Commentary Magazine


Helmut Schmidt, by Jonathan Carr

A First-Rate Leader

Helmut Schmidt: Helmsman of Germany.
by Jonathan Carr.
St. Martin’s. 208 pp. $25.00.

Jonathan Carr, a staff writer for the (London) Financial Times, has given us a biography of Helmut Schmidt that is fluent, factual, and instructive, addressed (almost) to those without a background in contemporary German politics. As an introduction to the man and the events surrounding him it does a swift, lucid job which any American reader fearing a jungle of European arcana will find accessible.

German politics since the creation of the Federal Republic in 1949 has been in the hands, very nearly exclusively, of first-rate men. Of the six West German Chancellors since that date only Kurt-Georg Kiesinger could be called mediocre. Willy Brandt with his naive view of the East may have been a weak link in office, but even this emotional radical (a man with a heroic anti-Nazi record) was capable of telling German unions that had pushed through a 7-percent wage increase that they had betrayed him. His British Conservative contemporary, Edward Heath, died on his knees, politically speaking, begging coal miners to settle for 16.5 percent. (They took 31!)

And of all the able men who have ruled West Germany, Helmut Schmidt has been the ablest. A quarter-Jew who was obliged as a young officer in the Wehrmacht to keep his head down, he had no political plans or ambitions at the end of the war. His passions were (and remain) art and music; he is a pianist good enough to have recorded the Mozart Triple Concerto with Christoph Eschenbach and Justus Frantz. According to his own account, he turned from a projected career in architecture to a degree in economics, which eventually rolled him into politics, simply because in 1945 there was no architectural faculty nearer to his native Hamburg than Hanover.

Equally, he became a member of the Social Democratic party (SPD) less for its tenuous and platonic socialism than for its cleanness. The last voice to denounce Hitler in 1933 had been that of the Social Democrat Otto Wels, speaking in the Reichstag: “You may take our freedom and our lives, but our honor you cannot take. We dedicate ourselves in this historic hour to the basic principles of humanity, freedom, and socialism.” Rhetoric perhaps, but, uttered within a ring of Brownshirts as the simple Austrian soldier came to power, good and honorable rhetoric. Schmidt wanted (and perhaps needed) such clean air.

The party he joined was to become a model for intelligent democratic socialists throughout Europe. Always humane and anti-Soviet, it was to retain for a few years after the war wispy traces, more cobweb than framework, of theological Marxism. A succession of defeats led to the Godesberg program of 1959 which pulped the Marxist vocabulary, struck a hard note on national defense, and tacitly acknowledged that a high-profit economy was in the interests of working people. Today the French, Italian, and Spanish socialist parties would broadly agree. Only the British have a socialist party committed to ancestor worship (and to a political posture well to the Left of the Italian Communists).

The party created in West Germany in the 1950’s was almost ideally suited to the talents and temperament of Helmut Schmidt. Always a profoundly practical, empirically-minded man, he seems, according to Carr, never to have had a romantic left-wing phase. (His contempt for the student revolutionaries of 1968 was bottomless.) An intellectual he might be—how many heads of government are capable of giving a cogent academic lecture on Kant?—but it was the element of low practicality to be found even in Kant which attracted Helmut Schmidt. According to Kant as glossed by Schmidt, a politician is not justified by his good intentions or high moral purpose but by the critical analysis he makes of a situation and its implications. “Without such analysis his actions have no moral justification whatever.” It is thus not really surprising that Schmidt despised Jimmy Carter. The thinking empiricist and the opportunistic moralist were born for each other’s throats.

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Schmidt was to arrive at the central position in West German affairs—indeed, the German chancellorship is the most important office in Western Europe—by way of an early opposition career in the Bundestag (the dominant lower house), begun in 1953. In 1962 he returned to Hamburg to run the Interior Ministry of that state, in order to be doing something. The great cliché about him is that he is a Macher, a doer; in this case it is a very good cliché. A brilliant success during the disastrous floods of 1962 (when he cut every corner in sight to get helicopters into the air and people out of the water, saving 1,000 lives in the process) was the basis of his reputation.

