president of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations, Hanns Martin Schleyer, to German state interests. Schleyer had been kidnapped by the left-wing terror group Red Army Faction, which was closely tied to the Lufthansa hijackers, and the raid in Mogadishu led directly to Schleyer’s murder.
Even then, following what came to be known as the German Autumn, Schmidt was well-liked by the German electorate. He had a significant profile internationally, respected and esteemed in Paris, London and Washington. He was an erudite chancellor, who was aware of his own greatness and beset by arrogance — but one who also seemed strangely limited.
After all, it seemed at the time as though he would be crushed by the political events of the day. He was desperately fighting to keep the jobless number below 1 million and the rate of inflation under 4 percent. How, in such an atmosphere, would history view him? “As a footnote, at most,” he bitterly joked following his visit to the tombs, as he was sitting together with confidants that evening in the New Winter Palace hotel.
That assessment, despite coming from a man who was often right, ultimately proved dramatically incorrect. Schmidt, who passed away on Tuesday afternoon at the age of 96 in his home in the Langenhorn neighborhood of Hamburg, was much more than a footnote. Indeed, Germany’s postwar history owes several chapters to Schmidt. No living German has been the subject of greater admiration and respect at home and abroad in recent years. The response to his passing provides yet more evidence of that fact. There is hardly a senior official, hardly a head of state or government, who hasn’t honored Schmidt’s substantial services. In social networks, millions have paid their respects.
A Helmut Schmidt only comes around once in a century. When he was born on Dec. 23, 1918, the German Empire had just ceased to exist. When he was a young man, Hitler’s Germany was seeking to establish a global empire by way of war and racial fanaticism. When he was studying at university, two new global powers appeared — the United States and the Soviet Union — and Mao founded modern China. Nine years after the end of his term as chancellor, the new world order collapsed along with the Soviet Union.
In his subsequent writings, Helmut Schmidt strolled through the decades, throwing light on the perspectives of the Chinese, the Russians, the Americans and the Germans. The world was his stage, even if, biographically and culturally, he was German through and through. A Protestant from Hamburg, he was an officer in World War II, he was a postwar Social Democrat with authoritarian tendencies. And he had high expectations of himself. He was a German with an international reputation right up to the very end.
Ironically, he was closer to Germans in recent year than he had been as chancellor. As co-publisher of Die Zeit, the influential weekly, he joined the year after he left the Chancellery, he found sharp words to condemn German arms sales abroad, which hit a German nerve. Nobody seemed to care how he had dealt with the issue when he was chancellor. He also blasted sanctions against Russia in response to Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea as “a stupid move” and mocked the West for being provoked by Russia. He praised Angela Merkel for the caution with which she approached Russian President Vladimir Putin. And Schmidt, the former Wehrmacht officer who served under Hitler, transformed into a pacifist who sharply criticized German participation in the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
Such views won over the old and young alike. He had the aura of someone who thought through his positions before taking them public. He was composed, and he didn’t care what others thought of his opinions — increasingly a rarity in a political world where political positions are often the product of public opinion polls. Still, he derived great pleasure from his immense late-life popularity. Helmut Schmidt as a pop star? Who would have thought such a thing possible? He himself least of all.
In the last two decades of his life, Germans also saw in him a role model for how to lead a fulfilled life in old age. There isn’t anybody who wouldn’t want to be as mentally acute and energetic during that late phase of life as Schmidt was — when a cane has become a constant companion. Even as his body became frail over the years, his mind remained sharp. His formulations were as pointed as ever, and his biting commentaries never failed to amuse listeners and viewers. When watching him on television or on stage, it was impossible not to be amazed at the discrepancy between his aged body and his young mind. One message of his many appearances was that intellect could triumph over a weakened physique.
Free Rein for Helmut Schmidt
But it was only one message. He engaged with every question sent his way, particularly when he disapproved of it because it exposed the interviewer’s lack of knowledge or inadequate historical or political awareness, something he found particularly prevalent in television journalism. In such moments, he would reply at length — or he would kill the question with a grumpy silence.
During his television appearances or at Die Zeit events, the audience was always in Helmut Schmidt’s corner. And he could do anything he liked. He could light up a cigarette no matter where he was. He could answer questions at length or give short answers. He could delve into his memories or he could read someone the riot act. Helmut Schmidt had free rein, because he was always gripping.
