A Life Lived for Germany – Seite 1

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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.

"Only the stupid never doubt"

He wasn’t a fan of weighty proclamations from the state: "I prefer the government to do the right thing rather than to philosophize over the right direction." As a result, some, from the left and the right, accused him of a "narrow view of politics." They failed to see that his view of politics did, in fact, have philosophical roots. It was linked to moral ideals and ethical norms, indebted to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative and Karl Popper’s doctrine of piecemeal social engineering, making changes piece-by-piece and step-by-step. Schmidt was always also a formidable intellect, a philosophical mind and a moralist.

Was he never plagued by doubts about the correctness of his path? "Only the stupid never doubt," he once responded to an interlocutor. But only later did he realize that he had underestimated the burgeoning desire in subsequent generations for individual emancipation and creative political leadership. He was bothered by the 1968 generation’s "primitive Marxism plus anarchism plus desire for violence." He didn’t want the SPD to degenerate into an "umbrella organization for the propagation of minority groups and minority opinions." He thought in terms of the state, not in terms of society. He and those of his generation were perhaps too obsessed with work and too rigorous, he said years later, "to experience and absorb the looseness, the tranquility and the savoir vivre of the new generation."

He retained his passion for rationality throughout the 33 years that passed after he left office. Germans have watched as some ex-chancellors did little more than muse and obsess about the reasons for their fall. But not Helmut Schmidt. He continued to be perpetually active, traveled unceasingly around the world, held speeches and wrote 30 books in 30 years, all of them worth reading and thinking about, all of them bestsellers. In 1993, he also founded the Deutsche Nationalstiftung foundation, aimed at promoting public spirit, civil courage and "the patriotic devotion to one’s own country." As a member of the board of trustees of DIE ZEIT’s own foundation, his voice held decisive sway right up to the end.

More than anything, though, Helmut Schmidt was a part of DIE ZEIT since May 1983. Gerd Bucerius, founder and then-owner of the paper, brought him on board as publisher – and, from 1985 to 1989, as Managing Director of ZEIT Verlag. He wanted to offer Schmidt an intellectual home and workshop. Schmidt accepted the offer; later he referred to it as a "great stroke of luck." The politician became a newspaper man in his old age.

To be sure, it was a clash of cultures. The newsroom had to get used to the constant presence of the ex-chancellor’s bodyguards while Schmidt had to become accustomed to the dirty dishes that littered the corridor late at night after deadline. During job interviews, he rarely failed to ask male applicants if they had served in the military. His memos on the state of the paper were occasionally 40 pages long. Early on, the editor-in-chief wrote him a response of almost equal length: "A newsroom is a pulsing organism, not a hierarchically constructed ministry, and the editor-in-chief is not like a state secretary who can issue orders." Schmidt quickly realized that he would have to force himself to be more patient.

But he never played the chancellor when it came to our editorial staff. He listened, allowed himself to be interrupted and enjoyed even the most disrespectful of disputes. In the beginning, his curiosity and desire to have a say led him to take part in the planning conferences of several sections, but ultimately he limited himself to the editorial meetings of the politics section. Every Friday he arrived punctually at noon, puffing a menthol cigarette or inhaling -- snorting and sniffling -- his Gletscherprise-brand snuff. With a marked-up issue of the paper on the table in front of him, he offered his views – free of abrasiveness, but also free of forced benignity – on the current issue of DIE ZEIT and on current events. He offered his opinion and the gathered journalists offered theirs.

The paper and the ex-chancellor got used to each other, respected each other and learned from one another. In some editorial or publishing crises, Helmut Schmidt played a calming role, emphasizing continuity and stability, even in moments when DIE ZEIT itself was at risk. Even as a publisher, he kept the "empty romanticism of those only interested in intellectualism" – in the critical words of Max Weber – at arm’s length. He remained true to himself. But he also became one of us. He was with DIE ZEIT for 32 years, 10 years longer than he held public office, and four times as long as he was chancellor.

He didn’t need the pedestal of DIE ZEIT to remain visible and to be heard. But he valued the sounding board the paper offered him. When Bucerius brought him to the paper, they spoke of "four significant articles per year." But his contributions were never that limited. From 1983 until today, he wrote 282 articles, most of them extensive analyses. The issues that Helmut Schmidt chose to focus on were those that occupied him and drove him during his active political life. He wrote about the German question, about security and foreign policy, about the global economy, about the degeneration of the free-market economy ("predatory capitalism"), about Europe and his hometown of Hamburg, about common welfare and commonality, about public morals, civil rights and civic duty. It was a broad palette of issues that he repeatedly examined. His articles reflected deep historical knowledge but also showed thorough awareness of current affairs. All of them offered analysis, orientation and prescriptions for action. And all received global attention.

He was an example, a stimulus and an authority

The Germans owe much to Helmut Schmidt. His unerring faith in the constitution, the time-tested staunchness of his heart, his exceptional gift of always being able to find the correct words and appropriate tone – they will never be forgotten. In trying times, he gave the German people security and self-confidence. He increased the country’s standing in the world. Even in his second life, after politics, he was an example, a stimulus and an authority. A portion of the luster that he exuded also rubbed off on DIE ZEIT. The paper bows down in quiet gratitude to its deceased mentor, its colleague and its friend.

Part of the brilliance that Schmidt emitted also rubbed off on DIE ZEIT.

Years ago, Helmut Schmidt began fondly reciting a four-line poem by 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." He fulfilled his promise. Now, he has gone his last mile.

I met Helmut Schmidt for the first time more than a half a century ago during the summer of 1961. We shared a compartment in the sleeper car on a train from Geneva, where the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies had held its annual conference. We conversed for half the night about security and defense over Fürstenberg Pils brand beer. It was the beginning of an exchange of ideas about global policy that would continue for decades. Our life paths crossed over and over again in a very strange way. In 1969, he hired me at the Defense Ministry, where I was charged with building a planning staff and writing the 1970 "white book" reviewing Germany’s security situation. In 1983, after he was pushed out of the Chancellery, Gerd Bucerius hired him as publisher of DIE ZEIT. We became friends in a very Hanseatic way: We referred to each other by first name, but also used the formal version of "you." Still, we were very close, even when we had differences of opinion.

The last time he fell ill, I sent him a short note, which pleased him. But I also wanted to see him as quickly as possible, cheer him up and talk about everyday politics. So I decided to simply show up unannounced last weekend. On Saturday morning, I drove over to his place with a small pouch of Baileys that my secretary Eva Bontzas had provided – Baileys was the only alcoholic drink that Schmidt really liked to drink. When I arrived, I was met by one of his security agents. "You’re not going to be able to visit him," he told me. "The boss didn’t sleep at all last night. Now he’s sleeping and I don’t know when he will wake up."

Helmut Schmidt never did wake up. I am now mourning the loss of a friend who meant a lot to me. At his grave, I will recite Matthias Claudius: "Ah, they have buried a good man, but to me he was more."

Translated by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey


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