In the end, we seemed to think that he actually was immortal. It was obvious that he was aging and becoming more frail. But that he could actually die one day was a thought that we no longer allowed ourselves to think. When he himself played with the idea that he could be called to meet his maker any day, which he did for at least the last 20 years, we simply laughed it off together. Someone like him doesn't simply relinquish life. It's not possible.
It’s likely that many others -- for whom Helmut Schmidt in recent years was the last constant in a world that has lost its way -- felt the same. Whereas role models in politics, business, the church and the sporting world have fallen one after the other, one German stayed at his post: Helmut Schmidt. Whether at home or abroad, people always asked about his well-being. And there was always that amazement that somebody had apparently found the magical elixir of eternal life. No matter how many cigarettes he smoked and how much Baileys he poured into his coffee -- hadn’t he survived every bypass operation and dizzy spell thus far? And even if he recently ended up in the hospital for dehydration because he had forgotten to drink enough water, which really is quite banal in comparison with coffee and Baileys, the feeling was always: He can do it. Even if he had to launch an insurrection in his hospital room.
Periodically, he would look at the younger generation with benign condescension
But on November 10, he passed away in his home in Hamburg’s Langenhorn neighborhood. It wasn't a particularly merciful death. He suffered bouts of loneliness and sometimes felt -- even if he was Germany's best-known and best-loved patient -- abandoned and forgotten in the hospital, where he spent a few weeks after summer passed and was beset by pain. But death doesn't stop at chancellors, and if there is love in the hours of departure, then only from those to whom one has showed it.
We here at DIE ZEIT aren't alone in having lost a father- and grandfather-figure. Those who so desire may scorn such sentiments as regressive projection: Grown-ups in an emancipated society don't need paternalistic authorities! But such an approach doesn't even come close to acknowledging the true meaning of Helmut Schmidt. He himself joked about his glorified image: People only respect him, Schmidt often said, because of his white hair. Plus, he added, he is an accomplished actor on the political stage. What made him a fascinating figure, though, was not that he remained as time marched on -- to the point that he survived the last of his peers and became an increasingly respected authority as a result.
Schmidt was an interesting study on the difference between politicians and statesmen. He wasn't interested in the fleeting well-being of his party or even that of his government or himself. He was focused on finding solutions and remaining true to his principles, beneath which everything else was subordinated. His adherence to the NATO Double-Track Decision, against both his own party and widespread public opposition, is just one example. Like few others, he was able to dissect problems with surgical precision, distinguishing the unimportant from the important, the effect from the substance, the emotional from the rational. That also made him confident on a personal level. There really wasn't anything one couldn't talk with him about. And when it came to his own weaknesses, particularly as he aged, he exhibited an Anglo-Hanseatic approach: nicely self-deprecating.
Periodically, he would look at the younger generation with benign condescension. For Schmidt -- who was born just weeks after the end of the German Empire, experienced the Nazi period as a soldier and, subsequently, witnessed the establishment of German democracy -- those born later often seemed maladjusted: no serious problems but all kinds of expectations, sensitivities and minor aches and pains. Up until a few years ago, he would frequently utter the following sharp-tongued sentence: "He hasn't yet grown up." And, as is often the case with verdicts that one finds particularly offensive, there was an element of truth to it. Or, he would say: "You can’t judge that. You didn't experience it first-hand" -- mostly in reference to war and the destruction it wrought. Once, I said: "Yes, and I am happy that I didn’t experience it first-hand. I think there can be different ways of growing up." After that, he never uttered the sentence again. It was, after all, possible to contradict him, without him taking offense: yet another characteristic that separated him from most other politicians (and journalists). Those who feared him, and approached him with particular servility as a result, would be confronted in such a manner that they wanted to sink into the ground.
He simply didn’t want to stop working rigorously
Both politically and intellectually, Helmut Schmidt was a great man, and he knew it. In addition, because life is unfair, he was also artistically gifted. But the fact that people really liked him, even crowning him as the most-beloved German, is a late-life phenomenon. Even the convergence with DIE ZEIT 32 years ago was initially challenging. For some on the editorial team, his demeanor was a mid-sized culture shock. The appearance of some editors surely ensured that the shock was mutual. And although he had a good journalistic intuition and an unerring sense for irony in our métier, he never completely warmed to it. He was far too convinced that, when it came to articles about important issues, one had to "labor their way through" them. He only rarely had patience for playful formulations or atmospheric elements. In one cigarette-clouded interview, he was asked whether he feels at least a little bit like a journalist. He answered with a joke that was actually quite serious: "I'm afraid not, and do you know why? (...) Because I just can’t break the habit of working rigorously."
Helmut Schmidt could aggravate people, politically as well. When it came to judgment about the universality of human rights, he found himself at odds with almost our entire editorial staff. The principle of non-intervention was more important to him than any other argument. Equally unsettling was his memory of the Nazi period. Is it really possible to believe that he first registered the immense horrors of the Third Reich as a member of the audience during a trial in the hellish People’s Court under Roland Freisler in 1944? Or that he first learned of the atrocities committed against the Jews after the collapse of Nazi Germany? He, who himself suffered from the fact that his father -- born out of wedlock and considered to be a "half-Jew" under the Nazi’s racial purity laws -- nearly went insane out of fear his true origins might be discovered. Schmidt surely sugarcoated and suppressed, and when he was accused of doing so, he would laconically respond, "I will have to live with the fact that you don’t buy it."