Helmut Schmidt, German ex-chancellor, dead aged 96

A Wehrmacht veteran whose grandfather was Jewish, German leader will be remembered for realpolitik, dealing with terrorism

Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt speaking in Berlin on October 30, 2012. (Thomas Peter/AFP)
Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt speaking in Berlin on October 30, 2012. (Thomas Peter/AFP)

Former West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who died Tuesday at age 96, was an inveterate European, master of realpolitik, and a straight-talking elder statesman who commanded respect and headlines into his twilight years.

Schmidt led then-West Germany from 1974 to 1982 as it rose to become a global economic powerhouse.

A centrist from the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Schmidt steered the country through a bloody wave of terror by far-left radicals from the Red Army Faction (RAF), preached free-market economics to his party and embodied cool-headed pragmatic politics in a Europe riven by the Iron Curtain.

Leading tributes to the man she described as “a political institution of our country”, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Schmidt was “an authority whose advice and judgment meant something to me”.

President Joachim Gauck said Germany had lost “a great statesman, a person who was so much for us: a politician and publicist, a man of action and an admonisher, but above all, a democrat, a man who knows that freedom also means responsibility and who took on this responsibility.”

French President Francois Hollande simply called him “a great European.”

Co-publisher of the influential liberal weekly Die Zeit, Schmidt continued to play an active part in international economic debate, including criticizing Merkel during the eurozone debt crisis for lacking financial savvy.

He was a popular guest on television chat shows, always granted special dispensation to flout a smoking ban while holding forth with the laconic brand of wit prized in his native port city of Hamburg.

From early on in his political career, Schmidt was capable of sarcasm and impatience, and his delivery of often unconventional views kept him in the public eye decades after retiring.

German media recently grouped him among “Russia apologists” after he expressed understanding for President Vladimir Putin‘s actions in Ukraine.

As a political commentator, conservative daily Die Welt said, Schmidt’s “bite and punchline” earned him great respect across the political spectrum.

Not so apologetic


Unlike his SPD predecessor Willy Brandt, news weekly Der Spiegel noted in December 2013, Schmidt didn’t opt for grand gestures or seminal speeches to break with Germany‘s past. In another contrast to Brandt, who fled abroad to escape arrest by the Nazis, Schmidt served in Hitler’s Wehrmacht.

“He was not loved, but respected,” Der Spiegel said, noting Schmidt’s knack for pearls of wisdom. “No storm in world affairs seemed to affect his calmness.”

Born in Hamburg in 1918, Schmidt was the grandson of a docker, and his father, a teacher, was the illegitimate son of a Jewish banker — though the family succeeded in hiding its Jewish roots from the Nazi regime.

Once in government Schmidt faced difficult challenges, including conflict in the Middle East and a dramatic hike in oil prices that sparked an economic crisis.

He firmly believed in the Atlantic alliance, although he became exasperated by then-US president Jimmy Carter. He also forged a close partnership with French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, with whom he helped launch the forerunner to G7 summits of industrialized nations.

In 1977, when Palestinian terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa plane and demanded the release of jailed leaders of the extreme-left RAF, Schmidt ordered the aircraft be stormed.

In the same year, three high-profile figures including a federal prosecutor were killed in a wave of RAF assassinations, bombings and kidnappings that shook West Germany throughout the decade.

“Helmut Schmidt was undoubtedly one of the great Germans of the 20th century,” World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder was quoted by the Wall Street Journal. “When terrorists struck during the 1970s, he refused to be blackmailed and stood his ground. He stood with America when it came to defending the West against Soviet expansionism.”

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