Recently, though, life had become a burden for him. Age had caught up even with him. It had been a while since he could hear well, such that he had taken to wearing large headphones during appearances so he could hear the interviewer’s questions. His legs lost strength, such that he often sat in a wheelchair. When he was applauded, he often acted as though he couldn’t hear it. He would simply light a menthol cigarette, tip his head to the side and wait for the questions to come his way, often from his favorite interviewer, Die Zeit Editor-in-Chief Giovanni di Lorenzo. In the final weeks of his life, Schmidt couldn’t even muster the strength, or the desire, to smoke. By then, he was no longer the snappy man who once said: “You need passion. And cigarettes.”
Schmidt, the pragmatist and chancellor, had high regard for the Germans. But they only learned to love him much later, as he grew older and older before suddenly becoming larger than life, particularly in comparison with the present-day generation of politicians, a fact which gave him particular pleasure. He had always been extremely able and true to his convictions (and made sure the world, which didn’t necessarily want to hear it, knew it as well), but he only became the nation’s darling as an old man.
Yet it wasn’t really Schmidt who changed. Rather, it was reality — on which he self-confidently passed judgment — that shifted. And because political leaders like Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel seemed to lack conviction and resolve in this age of globalization and global economic crises, Helmut Schmidt became the embodiment of a clear-thinking and clear-speaking contrast.
The King Germany Didn’t Have
In 2007, Germans voted him as the best former chancellor and in 2008 as the country’s “coolest guy” — ahead, even, of Germany’s biggest movie star Til Schweiger. In 2013, he was chosen as the most important chancellor. The interview series with Die Zeit editor di Lorenzo called “A Cigarette with Helmut Schmidt” became a bestseller and a part of the cult that grew up around him.
Germans also became enamored of Schmidt and his wife Loki as a couple. The two wrote little notes to each other every day and enjoyed playing chess together. When Loki died in the late autumn of 2010, the entire nation shed tears together with Helmut Schmidt. “I was endlessly sad and nothing could console me,” he said after Loki’s death. Only later did he admit to having had an extramarital affair. “I had a relationship with another woman,” Schmidt wrote in his final book. It was at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s and Loki offered him a divorce — which he rejected in alarm.
As great as he was, as contradictory as he was, Schmidt was human. How else could one be when one reaches such an advanced age? And when he then emerged from a year of mourning and informed the public that he was now together with Ruth Loah, a woman he had known since 1955 and with whom he had worked at Die Zeit, Germany reacted with relief and was happy for the elderly gentleman.
Schmidt was the king that Germany doesn’t have, says di Lorenzo, a man who became as close to Schmidt as it was possible to get.
Helmut Schmidt managed something that no other chancellor, either before him or after, was able to do: successfully transitioning from the Chancellery to a life after politics. Konrad Adenauer, despite his advanced age, never recovered from being ousted. Willy Brandt resigned, but remained head of the Social Democratic Party and made Schmidt’s life as chancellor that much more difficult. Helmut Kohl, who had his moment of glory with Germany’s reunification, humiliated himself soon afterwards in the campaign donation scandal that ultimately handed Merkel leadership of the center-right Christian Democrats. And Gerhard Schröder immediately cashed in his legacy by joining the Russian natural gas giant Gazprom.
Helmut Schmidt set a standard as chancellor, and then — even more so — as elder statesman. Yet Schmidt, who carefully tended to his aura of power, was also riven by self-doubt. When he quoted Max Weber, Immanuel Kant or Karl Popper, it always felt a bit forced, as though he was trying to insist on his own place in the pantheon of great thinkers. But Schmidt took seriously the guilt that lay behind any decision, even if it was the correct one. He really did strive to find the correct balance between proportion and passion, as Max Weber demanded of politicians. He was a tiresome chancellor, exasperating his contemporaries with his arrogance, but he was exactly the right chancellor at a time dominated by conflict between superpowers, global economic crises and domestic, left-wing terrorism.
Schmidt saw himself as a world leader and enjoyed philosophizing about the times — not even stopping at lecturing American presidents. Yet during his years as chancellor, from 1974 to 1982, German politics was largely limited to crisis management. It was a time when the world order out of which postwar Germany arose was slowly eroding.
