Assured leader of the German centre-left

Helmut Schmidt: December 23rd, 1918 - November 10th, 2015

Helmut Schmidt: handsome, witty and supremely self-possessed, he was a magnetic speaker and a pugnacious debater. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

Helmut Schmidt: handsome, witty and supremely self-possessed, he was a magnetic speaker and a pugnacious debater. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

 

Helmut Schmidt, a former West German chancellor who has died aged 96, combined personal dynamism, managerial brilliance and an often acid-tongued impatience to push his country into a prominent international role as the cold war entered its penultimate decade.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, on hearing of his death, praised him as “a political institution” in Germany and a source of “advice and judgment I valued”. Schmidt, a social democrat, had not shied from criticising her policies as leader of the social democrats’ main political rivals, the conservative Christian Democratic Union.

He was for decades one of West Germany’s most popular politicians. With a firm jaw and intense grey eyes, he was handsome, witty and supremely self-possessed. In public he was a magnetic speaker and a pugnacious debater. As recently as 2013, in a poll by Stern magazine, he was ranked as Germany’s most significant chancellor.

“We Germans have lost a father figure,” said current foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, one of a generation of social democratic leaders formed by Schmidt, Willy Brandt and the pursuit of detente with the Soviet bloc in the 1970s.

Unlike his more accommodating predecessors, he openly jousted with the United States over global economics and relations with the Soviet Union. He barely concealed his disdain for President Jimmy Carter, a novice in international affairs, and his wariness of a bellicose Ronald Reagan.

Pro-business

Social Democratic Party

Working with his close friend President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing of France, he helped soften European distrust of his country over its Nazi past.

Schmidt was confident – too confident, some said – about his ability to sustain prosperity in West Germany. Under his stewardship, his nation fared better than the rest of Europe during the economic crisis of the 1970s. But he was criticised in the early 1980s for having failed to prepare West Germans for a recession. Still, he remained popular, in no small part because of the enormous affection Germans felt for his down-to-earth wife, Hannelore (Loki) Schmidt (née Glaser), a biologist and amateur botanist who died in 2010.

Abrasive

Helmut Kohl

Nearing retirement, Schmidt spent much of his time in Hamburg, his native city. He wrote a memoir and occasional articles in which he continued to defend his outspoken exchanges with US presidents and politicians. “I have always regarded myself as a reliable friend of the United States, but never have I misunderstood an alliance to be a system of control and command,” he said in a 1984 interview.

Schmidt was born in 1918 in Barmbek, a working class district of Hamburg, the son of a schoolmaster. After Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 he joined the Hitler Youth and in 1937 he was drafted into the German army.

In wartime he became a first lieutenant in an antiaircraft artillery battery on the Russian front and was awarded the Iron Cross. He married in 1942 and after the war enrolled at the University of Hamburg, obtaining a degree in economics.

While still a student, he joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and took a job in Hamburg’s municipal government in 1948. Five years later, he was elected to the Bundestag. Early on he established himself as a conservative, pragmatist on the right wing of his party. He supported West German rearmament in the 1950s, for example, when most party colleagues opposed it.

After some years of activity in Hamburg’s city government, he returned to the Bundestag in 1965, becoming an expert on defence policy. He also drew closer to the views of Brandt, the party leader, who wanted to normalise relations between West and East Germany.

In 1969, he became defence minister in the government led by Brandt, and later, in 1972, finance minister. He sought to persuade the party’s left wing that the only way to finance Germany’s generous social benefits was by encouraging a thriving capitalist economy.

His alliance with the French president, Giscard d’Estaing, seemed an unlikely one. Giscard was tall, aristocratic and politically conservative; Schmidt was short, devoid of social pretensions and the leader of a centre-left party. They were both, however, highly intelligent and shared a vision of Europe under French-German leadership moving toward economic integration.

When Brandt resigned in a scandal in which a close adviser had been revealed to be an East German spy, Schmidt became chancellor. His first trip abroad was to Paris. The prevailing view of the Franco-German alliance was that Germany offered economic strength while France provided a confident voice on foreign affairs. The more cynical take on the relationship was that it allowed the French to keep close tabs on a rival and the Germans to rid themselves of the Nazi stigma.

Platform

Out of power, as co-publisher of Die Zeit, Germany’s most influential political and cultural review, Schmidt enjoyed a platform from which to write on politics.

As a pianist he made recordings of Bach and Mozart, including one album with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He was a frequent talk show guest and commentator on political affairs.

Nearing 95, he remained as combative as ever. Asked to assess his successor, Helmut Kohl, he was characteristically withering. “I think there are two or three fields in which he still needs a lot of education,” he told the Times. Asked which ones, he answered, “International affairs, arms control and military strategy, and economics and finance.”