‘A statesman,” quipped Harry S. Truman, “is a politician who’s been dead 10 or 15 years.” That wasn’t true for the “little haberdasher” who built an American-led global order from scratch in the 1940s. Nor is it true for Helmut Schmidt, the chancellor of West Germany from 1974 to 1982. Mr. Schmidt died Tuesday at the age of 96.
Statesmen—think Churchill or Lincoln—are born in adversity, halfway between triumph and tragedy. Mr. Schmidt faced his first test in 1977 when West Germany, assaulted by homegrown terrorism, was tottering on the edge of internal war. The Baader-Meinhof Gang, the self-styled “Red Army Faction,” was murdering bankers, industrialists and prosecutors.
The RAF’s strategy was a classic one: provoke the state into shedding its liberal-democratic mask by forcing it into an unchecked repression that would unleash a revolution. The climax was the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane to Somalia. The terrorists had stuffed the aircraft with explosives, and Mr. Schmidt confronted a deadly demand: Release our jailed comrades, or you will have the blood of 86 hostages on your hands.
The chancellor had to make an existential choice, and he chose well. He dispatched a special-forces unit, the GSG-9, to Mogadishu. The troopers stormed the plane at midnight, saving the captives. That night, Mr. Schmidt confided to his staff that he would have resigned if the rescue had turned into a bloodbath.
In those years, Mr. Schmidt, a former Luftwaffe officer, probably saved Germany’s still untested young democracy. Terror was defanged, but not at the cost of liberty or the rule of law. Today, Germany is arguably the most liberal polity in Europe.
Mr. Schmidt’s second ordeal came two years later. It was the last high-pitched confrontation in the Cold War. The Soviets had deployed nuclear missiles capable of striking all of Europe but not the U.S. Posing a “separate threat,” Mr. Schmidt argued, these rockets would “decouple” European from American security, allowing Moscow to dominate the Continent. To “recouple,” Mr. Schmidt laid out a “dual-track” solution: Either the Soviets cease and desist, or NATO would field U.S. cruise and Pershing II missiles to restore the balance.
West Germany was the linchpin of the counterdeployment, and the Kremlin did its worst to terrorize the country, funding left-wing groups and threatening first strikes. Millions of Germans thronged the cities to keep the Pershings out of the country. Mr. Schmidt’s own Social Democrats abandoned him. Yet he refused to be cowed. In the end he was ousted by Helmut Kohl and the Christian Democrats.
The irony can’t be topped. Mr. Kohl did deploy, and three years later Mikhail Gorbachevcaved: zero missiles on either side. For reasons of state, Mr. Schmidt had sacrificed his own career, and Mr. Kohl reaped the rewards. Yet for Mr. Schmidt, the best was yet to come.
In the next decades, he achieved what no prime minister has ever accomplished. Writing about a book a year, Mr. Schmidt consorted with Chinese party chiefs and American presidents. His office at the weekly Die Zeit, where he served first as publisher, then as nonexecutive editor, became a place of pilgrimage for his successors and the world’s high and mighty. “Schmidt the Lip,” as he was known, grew into an avuncular oracle, holding forth on world politics and economics. Over time, he became Germany’s unanointed head of state, a guru to the nation.
Once harsh to the point of arrogance, this exemplar of the German officer caste donned the persona of a kindly grandfather. Polls consistently ranked him as “most revered” among Germany’s still-living chancellors. Yet inside, this three-pack-a-day chain smoker retained his core of steel.
When George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, used to convene the world’s former greats at Stanford University, the finale was a dinner at the university’s museum where smoking amid the paintings comes with a death penalty. One year, hardly seated, Mr. Schmidt started puffing away. A Shultz minion approached deferentially: “Excuse me, Mr. Chancellor, but you can’t smoke here.” Mr. Schmidt did what he always did in editorial meetings when challenged, by strategically deploying his partial deafness: “What? I can’t hear you!” After several hapless tries, with Mr. Schmidt blowing smoke at her, the woman withdrew—returning with an ashtray.
This tale holds two morals. One: Real statesmen aren’t deflected by the jejune concerns of normal mortals. They know how to get their way and to stick to their guns—or cigarettes. Second: They are shielded by a higher authority. As Henry Kissinger mused at Mr. Schmidt’s 90th birthday: “Helmut, if I had known that one can make it to 90 on 60 cigarettes a day, I would have started smoking 30 years ago.”
On that occasion, Mr. Schmidt’s old friend also wrote the fitting epitaph: “I hope that he will survive me. The world would be an empty place without him.”
Mr. Joffe is editor of Die Zeit, a position he shared with Helmut Schmidt. He also teaches political science at Stanford, where he is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.