First, the system of fixed exchange rates established by the Bretton Woods system collapsed. Then, Gulf oil producers twice sent the price of crude skyrocketing, destroying the illusion that the era of cheap gas could return. Schmidt’s term slid into a crisis-ridden period that fell between more momentous developments. He became Willy Brandt’s successor only after West Germany’s integration into the trans-Atlantic alliance and opening to the Eastern Bloc, the two historic policy developments of postwar Germany. Reunification, meanwhile, lay far in the future. In a letter to Brandt, Schmidt once wrote that he was not granted “the fortune of an epochal task.”
But he was granted the fortune of reaching an advanced age, older even than Adenauer. And the older he became, the more often he delighted his audiences with his radical views. He attacked American “predatory capitalism” and mocked the “megalomania and avarice of managers.” He blasted German banks for their “addiction to growing larger” and was vocally critical of Germany’s sending of troops to Afghanistan. The weekly tabloid Bild am Sonntag even wondered in its pages if the ex-chancellor had finally “mutated into a leftist.” But of course he hadn’t. Helmut Schmidt always remained true to Helmut Schmidt.
On his 90th birthday, Angela Merkel held a speech for him. She spoke of how she, as a young woman in 1962 East Germany, had followed the news on the other side of the border of the great flood in Hamburg, where she had been born. Her family in Hamburg was in danger and she said she had been impressed by the un-bureaucratic action taken by Schmidt, who was a senior city-state official at the time. “Because in a moment of great need, he was able, through his presence, to give my family a very important feeling: confidence,” the chancellor said. “What more, ladies and gentlemen, can one say about a politician?”
The flood arrived at 2:15 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 17, 1962. It flowed through the streets and gardens of the Wilhelmsburg neighborhood of Hamburg, destroying the small houses in gardening colonies there and killing many residents in their sleep.
‘You Are In the Way’
The evening before, Schmidt had returned to Hamburg by car from West Berlin and news of the floods reached him at 6:20 a.m. Not long later, he arrived at police headquarters and quickly organized a massive response, without respect for competencies or legal injunctions. It was a response that won him the reputation for being a decisive crisis manager.
Schmidt assumed command of the entire administration and of the rescue services — including that of German military troops called in to help. Later, he admitted: “They weren’t placed under my control. I took control myself.” When Hamburg Mayor Paul Nevermann hurried home from vacation and arrived at response headquarters, Schmidt is said to have welcomed him with the words: “Mr. Mayor, you are in the way.” Ultimately, 315 people drowned in the floods.
Helmut Schmidt lived through several crises during his long life. Most of the time, Germans had faith in his ability to protect them from the worst. But such triumphs cannot always be had completely free of culpability. That lesson is one that applies to the most difficult decision he made as chancellor. On Sept. 5, 1977, RAF terrorists kidnapped Confederation of German Employers’ Associations President Hanns Martin Schleyer with the intent of releasing him in exchange for imprisoned RAF leaders. To ramp up the pressure, Palestinian terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa plane with 91 people on board a short time later.
Schmidt didn’t budge. There would be no prisoner exchange. He also applied the decision to his own life, declaring in writing that, were he ever kidnapped, he should not be exchanged for prisoners either. When GSG-9 special forces stormed the Lufthansa plane on Oct. 18, 1977 in Mogadishu, he was determined to resign if any of the hostages died — but none of them did. A short time later, Schleyer’s dead body was found in Mulhouse, France, a response to the liberation of the Lufthansa passengers in Mogadishu and to the subsequent suicides of the imprisoned RAF leadership.
They were six horrifying weeks for Germany and its chancellor. But Schmidt, as then-SPIEGEL reporter Hermann Schreiber wrote at the time, survived the test. He demonstrated once again, Schreiber wrote, that he has “stronger nerves than others” in such exceptional circumstances and that “his brain works better” than it does in normal times. “Who knows what would have become of Germany otherwise,” Schmidt said afterwards.
Inaccurate Public Image
But he also said that one of the most difficult hours of his life was when he sat next to Hanns Martin Schleyer’s wife during his funeral service.
The fact that he had nerves of steel when the situation called for it doesn’t mean that he was free of insecurities and fears. When Schmidt arrived at the Bonn seat of parliament on May 16, 1974 to be voted into the Chancellery, he was apprehensive. He had achieved his goal, but he didn’t feel like a victor, he told the Bonn-based journalist Ulrich Blank, who spent years observing and writing about Schmidt.
