Tuesday 27 September 2016

West German chancellor best known for backing US missiles in Europe during Brezhnev era

Published 11/11/2015 | 02:30

Helmut Schmidt
Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt, who has died aged 96, dominated the European stage more than any other politician during the 1970s as chancellor of West Germany; his eight years in office (1974-82) were marked by his restless energy and personal command of such difficult areas as defence and finance.

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Schmidt led from the front, a quality appreciated by voters but ultimately scorned by his Social Democratic Party (SPD). Its Leftward drift in the early 1980s let him down and condemned it to the opposition benches for much longer than could have been expected.

Small in stature and, physically, surprisingly frail, Schmidt was a tough, terrier-like politician, impatient of mediocrity. He had an intellectual breadth and versatility rare among modern German politicians, and he knew it. He was especially hurt that a man of much less obvious talent, Helmut Kohl, should unseat him as Chancellor through the political treachery of his Liberal coalition partners rather than by the ballot box.

None the less, physically exhausted by the exigencies of his hands-on approach to government, Schmidt might have enjoyed a shorter life had he had a longer spell in office. An over-active thyroid condition was diagnosed in 1972. This required constant medication, and in 1981, overtaxed by work, he had a heart pacemaker fitted.

When, the following year, he lost his job as chancellor, he was at least cushioned by his interests outside politics - notably music, in which he was an accomplished performer.

His contribution to German, European and Alliance politics was great, and will be remembered especially for its uncompromising stance on defence in the face of the Soviet arms build-up during the Brezhnev years.

He thus became the chief architect and protagonist of Nato's so-called "dual track" decision to counter Moscow's SS-20 medium-range rocket arsenal by stationing American Cruise and Pershing-II missiles in Europe.

His stand incurred the displeasure of his party's Left wing but Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan in December 1980 only strengthened Schmidt's resolve.

In the end, Schmidt's determination may have contributed to his losing power in Germany, but it was undoubtedly a factor in the collapse of Communism across eastern Europe and the Soviet Union at the end of the decade. Disarmament followed.

A committed European, Schmidt will also be remembered as the joint architect in 1978 - with French President Giscard d'Estaing - of the European Monetary System, in which the robust German currency was destined to play a pivotal role. He could thus claim to be a pioneer of European Monetary Union.

Typically for a native of Hamburg, he was prone to Anglophilia.

He spoke good English, and was keen to see Britain at the centre of Europe, although he well understood British reservations.

As a musician, Schmidt especially loved Bach, Mozart and Brahms, and he was a pianist of near-professional standard.

Helmut Heinrich Waldemar Schmidt was born on December 23 1918 - six weeks after the Armistice - in Barmbeck, a tough working-class district of Hamburg.

His father, Gustav, was a schoolmaster who lived to see his son lead his country, dying in 1981 at the age of 92.

Like the other boys at his school, the young Schmidt joined the Hitler Youth, and in 1937, aged 18, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. He served with an anti-aircraft battery on the Russian Front in 1941-42 and was was decorated with the Iron Cross.

In 1974 the Chancellorship was thrust upon Schmidt following the resignation of Willy Brandt, whose personal assistant had been found to be an East German spy. A period of strong leadership followed, with West Germany playing a valued role shouldering responsibility in Europe and the Alliance.

But gradually his authority was eroded, until he was left in the lurch by his erstwhile Liberal allies and ousted by Helmut Kohl in October 1982.

Schmidt derived much strength from his marriage, in 1942, to Hannelore Glaser, whom he had known since childhood and who died in 2010.

They had a son, who died in infancy during the war years, and a daughter, who survives him. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Helmut Schmidt, born December 23 1918, died November 10 2015

Irish Independent

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