Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt (born 1918) served as chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) from 1974 to 1982. He led his nation into a more prominent role in European and Atlantic alliance affairs and strengthened the West German economy.
Helmut Schmidt was born in a working class section of Hamburg on December 23, 1918. His stern father and his brother were teachers, and he married a teacher. Schmidt received a good education, becoming fluent in English and an accomplished musician. He maintained a student's passion to always learn and the schoolmaster's impatience with those who are lazy. He was 14 when Hitler came to power and was 16 or 17 when he was told and then guarded the dangerous family secret: his paternal grandfather was Jewish.
In 1937 Schmidt was drafted, spending eight years in the army, participating in the 1941 invasion of Russia, and earning an Iron Cross as an artillery officer before being captured by the English in April 1945. He became politicized in the prisoner of war camp, formally joining the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in 1946. He studied economics at the University of Hamburg and entered the administration of his native city. At age 35 in 1953, he was elected Social Democratic deputy, establishing himself in the capital in Bonn as an expert on transportation and as a quick thinker and good speaker, often sharp and sarcastic but rarely boring. In the late 1950s he gained prominence by denouncing the government's bid for West German atomic weapons as nationalist "megalomania" while also participating as a reserve officer in army maneuvers. His book Defense or Retaliation (1961) established his expertise in strategic matters.
Tiring of his role as deputy in a seemingly perennial opposition, Schmidt turned to city politics and immediately demonstrated his organizational skills in coping with Hamburg's devastating flood of February 16, 1962, which killed more than 300 people. Schmidt returned to the national scene after the election of 1965, helping to steer the Social Democratic Party into the "Great Coalition" with the reigning Christian Democratic Party. As party floor leader between 1966 and 1969, Schmidt established himself as a politicians' politician. In 1969 when Willy Brandt became the first Social Democratic chancellor since 1930, Schmidt became the first Social Democratic defense minister since 1920. His book Balance of Power (1969) pointed to a policy of détente.
In the months preceding the 1972 elections Schmidt replaced his one-time teacher Professor Karl Schiller as "superminister"—minister of both finance and economics—when Schiller resigned over economic policy. As Brandt's crisis manager Schmidt restored confidence and helped secure the election victory for the Social Democratic/Free Democratic coalition. But, unhappy with the increasingly lax leadership style of Brandt, Schmidt contemplated leaving national politics, but stayed on as finance minister. When Brandt resigned in May 1974 amidst a spy scandal, Schmidt was the obvious choice for his replacement. He was the one politician who could revive and redirect the five year ruling coalition, and no one else had his command of economics, defense, and diplomacy.
The transfer of power to Schmidt was orderly and peaceful. This remarkable stability is in great contrast to the Weimar Republic, which during its fourteen years had twenty-one governments. Unlike the visionary—at times messianic—leadership of Brandt, the pragmatic Schmidt was intent on grounding his countrymen and his allies in the "given realities." In a matter-of-fact way he continued Brandt's policy of reconciling West Germany with her eastern neighbors, but he also made the West German presence more strongly felt in the Western alliance. "We are not small enough to keep our mouths shut, but we are too small to do more than talk," he would say. Stalemated Western European unity and the strains in the Atlantic alliance made the international community more receptive to Schmidt, the spokesman of West Germany, the symbol of a divided Europe trying to make peace with itself. A close working relationship with French President Giscard d'Estaing consolidated the ties between the two countries. Schmidt's chancellorship expressed a new national self-assurance within the void created by an America preoccupied with Vietnam and Watergate and by an aging Kremlin leadership.
Schmidt's astute handling of the West German economy in the aftermath of the oil crisis of 1973/1974 earned him prestige abroad and a firm base at home. Unlike Brandt, whose passionate following within the Social Democratic Party was never reflected in the German public, Schmidt's general popularity translated to only lukewarm support in and for his party. After the 1976 election he was chosen chancellor in Parliament by a one-vote majority. Yet Schmidt's prestige soared as he effectively rode out the wave of terrorism that reached its peak in 1977.
Germans have been the main beneficiaries of détente; they were also the most threatened by the decline of American nuclear superiority in Europe. Schmidt tried to steer the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) toward a two-track strategic policy: serious negotiations for arms control with the Russians while calling for medium-ranged nuclear weapons in Western Europe, mostly on German soil. Efforts to get superpower agreement on Euro-rockets led to frustration, and détente was undone by the ideological turn in world politics that came with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Polish crisis, and the election of Ronald Reagan in the United States.
The West German electorate repudiated Schmidt's conservative challenger, Franz Josef Strauss, in the 1980 elections, but Schmidt's party barely held its own. The chancellor found himself caught in the middle: the left-wing of his party was rebellious, while his junior coalition partner—the Free Democrats—moved to open defection and creation of a new conservative government under Helmut Kohl. Impaired by ill health, Schmidt's eight and a half years as chancellor came to an end in 1982.
In retirement Schmidt remained undaunted, as critical in A Grand Strategy for the West (1985) of the neutralists of his own party as he was of the American military build-up through deficit spending. In June of 1997, Schmidt called on his successor Helmut Kohl and Finance Minister Theo Waigel to resign over what he said was the government's fiscal mismanagement. Schmidt said he saw no way for Waigel to lead Germany out of its fiscal troubles and that Waigel himself was chiefly to blame. "The only thing left to do is to make room for people with new ideas," said Schmidt. "And that is even more applicable for his government chief."
Jonathan Carr's Helmut Schmidt, Helmsman of Germany (London, 1985) employed candid interviews to create a clear picture of Schmidt's childhood and career. Wolfram F. Hanrieder (editor), Helmut Schmidt, Perspectives on Politics (1982) provides a selection of speeches and interviews. Alfred Grosser's Germany in Our Time: A Political History of the Postwar Years provides a useful synopsis of West German political, economic, and social developments. Also see People and Politics: The Years 1960-1975 by former chancellor Willy Brandt. A number of review articles discuss significant recent interpretations of the Federal Republic's history and politics: Peter J. Katzenstein's "Problem or Model? West Germany in the 1980s," in World Politics; Wilhelm Bleek's "From Cold War to Ostpolitik: Two Germanys in Search of Separate Identities," in World Politics; and Klaus Epstein's "The German Problem 1945-50," in World Politics. Of more specific relevance: Helmut Schmidt's own Men and Powers: a Political Retrospective (1989), translated by Ruth Hein. □