Instead of taking a seat up front, Schmidt chose a spot in the second row of the SPD party’s faction. There, he immersed himself in files and memos — or at least acted as such. A slight quivering in his hands revealed the anxiety he was feeling. Helmut Schmidt, as he would later admit, had the jitters.
Yet when Bundestag President Annemarie Renger read out the result of the vote, Schmidt snapped out of his reverie, jumped up and accepted the position of chancellor with a steady voice.
For the journalist Blank, it was a key scene. “The public image that developed, that of a hero always certain of victory, was inaccurate,” he wrote in an essay that sought to outline the new chancellor’s most important characteristics: “Ambition and a deep, almost melancholy skepticism had always formed a peculiar combination in his thinking. Experience had taught him that hard work and talent alone were not enough to ensure a rise to leadership. He was disquieted by that haphazardness and randomness of political careers. Behind the required commands necessary within the party, it was mostly not possible to discern an elevated, deliberate wisdom.”
Since the 1950s, Schmidt had been a key member of a new troika of outstanding SPD leaders, together with Willy Brandt, born in 1913, and Herbert Wehner, born in 1906. The three steered the SPD toward supporting the country’s integration into Western structures and alliances such as the European Community and the Atlantic Alliance. Together, they led their party into government for the first time in postwar Germany.
The three have starkly different biographies. Brandt, who fled Germany during the Hitler years, was labeled a traitor by the Konrad Adenauer-led Christian Democrats. Herbert Wehner was a communist, saying he was fully aware that his opponents would “skin him alive” because of his past. And Helmut Schmidt had a past as a Wehrmacht officer who disdained Adolf Hitler, but fought for him in World War II.
The three needed each other. They were very close, and yet so far apart — and they fought bitterly. They were comrades, rivals, brothers-in-arms and, at times, enemies.
In 1966, they jointly led the SPD into government as the junior member of a grand coalition with the conservatives. It was the first such postwar coalition between Germany’s two largest parties and it pushed through several overdue reforms, modernizing a country that had suffered through years of stagnation. The SPD, though, saw the partnership with the CDU as a transition phase, an opportunity to prove the party’s governing ability. All the while, SPD leaders hoped for an opportunity to take over the reins, which came in 1969, with the election of Willy Brandt as the head of a coalition with the business-friendly Free Democrats. His name became synonymous with détente with the Eastern Bloc, which lowered tensions in the Cold War. Brandt essentially finished the project that Adenauer had begun.
“Germans, we can be proud of our country,” was the SPD’s campaign slogan in 1972, and German voters rewarded Brandt with a resounding reelection. But two years later, the troika fell apart. Herbert Wehner, in Moscow of all places, openly questioned Brandt’s leadership abilities, saying “the chancellor prefers his bath tepid.” Brandt never forgave him. With rumors of sexual affairs circulating and a close confidant being outed as an East German spy, Brandt, the first postwar SPD chancellor, stepped down.
In a 1971 interview with SPIEGEL, Schmidt said that he considered himself “not unable” to execute the duties of chancellor. “But for the foreseeable future, I don’t see any reason for a change, and should a change become necessary at some point, I am only five years younger than Willy Brandt, it seems likely somebody younger would have to be found.”
But after Brandt resigned in May 1974, there was no longer any alternative to Schmidt. There was no other Social Democrat as prepared to take over the Chancellery as he was, nobody who had collected so much experience in so many different positions. He had been in charge of Hamburg’s internal affairs, distinguishing himself with his handling of the 1962 flood. He had educated himself regarding military strategy in the nuclear age. And he had been alternately in charge of the defense, finance and economics portfolios under Willy Brandt. It was almost impossible to be more prepared.
Yet Helmut Schmidt hesitated. He urged Brandt to rethink his decision and remain in office. But the outgoing chancellor simply responded: Helmut, now you have to take over.
Schmidt would later say that he had never wanted to be chancellor. Neither his party colleagues nor the German people nor historians believe him. “They can think what they want,” Schmidt said peevishly. “I know how it was. I was afraid of it.”
