He wasn’t afraid of dying. Helmut Schmidt spoke about death in many a conversation in recent years. At times he was flippant, saying, "I should have been sent to the cemetery long ago!" At others he was melancholy. He shared the fate of all those who get to such an advanced age: It gets very lonely. Almost all of his close friends had already died, most recently novelist Siegfried Lenz and former German President Richard von Weizsäcker.
Helmut Schmidt wasn’t afraid of dying, but he still hung on to life. He remained intellectually active right up to the end. Despite having been confined to a wheelchair in his final years and his struggle with some physical infirmities, his workload remained massive. He read nonstop – at home, in his office, in the car – and his reading was in no way limited to newspaper articles. He read through EU reports and embassy analyses, through draft legislation and parliamentary transcripts. At night he read philosophy and history books in addition to literary classics.
Schmidt was certain he lived to such an advanced age because he never quit working. More important, though, is that he never ceased being curious. He would barrage anyone who visited him with questions. Whether they were politicians, diplomats, the president of a central bank or journalists, they all had to report to him about all the latest developments – and he wanted it all in detail.
He would sit in his office on the sixth floor of DIE ZEIT’s headquarters behind a desk enveloped in cigarette smoke, with his windows and doors closed. From his window, he had a view of the Elbphilharmonie concert hall, the Bismarck monument, St. Michael’s Church and Hamburg’s spectacular skyline. But he didn’t pay it any mind. Instead he had questions. As he asked them, he would sip his coffee, which he took with a lot of sugar and, often, a shot of Baileys. He didn’t need much else to hold him over between breakfast and dinner.
It may be hard for outsiders to believe it, but Helmut Schmidt did in fact come to the office three or often four times a week right up until close before his death. He would show up on Fridays at 12 p. m. on the nose for the weekly editorial meeting of the Politics Desk, often the first person to turn up. It was almost always Schmidt who started the meeting. "I have a question," he would say.
Often he was expressing a firm opinion in the guise of a question. It might have been about Ukraine, Greece, Obama or the German government’s refugee policies. He wanted to discuss everything, but he also wanted to hear counter arguments. During his 32 years with DIE ZEIT, Helmut Schmidt participated in around 1,500 Friday editorial meetings. There was not a single person on our staff who was not proud to be able to participate in those meetings with him.
We were proud and also mesmerized by his unflappable creativity. Year after year, Helmut Schmidt would present a new book. They included weighty volumes of his memoirs as well as smaller books intended as his contribution to current debates on subjects ranging from German unity to China to dog-eat-dog capitalism. Was there any other political writer out there in the past three decades whose name was on the DER SPIEGEL bestseller list more often and longer than his?
Helmut Schmidt calmly and self-confidently took note of the fact that his standing had become immeasurably high among Germans. Those who traveled with him and shared his experiences – the awe and respect showed by people who encountered him on the train or in planes – got an idea of just how loved this very down-to-earth and often curt Northern German was.
Not that Helmut Schmidt found the respect to be particularly excessive. Schmidt was well aware of his influence and his standing in international politics. He had harsh judgment for those who didn’t conform to his high standards. At the same time, he was very conscientious about maintaining friendships that were important to him.
Touchingly, he made the effort to bid farewell to his friends abroad. In New York, he met up one last time with Henry Kissinger and George Schultz. In Singapore and Beijing, he met with Lee Kuan Yew and Zhu Rongji. In Moscow, Vladimir Putin held a dinner reception for him. His final trip abroad took him to Vienna, to a meeting of the Inter Action Council, one of the circles of former heads of states and governments he created.
In the end, Schmidt also traveled less in Germany. What he did love doing right up to the very end was taking short trips to places in Northern Germany that were special to him, places like the art colonies Worpswede and Fischerhude, the city of Lübeck, the Elbe River and Brahmsee lake near Kiel.
He also continued working. He gave interviews to his colleagues at DIE ZEIT – on the end of World War II or about his erstwhile political rival, former German defense minister Franz Josef Strauss, on the eve of what would have been his hundredth birthday. He also wrote editorials in which he argued for German solidarity with Greece. Then, at almost 97 years of age, his strength began to fade.
What will life be like in our Hamburg offices at Speersort without Helmut Schmidt? We are all gripped by a tremendous sense of sadness. After the deaths of Gerd Bucerius, a DIE ZEIT founder, and former publisher Marion Dönhoff, it was Schmidt who guarded over this newspaper and its welfare. In the past, when Helmut Schmidt turned in a manuscript, we would instinctively sniff it because they carried the scent of his office, one in which the haze of cigarettes was so strong you could have smoked a herring in it. There will be no more manuscripts. The air will likely get better, but the building is going to feel very empty.
In his final years, Helmut Schmidt liked to cite a verse from American poet Robert Frost. "The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep."
Helmut, dear friend, may you rest in peace.
Translated by Daryl Lindsey
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