Helmut Schmidt, 1918–2015: A German ‘Macher’

Tuesday, November 10, 2015
Image credit: 
Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F048646-0033 / Wegmann, Ludwig / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Helmut Schmidt died on Tuesday, November 10 at the age of 96. He had served as Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1974 until 1982 during a decisive phase in the history of German democracy, facing the twin challenges of terrorism and Soviet aggression. His leadership, increasingly against the left wing of his own Social Democratic Party, led important victories in the precursor to the “war on terror” and strengthened NATO, paving the way to the end of the Cold War in 1989. This is a legacy worthy of admiration.

Schmidt’s life spanned nearly a century of European history. Born in 1918, barely a month after the German defeat in the First World War and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm, Schmidt grew up in Hamburg, a city with which he remained deeply identified. Hitler came to power when Schmidt was 15. He became a member of the Hitler youth, but he soon faced sanctions due to his anti-Nazi views. Conscripted into the army in 1937, he rose into the officer ranks. He participated in the siege of Leningrad. Returning to Germany, he served as army observer at the infamous Volksgerichtshof trial of the conspirators of the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. The crude politicization of the proceedings by the presiding judge, Roland Freisler, left Schmidt disgusted. When the war ended, Schmidt was on the western front and was taken prisoner of war by British forces.


Schmidt rose through the ranks of the Social Democratic Party and was elected to the Bundestag in 1953 where he gained a reputation for forceful polemic. In the late fifties, he left the parliament to return to Hamburg to become the Interior Minister, proving himself to be an effective and pragmatic manager, a Macher, someone who could get things done. His leadership became particularly important when he took over the response to the devastating flooding of 1962, when he probably overstepped—or at least, very much stretched—his legal authority by taking control of army units to save the day. The incident foreshadowed much of Schmidt’s career: his politics involved practical grappling with real world challenges, which set him apart from the ideological visionaries on the left of the SPD, and he was prepared to push against the limits of the permissible to accomplish what was necessary, as would become particularly clear in the campaign against terrorism.

Schmidt returned to the Bundestag in 1965. When the charismatic Willi Brandt became the first Social Democratic Chancellor of West Germany, Schmidt became Defense Minister and later Minister of Finances. Yet in 1974, Schmidt took on the Chancellorship when Brandt had to step down due to an espionage affair. One of his personal assistants, Günter Guillaume, was discovered to be an East German agent—this was the height of a very real Cold War.

This was also the era in which remnants of the radical movements of the 1960s were sliding into forms of terrorism and extremism. One of the notorious groupings was the Red Army Faction, the so-called “Baader-Meinhof” group, named after two founders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. In April 1977, the Attorney General of the Federal Republic, Siegfried Buback, was assassinated, followed by the murder of Jürgen Ponto, head of the Dresdener Bank in June. In September, the RAF kidnapped Hanns-Martin Schleyer, head of the German Industrial Association, in an attempt to force the Schmidt government to release imprisoned terrorists. Yet Schmidt held firm and refused to negotiate. In response, the RAF and its international ally, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, hijacked a Lufthansa passenger plane, which eventually landed in Mogadishu, Somalia. It was Schmidt’s decision to order a raid on the plane, led by the special GSG 9 unit that had been formed in response to the Palestinian terrorist attack on the Munich Olympics in 1972. The raid was successful, and the passengers were freed. In response, back in Germany, several of the imprisoned RAF members committed suicide.

The West German experience with terrorism, sometimes referred to as the “German Autumn,” bears Schmidt’s signature. It was he who authorized the tough stance against negotiations and it was he who chose the bold path of the raid on the hijacked plane, thousands of miles away from Germany. It was also on Schmidt’s watch that legislation was adopted to facilitate the prosecution of the campaign against terror in ways that left liberal critics worried about threats to civil liberties and privacy concerns. In retrospect, the German Autumn anticipated events after 9/11: the war on terror and subsequent debates over surveillance.


Modest steps toward détente between East and West during the 1970s had a particular significance for divided Germany. Yet the Iron Curtain remained firmly in place. In 1979, the Soviet Union launched a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan, and it ramped up its capacity for medium range missiles in Central Europe with the SS-20s, with a range of 5000 kilometers and high target accuracy. Mounted on mobile transport units, they could also evade easy localization. Schmidt regarded this missile generation as a threat to the military balance in Europe. In December 1979, NATO adopted its so-called double decision, authorizing the stationing of its own nuclear missiles, the Pershing IIs and the Tomahawks, while calling for superpower negotiations to limit this new arms race. West Germany became the center of a popular “peace movement” against the NATO plans, drawing on the far left but reaching well into the center left of the SPD. Schmidt found himself increasingly opposed by his own party base. Nonetheless, he held his ground in the face of mass demonstrations, which grew particularly large and vociferous when Ronald Reagan visited Germany in June of 1982.

In this context, the German liberal party, the FDP, began to pull away from the SPD, signaling an inherent weakness in the governing coalition. But the Schmidt government was also losing effectiveness due to economic conditions. In October 1982 Schmidt lost a no confidence vote in the Bundestag and was replaced by Helmut Kohl. However, at least with regard to NATO, the double decision, and the missiles, the Kohl government maintained Schmidt’s firm stance. This missiles showdown contributed significantly to the eventual collapse of Soviet power.


After his years as Chancellor, Schmidt stayed on in the Bundestag until 1986, when he finally left active politics. He became co-publisher of the influential weekly Die Zeit and remained an active commentator on political matters, appearing often in television discussions. He supported the European currency union, opposed Turkish membership in the EU, criticized Angela Merkel’s handling of the Euro crisis and Greek debt, and declared the climate debate to be “overheated.”

West Germany has a conservative political history. In its sixty-six years, since it’s founding in 1949, only twenty have been under SPD chancellors: Willi Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder. Brandt suffered from depressions and left office in the shadow of the spy scandal. Schröder initiated important economic reforms but his legacy has been eclipsed by his poor judgment after his years as Chancellor, during which he has shown himself to be a close friend and associate of Vladimir Putin and an apologist for Russian expansionism. In contrast, Schmidt’s accomplishments stand out as solid and enduring: he helped defeat terrorism, and he helped defeat the Soviet military. These are the practical accomplishments of a man who could get things done.