Schmidt and fear: The two didn’t really belong together in the same sentence. He was “the doer.” On one hand, he was annoyed by being seen merely as a pragmatist. “Me, a doer?” he once raged. “As though I’ve never written a book. As though I didn’t contribute to a deep analysis and to the substance of our politics in hundreds of speeches and essays.”
The Ideal Man for the Job
On the other hand, though, he did all he could to contribute to the image of a leader who took action when needed, without allowing himself to become side-tracked by party resolutions or visions of leftist Social Democrats. His ideology was not having an ideology. “Those who have visions should see a doctor,” he once said, a sentence that stood out, even among many such pointed Schmidtian utterances.
Even his biographer Blank made fun of this inner contradiction: “Sometimes it looked as though … he increasingly felt that he had to play a role, as though he had to do what he could to be what others thought of as a man of action — sometimes by way of the acerbity with which he argued and shot down interjections and sometimes by way of the descriptions of himself that he propagated.”
For his first major policy statement as chancellor, Brandt chose the motto: “take a chance on more democracy.” He meant it as a departure and as a new beginning, which is also how it was understood by the younger generation. Schmidt’s first major policy statement in 1974 was delivered under the motto: “Continuity and Concentration.” It sounded like: “take a chance on more state.”
When he came to power, Germany didn’t need a reformer, it needed a global economist. It didn’t need a visionary, it needed a crisis manager. And Helmut Schmidt was the ideal man for the job.
He was tireless in pressing leaders in the Western hemisphere to attend constant summit meetings and global economic conferences. Without his preparatory work, the European unity and common currency that benefited his successor to such a great degree would not have been possible.
His standing abroad grew. After only a year in office, the Financial Times named him “man of the year” in 1975. Domestically, he soon came into conflict with the newly formed extra-parliamentary opposition (also known as APO for its German abbreviation), largely comprised of the student movement, as well as with his own political party.
As a response to the oil crisis, Schmidt made the decision to build even more nuclear power plants in an effort to diversify the country’s energy resources to decrease reliance on OPEC states and the prices they dictated. As a reaction to the arms race sparked by the Soviet Union with its new SS-20 nuclear missiles, the chancellor pushed for the complicated NATO Double-Track Decision. Under it, if the Soviets didn’t remove their missiles, the West would respond by stationing Pershing II missiles, armed with nuclear warheads, in Western Europe.
The battle over nuclear missiles and the use of atomic energy polarized West Germany and led to the birth of the peace and environmentalist movements, which ensured mass protests with a significant influence on politics. Soon, members of the SPD were torn between the desire to govern and the desire to protest against their own chancellor. Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt became estranged, even openly opposing each other for a time. Later, Schmidt would say that the biggest mistake he had ever made was to allow Brandt to remain party chair.
Brandt prided himself on his vision for peace and justice, believing that it opened the SPD up to a younger generation, first to the 1968 student movement and later to the APO that grew out of it. But Schmidt felt these groups were all “left-wing nutcases” who “fight for everything, just not for their own employment.” It was yet another of the flippant statements for which Schmidt was famous.
Ultimately, Schmidt lost the support of his own party — and the support of his coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democrats, which toppled the chancellor after ruling together with the SPD for 13 years. On Oct. 1, 1982, for the first time in the history of the West German parliament, a leader failed a vote of confidence in the Bundestag and Schmidt was replaced by Helmut Kohl of the center-right Christian Democratic Union.
But Schmidt didn’t slink away. On the contrary, he held a furious speech denouncing the FDP and, especially, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, as traitors prepared to switch government coalitions the same way a person changes his or her shirt. The charge would carry clout for years to come.
Genscher remained foreign minister, but it was only years later, after German reunification, that he again became a popular public figure. Genscher suffered, in his own words, like a dog from the stigmatization the statement brought and he even sought reconciliation with Schmidt, which the former chancellor would only grant him years later.
A New Era
Schmidt’s ouster marked the beginning of a new era. The Green Party soon emerged out of the APO and it entered into the Bundestag for the first time in 1983, making Joschka Fischer and the other Greens a kind of product of Schmidt. Perhaps he had already grown too old to recognize the young movement’s momentum.
Helmut Schmidt is the only German chancellor to have experienced World War II as an officer. He served in the Luftwaffe, where he was an officer in the Flak artillery, serving first in Russia and later on the Western Front. During the time in between, he was an advisor in Hermann Göring’s Aviation Ministry (the Reichsluftfahrtministerium).
