Helmut Schmidt: Unsentimental doer who won affection

Former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt at a reception in honour of his 95th birthday in Berlin on March 13, 2014.
Former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt at a reception in honour of his 95th birthday in Berlin on March 13, 2014.PHOTO: EPA
A makeshift memorial outside the Hamburg home of former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who died on Tuesday at the age of 96.
A makeshift memorial outside the Hamburg home of former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who died on Tuesday at the age of 96.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Helmut Schmidt will be remembered as man who cemented Europe's economic stability

Helmut Schmidt, the former German chancellor who died on Tuesday (Nov 10), was a man who spent a lifetime defying odds stacked against him.

He came from a poor family, yet rose to his country's most important job.

He was not the architect of Germany's post-war economic miracle, but will be remembered as the man who cemented Europe's economic stability: "The important initiatives he undertook in international policy are still being felt today," Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a tribute to her predecessor.

Mr Schmidt had a life-long reputation of being aloof and pugnacious, yet he spent the final years of his life modestly, enjoying huge affection. And despite his incessant cigarette smoking, he lived to the ripe old age of 96.

  • Milestones in Schmidt's career

  • 1918: Born in Hamburg, offspring of illegitimate son of Jewish banker. Later joined Hitler Youth, aspired to be town planner or architect.

    1937: Drafted into army, served during World War II on Russian and Western fronts.

    1945: Captured by British troops.

    1953: Elected to Parliament as Social Democrat (SPD) deputy.

    1962: Moved to Hamburg state government; as state interior minister, established "action" reputation for control of flood relief.

    1965: Returned to national Parliament, leader of SPD, in coalition with Christian Democrats.

    1969: Became defence minister in Brandt government.

    1972: Took over economics and finance super-ministry.

    1974: Elected chancellor after Willy Brandt quit.

    1975: Had key role in forerunner of Group of Seven (G-7).

    1977: Reputation for results peaked when commandos successfully stormed Lufthansa airliner seized by Baader-Meinhof terrorists in Somalia.

    1982: Ousted as chancellor by Helmut Kohl after economy declined, unemployment rose.

 
 

The son of penniless school teachers from the northern port city of Hamburg was born in December 1918, one month after Germany's defeat in World War I. His youth was dominated by the subsequent travails of German hyper-inflation and Nazi dictatorship, and he ended up being the only chancellor of modern Germany to have served as a soldier in World War II.

Captured by the British in 1945, he narrowly avoided being put on trial, largely because of evidence from comrades of his opposition to Nazi ideology.

Mr Schmidt often used to say that his wartime experience persuaded him to enter politics as a socialist.

Yet the man who personally witnessed some of the most gruesome episodes of his country's history was no pacifist; Mr Schmidt spent the rest of his life arguing that precisely because of the horrors of the past, it was up to Germany to shoulder more than its fair share of the burden for European peace and global stability.

It was this fearless attitude to the use of national power which propelled Mr Schmidt to the job of defence minister when the Socialists came to office for the first time in post-war Germany in October 1969.

And it was his reputation as an unsentimental doer, a "macher" as the Germans like to put it, which served Mr Schmidt so well when, in May 1974, he unexpectedly inherited the chancellorship after his predecessor, Willy Brandt, was discredited by a spy scandal.

Those were not easy days for Germany. The country faced its first major post-war economic downturn. Germany's materialistic society was rejected by the country's youth, some of whom joined urban terrorist organisations such as the Red Army Faction. And the threat that the Cold War which divided Germany could accidentally turn into a hot war loomed large.

Mr Schmidt addressed each one of these problems with characteristic determination. He pioneered the idea of economic summits to handle global problems; the Group of Seven yearly gatherings of the world's most industrialised nations were his idea.

He also persuaded German workers to take a pay cut in order to kick-start their nation's economic growth; Mr Schmidt's argument that a country cannot spend more than it earns proved to be a concept followed by all subsequent German leaders to this day.

He also refused to give in to urban terrorism, even when this resulted in the murder of prominent German industrialists held hostage.

His extensive use of the national intelligence services against urban terrorists raised eyebrows among human rights activists, but by the late 1970s all the terrorist networks were dismantled, and the authority of the German state restored.

The same approach was applied to Germany's fraught relations with the Soviet Union. He supported Europe-wide disarmament negotiations and economic engagement with the Soviets, but he also pushed through the deployment of a new generation of Western middle- range nuclear missiles as a response to growing Soviet military power.

The decision ultimately cost Mr Schmidt his job as he was deserted by his own party left-wingers and kicked out of office half-way through a parliamentary term - the only modern German leader to experience such a defeat.

However, he was unrepentant. He believed the job of a true leader is not to court popularity or be bound by ideology, but to do what is right for his nation; "people with visions should go to the doctor," he used to joke.

Mr Schmidt was a lifelong friend of Singapore, which he first visited in the late 1950s.

And he formed a strong bond with the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Defying a blood clot in his leg which ultimately contributed to his death, Mr Schmidt flew to Singapore in May 2012, for what both instinctively knew was to be their last meeting.

Characteristically, neither mused on the past, but looked to the future. The two agreed on everything, apart from the German leader's incessant smoking.

"We need leadership figures. We need people like Harry Lee," Mr Schmidt said at the end of their talks.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2015, with the headline 'Unsentimental doer who won affection'. Print Edition | Subscribe