In the past century, the Germans have produced but a few major statesmen of whom they can be proud. Helmut Schmidt was one of them. He now fills a prominent position in this country’s legion of honor -- but it is a position that he long ago took up in the hearts of its people. They will cherish a respectful and indeed loving memory of him as the man who tamed the massive and historic Hamburg flood of 1962 through his crisis management as the city’s police senator; as the man who declared war against the leftist terrorists with the Red Army Faction (RAF) and forced them to their knees at the airport in Mogadishu during the 1977 liberation of 86 hostages aboard the hijacked Lufthansa aircraft Landshut; as the economic policymaker who kept the country on course during the maelstrom of two oil crises; and as Praeceptor Germaniae, the former German chancellor who increasingly transcended the country’s political parties, including his own.
Historic stature is relative, bound to the conditions and needs of the moment. Helmut Schmidt’s greatness was of a different kind than that of Konrad Adenauer or Willy Brandt because his era was a different one. He didn’t have to lay foundations and he couldn’t just start from scratch. He had actually wanted to become an architect and city planner. But when he became Germany’s chancellor in May of 1974 -- unexpectedly and against his own will and expectations -- the era of the architect had, for the moment, come to an end.
The main pillars of German foreign policy were already set in place: the integration of West Germany into the framework of the European Community as well as the Atlantic Alliance had been completed by Adenauer; and the opening to the East had been initiated by Brandt. Structures had also been put in place domestically: the social market economy, dynamic pensions, the creation of the West German armed forces and the German Emergency Acts. It was not a time for architects. Schmidt had to get Germans used to normalcy. He had to stay true to the West while opening up to the East, he had to exhibit loyalty to the alliance while pursuing détente, he had to show a willingness to defend Germany while being open to disarmament. And all of that had to be forged into a new raison d’etat. He wasn’t authoritarian in the way Adenauer had been. Nor did he forge ahead with the certainty of salvation the way Brandt had done. He relied on reason and tried to find a clientele for it at a time in which leadership was proving ever more difficult due to a crumbling of the social consensus. But make history? Politicians who have this as their primary aim, he once said, routinely fail. His main concern was carrying on. Crisis management consumed a lot of his time. That alone was difficult enough for the German chancellor.
Much later, he would confess, "I never wanted this office. I was afraid of it." As he always did, though, he lived up to his obligation. The effects of the oil crises of 1973/74 and 1979/80 were a burden during his terms as chancellor. Economic growth remained frozen for a time and inflation temporarily rose to seven percent, a number that led to unemployment rising from half a million when he took office to 1.8 million. At the same time, the policies of détente were overshadowed by lasting rivalry between the superpowers in the Third World; from the threat posed to West Germany by Soviet SS-20 intermediate range missiles during the second half of the 1970s; from Moscow’s Afghanistan adventure (1979); and, finally, by the imposition of martial law in Poland (1981). Additionally, he faced the challenge posed by terrorism. Shortly before Schmidt entered office, a bloody series of attacks by the RAF began with the murder of Günter von Drenkmann, president of the Berlin Kammergericht court. The attacks kept Germans on tenterhooks for the next three years.
Schmidt dealt with terrorism by remaining unyielding, determined and steely. In 1975, when members of the RAF kidnapped Peter Lorenz, the chairman of the Berlin chapter of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, Schmidt, lying in bed with a high fever, agreed to the release of five terrorists serving prison sentences. He would later say that this was a serious mistake. But afterward, he remained unbending –- in 1975 during the occupation of the West German Embassy in Stockholm and the 1977 kidnapping of Hanns Martin Schleyer, the president of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations. If the storming of the Landshut and the rescue of the hostages had not been successful, no one would have been able to talk him out of resigning. Schleyer’s murder shook him, and he shouldered it with the humble awareness of failure and guilt -- in the sense of Max Weber’s doctrine that all action, but especially political action, is interwoven with tragedy.
A week after Schleyer’s murder, Helmut Schmidt gave a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London in which he pointed out the new threat the SS-20 presented to Europe. This became the nucleus of the NATO Double-Track Decision of December 1979, which made provisions for the stationing of 108 Pershing and 464 cruise missiles in Europe, a large share of them in West Germany, while proposing disarmament negotiations with the Soviets at the same time. If the Kremlin were to agree to withdraw its medium-range missiles, the West would forego the deployment of the Pershings and cruise missiles. The Double-Track Decision signaled to the Soviets that the Atlantic Alliance would not allow itself to be blackmailed. At the same time, it gave a powerful boost to the peace movement in the Federal Republic of Germany. The number of skeptics and opponents also grew within Schmidt’s own center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). In the end, the chancellor was almost entirely isolated within his party. But history would prove him right. Ten years after the London speech and five years after he left office, following the collapse of his government coalition, Helmut Schmidt experienced the gratification of Mikhail Gorbachev agreeing to the "zero option" that he had strived for from the very beginning.
Schmidt was also a formidable intellect.
In the end, Schmidt also lacked SPD support for his economic policies. He had guided the country through two global economic crises with a steady hand, but now the tax and contribution ratio, the tax burden and public borrowing were all increasing. Investments also fell by a third. The tax system had to be changed, and Schmidt also wanted to make that happen. But when he read the riot act to the SPD’s parliamentary group in June 1982 about its budget policies, his message fell on deaf ears. His government ultimately failed because of the SPD and not because of its junior coalition partner, the business friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), which triggered its collapse by withdrawing its four cabinet ministers. The only thing left for Schmidt was to stage his own departure in the most elegant manner possible.
What remains are memories of a statesmen who derived his greatness from his sense of duty. He governed soberly, competently and resolutely. He was realistic, discerning and decisive. Yet his decisions were always preceded by extensive, in-depth deliberations and consultations. For him, governing was not about just getting by or political survival, it was about disciplined steps taken toward a concrete goal. On the global stage, Schmidt pursued German and European interests in a determined, eloquent and efficient manner that commanded respect. Domestically, he sought – even in difficult times – to maintain rationality, which acted as a protective shield against fads and emotion. He abhorred excitability and wishful thinking. "In politics, emotion and passion have no place, aside from the passion for rationality," was his motto.