He said he had no knowledge of the Nazis’ crimes and that it was only after the war had finished that he first heard the name “Auschwitz.” He said his relationship to the Nazis in power had been distant and that this distance began after artists he admired, like Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Liebermann, were placed in Hitler’s registry of “degenerate artists.” He said he questioned at that point whether the Nazis were capable of reason. “They were crazy,” he would say. “There was something about them that wasn’t right.” He said he found it depressing to have to fight as a soldier on the front lines on behalf of a dictatorship he wanted to end.
It was only after he left his parliamentary seat in 1986 that Schmidt spoke openly about his experiences during the war. “During the day, we fought, because we held that to be our duty, also in part to save our own lives, in part to prevent falling into captivity. But at night we fervently wished for the war and the Nazi dictatorship to end. It was schizophrenic.”
A Jewish Secret
But he kept the personal reasons for his inner opposition to the Nazi regime to himself until he reached an advanced age. For years and years, Schmidt had not been keen to say too much about his inner life, and it was only later, after he was no longer chancellor that he came clean. He told of how his father Gustav had been born out of wedlock to a Jewish banker father and that he had been adopted by a dock worker named Schmidt. Under the Nuremberg Racial Purity Laws, he would have been considered a “half Jew.” In order to conceal this, Gustav Schmidt lived through the Third Reich with forged identity papers. He lived in constant fear of being discovered. In the account his son would give later, he said “this fear had been a part of his youth.”
He described his Jewish relatives to SPIEGEL in detail. He said he first found out about it when he wanted to join the Hitler Youth. Schmidt described how his mother took him aside and told him about his grandfather. “She said: You can’t speak to anyone about this, and I, as a 14-year-old, understood that it was dangerous … I definitely felt the threat to my family and myself, but a 14-year-old did not have an idea of what we refer to today when we say National Socialism.”
The constant fear destroyed his father psychologically. But Helmut Schmidt said he himself was unscathed. “When I wanted to marry in 1942, I had to present a pedigree certificate. It was a very scary occasion, but the people at the Luftwaffe didn’t care. The commander put his name on a paper stating, ‘Provided proof of (his) Aryan lineage to my office’ — stamp, signature, lieutenant, that’s how the Luftwaffe worked.”
Whenever he spoke about “Adolf Nazi,” he did so with contempt, but the sense of German guilt never loosened its hold on him. He was an Atlanticist because the Americans’ protection was vital to small, postwar West Germany — but also to prevent the country from falling back into its megalomania. He was a dyed-in-the-wool European because inclusion in supranational alliances prevented the Germans from pursuing their own Sonderweg. He was always careful to say that Germany was an economic giant, but should remain a political dwarf.
Helmut Schmidt felt that a pride-instilled modesty was the best attitude for Germany after 1945. He grew up in circles that supported the Social Democrats. His family lived on Richardstrasse, a street in Hamburg’s working-class Barmbek neighborhood. Their neighbors in the district had either been dock workers or fishmongers, and people lived in very narrow, cramped quarters. Politics was something people barely spoke about and when they did, they would make their children leave the room. It was a time when women were discouraged from having opinions, especially political ones.
Helmut Schmidt’s grandfather earned his money as a longshoreman at the port and was often unemployed after 1929. Schmidt told a German TV talk show host not long ago that “for me, he was not a very pleasant guy. He beat his wife.”
His maternal grandfather, Heinrich Koch, was a printer and typesetter at the now-defunct Hamburg Correspondenten newspaper and, on the side, the owner of a linens store in the city. He was a part of the “labor aristocracy,” but also unapproachable and quick-tempered. As a young boy, Schmidt “wouldn’t have dared to address him on his own.”
His father, a teacher, worked his way up to become a business studies teacher and, eventually, a school director, a rise considered to be sensational for the times.
Helmut Schmidt himself attended Hamburg’s Lichtwarkschule school, where he felt at home because teachers there placed a special value on the artistically talented. Schmidt had wanted to become an architect, and he didn’t just set his sights on building homes. He wanted to build entire cities. He played music and loved the Expressionist painters.
Caught Between Generations
When Schmidt began studying economics at the University of Hamburg after the war and became a member of the SPD, he felt he was part of a “generation that had been caught between generations,” for whom everything had either come too early or too late.
