Sunday 18 August 2019

Obituary: Helmut Schmidt

Extraordinary Cold War-era German leader - the likes of whom we will never see again

(FILE PHOTO) Former Chancellor Of West Germany Helmut Schmidt has died aged 96 30th November 1974: West German Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany Helmut Schmidt (1918 - ). (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
(FILE PHOTO) Former Chancellor Of West Germany Helmut Schmidt has died aged 96 30th November 1974: West German Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany Helmut Schmidt (1918 - ). (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

Thomas Molloy

Europe lost an extraordinary leader on Tuesday; the former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt who died at the age of 96. Schmidt was a type of politician almost unknown in Ireland or indeed anywhere else these days; a pragmatic, hard-nosed social democrat who was strong enough to resist pressures from the US and Russia as well as trade unions and capitalists.

Perhaps our nearest equivalent is Ruairi Quinn although the two men had a different style in public with the chain-smoking Schmidt never troubling to conceal his scorn for rivals. Many say it was Schmidt's caustic wit which eventually cost him the top job in 1982 when his junior coalition partner defected to the opposition and made Helmut Kohl chancellor instead.

There are so many facets to Schmidt's character and career that it is difficult to highlight his greatest success, but perhaps his greatest achievement was to be the first normal German leader following the war, much as Garret FitzGerald was, arguably, the first normal Taoiseach; men who got elected without reference to wartime records and without pandering to simplistic nationalist and political sentiments.

Where Schmidt differed from Fitzgerald was in his response to the oil crisis, terrorism and the threats posed by both the Russians and the US.

When the left-leaning Red Army Faction terrorist group murdered industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer in 1977, Schmidt reacted with force so that the RAF's ranks were decimated by arrests and police action. When the RAF responded by hijacking a Lufthansa plane to force Schmidt to release the prisoners, he sent a team of 28 commandos to Mogadishu in Somalia to storm the plane and release the 86 surviving hostages. His magnetic speech in the Bundestag defending his actions at this time should be played in every school in this country to remind children of how Irish politicians at the time reneged on their oaths to uphold the State's security in the same era.

While Schmidt was tough on terrorists and helped defend the West by allowing hundreds of US missiles to be stationed in Germany, he was also unafraid to stand up to American officials and especially Jimmy Carter whom he clearly detested.

"I have always regarded myself as a reliable friend of the United States, but never have I misunderstood an alliance to be a system of control and command," he told The New York Times in 1984. "It's rather a system of advice and consent, if I may borrow a phrase from your Constitution."

Schmidt was a handsome and urbane leader who came from a working-class area of Hamburg and led a life that almost mirrored the life of the Germany in the 20th Century.

Born as the country tasted the defeat of World War I, his family hid their Jewish origins to survive in the Nazi period. Schmidt joined the Hitler Youth and later served in the war on both fronts. He was awarded an Iron Cross before returning his native Hamburg and studying economics.

In his memoirs, he describes entering the bombed remains of Hamburg University with few classrooms or teachers. By the time he graduated, he had more life experiences than most of us gain in a lifetime.

The mixture of economics, military service and a childhood in a tough part of Hamburg during the poverty-stricken Weimar Republic was to shape his outlook on life; a belief in social justice tempered by an understanding of economics and of war. While most of his SPD party espoused pacifist beliefs and opposed German rearmament, Schmidt mastered defence policy and remained a reserve officer in the West German armed forces.

After a period as a civil servant specialising in transport, the 30-year-old became a member of the Bundestag, or national parliament, but became bored and returned to Hamburg to serve as interior minister of the small city state. He once told this writer that all young parliamentarians should use every opportunity for free travel to broaden their mind before taking high office.

Germany's federal structure, like the US system, enables politicians to practise management on a smaller scale before becoming national political leaders. This helped Schmidt to learn the art of politics in Germany's most mercantile city and cemented his national reputation in 1962 when Hamburg was struck by a hurricane that flooded the city and killed 300 people. It was this tragedy that made him; allowing Germans across the country to see his managerial talents and energy as he moved to save the city.

When Willy Brandt became chancellor, Schmidt became defence minister; an office he held for three years. Unlike most defence ministers who are content to do little while waiting for higher office, Schmidt was a dynamo; improving the position of non-commissioned officers, allowing recruits to grow their hair long and developing a new defence strategy that saw Germany join Nato's Euro-group to increase military spending and slash procurement costs. This office was followed by a successful period as finance minister (which included laying the foundations of the euro) and then the chancellorship itself.

Schmidt's eight years in office (1974-82) were characterised by the concerns of that era; OPEC, terrorism, the Cold War and the economy. While deploying his restless energy to dealing with these problems rather more successfully than his Irish or British counterparts, Schmidt also found time to forge warm links with the French president, Giscard d'Estaing, although he never saw eye to eye with his successor and Charlie Haughey mentor Francois Mitterrand. Haughey's views on Schmidt are not known (although he told Schmidt that Ireland was not neutral) but Garret FitzGerald liked Schmidt, whom he described as having a "warm, almost passionate personality".

Schmidt's fall from power as the economy worsened in the early 1980s allowed him to enjoy his other talents.

He played piano at the highest levels, recording three records, including one with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and later became one of the publishers of one of Germany's best newspapers (despite once saying the only newspapers that mattered were The New York Times and the Financial Times).

Until very recently, he was active in newspapers while remaining a fervent smoker who ignored Germany's smoking ban, lighting up in concert halls, newsrooms and even television studios.

Perhaps we will see politicians who can flourish in so many different fields again, but it seems unlikely.

Tom Molloy is Director of Public Affairs and Communications, at Trinity College Dublin. He is the former Group Business Editor at INM.

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