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The life of Helmut Schmidt – An Obituary

The Life of Helmut Schmidt - An Obituary
The Life of Helmut Schmidt - An Obituary
© Wikimedia Commons

Helmut Schmidt, Chancellor of West Germany between May, 1974, and October, 1982, died 10 November 2015.  Yesterday would have been his 99th birthday.  Schmidt also served as West Germany’s Minister for Finance, Minister for Economics, and Minister for Defense.  He worked for and with such illustrious German public figures as Georg Leber, Gerhard Schröder, Willy Brandt, Hans Friderichs, Karl Schiller, and Hans Apel.  In other words, Schmidt was a mover and a shaker in West Germany and on the world stage, on a par with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.  Helmut Schmidt was a statesman.

The Style of Leadership of Helmut Schmidt

In 1976, Schmidt wrote in The New York Times that West Germany’s political and social stability were rooted in many things, primarily in social security, union and commercial autonomy, and the weight given not only to fiscal and economic policy, but also in social policy, particularly in the “education and career training of our young people.”  He also emphasized West Germany’s persistent “humanization of work conditions” all within the framework of collective bargaining between labor and management.  “The government and parliament would not even dream of changing this.  In our experience, there exists no better solution.”  This steady, guiding hand unquestionably had a more effective and more reliable role in the eventual disintegration of the so-called Communist Bloc than did the weaponry and saber-rattling of the Cold War.  That’s what statesmen do:  they engage their nation’s people and they shape government policies to the benefit of those people, almost always to the envy of onlookers and rivals.

Schmidt’s strong reliance on collective bargaining paid off magnificently for West Germany’s economy—West Germany’s middle class is probably the largest and healthiest in Europe and West Germany’s business community is the envy of all Europe.  “I am profoundly convinced of the fundamental social and political necessity of broad codetermination,” Helmut Schmidt wrote.  Labor and management dealt so intimately with one another that the problems of one inevitably became the problems of both and guided both—usually wary and mistrustful on one another—toward seeking common solutions.  “This, I believe, creates a climate in which Labor refrains from excessive demands and generally asks for only what is reasonable.”

Schmidt’s Influence on Germany in the 80s

As reported by The New York Times’s correspondent John Vinocur in 1980, one of Schmidt’s (unnamed) political colleagues in Hamburg described his positive attributes as “lightning intelligence, vast technical expertise, pragmatism, and tirelessness,” his negative attributes as “permanent irritability, a tendency to depression, know-it-allism, and arrogance,” topped off, as it were, with the ultimately liability at the time of “being German.”  The summer of 1980 was a turning point for West Germany and it was launched by Schmidt, who, earlier in the summer, had progressed from the earlier, self-effacing German line “that West Germany really was not an economic giant,” to the robust assertion that, second only to the United States, West Germany’s “. . . financial and commercial strength is the greatest in the world.”  Bear in mind that not only was this true, but also that it was true only 35 years after the dust and the rubble of World War II.
To call West Germany’s rise a miracle does a disservice to the intelligence, education, experience, common sense, and persistence of West Germany’s post-war leaders, of whom Helmut Schmidt was probably one of the most inspiring at home and abroad.  Schmidt’s savvy Weltanschauung gave him the vision to see further into the world’s political and economic future than could almost all his contemporaries.

The Policy of Helmut Schmidt

Schmidt’s policy was to try to set himself above the fray, i.e., to assess political and economic events and problems objectively and pragmatically—a stance often criticized by his supporters as being unemotional, and by his prickly critics as being downright insensitive.  Schmidt knew, as do all insightful individuals, that, when confronted by a problem, emotion is a fatal flaw.  Regrettably, he did not factor in voters’ emotions.  Once he had triggered their doubt in his effectiveness, he realized that his political future would rapidly wind down.  In an unguarded moment, Schmidt asserted that the Palestinians’ pursuit of self-determination vis-à-via Israel was no less valid than West Germany’s pursuit self-determination for all Germans—both in West Germany and in East Germany.  Then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin denounced Schmidt’s motives and comments.  Begin focused particularly on Schmidt’s failure to mention Jews in his earlier apology for the misery and harm Germany had caused other nations in World War II.  Schmidt privately told colleagues that Germany could no longer allow its domestic or foreign policy to be hobbled by the guilt of World War II.
The slur that Schmidt was unemotional, even icy, was no more than a handy criticism for those who could not find true fault in his policies or procedures, but his assessment of the world more than 30 years ago is as valid today as it was then.  He visited Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A., for a week in April, 1985, during which time he said that the West lacked “a common grand strategy,” implying, rightfully, that the petty and vicious infighting, both political and commercial, of the so-called western allies sapped their moral strength and handicapped their political and economic strengths.

Schmidt’s four Yale University lectures were to be held in a hall intended for no more than 300 attendees.  More than 1,000 showed up for the first lecture.  The venue had to be changed at the last minute—for all the lectures—to the Yale Law School’s auditorium.  That is a measure of the respect, even awe, in which Yale University students and faculty held Schmidt.

Schmidt was recognized and revered as a strong leader because he routinely disdained the posturing of politicians, both domestic and foreign.  He knew what the world was about and he had the confidence to be blunt about how things were and how the West should proceed.  He fell victim, as have so many great leaders, to the inability of those he led to keep the faith.  Schmidt’s leadership was the leadership Havelock Ellis described when he wrote “To be a leader of men, one must turn one’s back on men.”

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