He was 26 and had survived the war without “any major shit” happening, but felt like he had been robbed of his youth by the Nazis. Nevertheless, he would later look back on this time as having also contributed to his political education. “My positive attitude about the way a state should actually be was developed” during the war, he told his biographer Blank. “And all the parallels between this socialist principle of solidarity and the principle of camaraderie experienced in the war were also influential.”
As a student, he co-founded the Socialist Germany Student Alliance in Hamburg, which years later would become the nucleus of the radical student movement. As deputy head of the SPD, Schmidt, who had for years made fun of visionaries, spent years heading a commission whose task was to come up with a long-term strategy for the Social Democrats.
Soon, Helmut Schmidt was standing beside Willy Brandt and Herbert Wehner in the upper party ranks. But “like many others, he was unable to get rid of the feeling that he had fallen between generations,” journalist Blank wrote of him. “Later, (the feeling) would grow into a suspicion that the grandfathers and the grandchildren might align against them, the fathers.”
And this is where the deeper reason for the conflict between Brandt and the SPD is rooted: The only slightly older party patriarch appeared to be part of another generation. He wasn’t a participant in the war, instead having emigrated to avoid the Nazis. A man like that was loved by the young rebels while Schmidt seemed suspect because he spoke like the very fathers they rejected.
The Worst Insult
A Social Democrat of all people, Oskar Lafontaine, in 1982 sought to associate the chancellor with the Nazis in an interview with the magazine Stern. A concentration camp could also be run with the secondary virtues of honesty, punctuality and reliability possessed by Schmidt, Lafontaine asserted. Lafontaine was considered a protégé of Brandt’s and enjoyed his political protection.
Lafontaine was Lafontaine, but for Schmidt, much depended on how Brandt would respond. The party chairman did rebuke Lafontaine (“Those who draw lines like that are misrepresenting history”), but it was not particularly strident. He said Lafontaine’s choice of words had been “not entirely successful, to put it mildly.”
That wasn’t enough for Schmidt. His government spokesman at the time, Klaus Bölling, says it “was the most painful insult anyone had given to him in his entire life.” Especially compared to Brandt, Schmidt felt for a long time like his role in history had been a small one. People loved Brandt, the reformer and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, during his time in office. In that respect, it took Schmidt a long time to catch up. But he will not have been disappointed by the result.
Schmidt was able to reconcile with Brandt in his later years. He visited him one last time in Unkel near Bonn shortly before Brandt’s death in 1992. He had suffered under Brandt, but there was also no other German politician for whom he had greater admiration.
‘Men of the Century’
For many years, Schmidt had been the last of his kind, the last of these “men of the century,” who only pop up rarely in history. Herbert Wehner had already died before Brandt. Richard von Weizsäcker, a year and a half younger, died in January 2015, and Egon Bahr in August 2015.
Many speeches are being given these days about Helmut Schmidt, the doer, the pragmatist, the Kantian politician, the man with the Hanseatic demeanor, the German, the citizen of the world. His life, his personality, his lifetime achievements invite such attention — and the drawing of many different conclusions. Surely a street in Berlin will be named after him and, very definitely, a prominent square in his hometown of Hamburg.
And there’s one other thing that will not be forgotten.
Back in January 1978, after Schmidt stood marveling in front the pyramids in Egypt he returned to Bonn with the idea of creating small monuments for each German chancellor. They weren’t pyramids, but rather a tree planted in their memory so that at least something of them would live on. Something modest, befitting a country born out of the ruins of war.
Konrad Adenauer, the founding chancellor of West Germany got a paulownia tree in front of Bonn’s Schaumburg Palace, the official office of the chancellor. Ludwig Erhard, the short-term chancellor and father of Germany’s economic miracle, is commemorated with a sequoia. The largely forgotten Kurt Georg Kiesinger, the chancellor of the first left-right grand coalition, was still alive at the time and chose a red-leaf maple. Brooding Willy Brandt, who had very little doubt about his historic magnitude, planted a gingko tree, a symbol of eternal life.
In the end, Schmidt also picked out a tree for the chancellor park. He could have gone for a knobby German oak or perhaps a towering Douglas fir. Instead he picked a melancholy weeping willow.