Schmidt built upon this reputation nationally with speeches and articles which enraged the Right and Left alternately. He opposed German possession of atomic weapons, and brought right-wing Christian Democrats to their feet in fury by reminding them that when he had been a schoolboy of fourteen, “Your assent to Hitler’s enabling legislation took us and millions of others into the slaughterfields of Europe and into the cellars of our cities, millions more into the concentration camps and death chambers.” (“Schmidt Schnauze”—“Schmidt the mouth”—shouted a Christian Democratic deputy; “Schmidt Schnauze” has been his sobriquet to this day.) But the same Schmidt intensely annoyed his own left wing by asserting in those still-early days that a German army would have to be created, and that it should be created with SPD support as a loyal element of a liberal democratic state rather than against his party’s will and out of its field of influence. In the Kantian statesman, the practical and the moral can evidently coexist without tripping over one another’s feet.

By the time his party finally came to office in 1966, propelled by the studied moderation of the Godesberg program, Schmidt was big enough for the role of floor leader. Since this was a “grand coalition” of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats, he worked closely with Rainer Barzel of the CDU. Successively floor leader, Defense Minister, Finance and Economics Minister, he rose irresistibly on simple brute merit, despite an extensive circle of ill-wishers in his own party. With opponents, on the whole, he had harmonious relations, and was in many ways a Scoop Jackson in office: a supporter of the Western alliance and the U.S. nuclear component within it, on good terms with the West German trade-union movement, a social democrat rather than a socialist, and a man given very little to trusting the Soviet Union.

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All things considered, Schmidt is the most intelligent and responsive ally the U.S. has had, whether as Defense Minister or as Chancellor. What he wanted was consistency. Unfortunately, what he got was Jimmy Carter. As Chancellor, Schmidt was willing to take on the neutron bomb which the Carter administration was urging the West Europeans to accept; given the potential for anti-war resentment in Europe, that was a notably courageous step. But the neutron bomb was then withdrawn by the President, a classic case of the Grand Old Duke leading his ten thousand men to the top of the hill and leading them down again.

As for the cruise missiles which have been installed in German, British, and Italian bases since 1983, the point cannot be made too hard or too often that these are the consequence not of an American but of a West European initiative, led by Schmidt but strongly supported as well by the British and Italian governments. Schmidt took the Soviet installation of SS-20’s, and the development of the Backfire bomber, very seriously from the first, and wanted them on the agenda of SALT II. In his own belief he had persuaded then-President Ford of the need for a Western response. But the message of Jimmy Carter was to be, in substance, this is none of your business. The letters and meetings between the Chancellor and the President grew progressively more pained and angry. A glaze of civility was kept up, but Schmidt, never long on tolerance, described Carter as “just not big enough for the game.” That understated his despair.

At the Guadeloupe meeting of NATO allies in 1979 Schmidt reached an accord, together with his British and French colleagues, James Callaghan and Giscard d’Estaing, that cruise missiles would be acceptable in Western Europe if further negotiations with Moscow failed. When the time came for Carter to talk with Brezhnev and sign SALT II in Vienna, Schmidt assumed that the Guadeloupe accord would be given proper stress as evidence of alliance resolve. The Soviets later insisted (quite truthfully) to Schmidt that Carter had not raised the matter. He subsequently learned from Cyrus Vance that the issue had briefly been touched upon in Vienna . . . in an elevator chat!

As Carr points out, it is part of the melancholy confusion which divides America and Europe that at the time, newspapers in the U.S. were capable of running cartoons showing Helmut Schmidt polishing Brezhnev’s boots. This incomprehension of a European leader who asked for Pershing missiles for defense against the Soviet threat may have derived in part from differences between the U.S. and Germany over Ostpolitik: the attempt, initiated by Schmidt’s predecessor Willy Brandt, to have better relations with East Germany. Probably Schmidt was uncharacteristically naive in keeping that particular show on the road. Carr gives a gruesome account of a visit by Schmidt to the “Democratic Republic,” in the middle of which General Jaruzelski and those behind him sprang their Putsch in Warsaw.

On the same trip, a visit to the major city of Rostock was called off by the East German authorities (rather too close to Gdansk, and the West German Chancellor too popular) and Schmidt was taken instead to the small town of Gustrow, whose citizens were confined to their houses to make way for busloads of party hacks, brought in to shout “Erich, Erich [Honnecker].” It can be said in general on this issue of Ostpolitik that the West Germans, who for years have been buying their cousins from the East and thereby picking up the social-security bill of East Germany, have been monumentally trusting and soft. But then the families of those being held hostage commonly are.

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Helmut Schmidt should be remembered over his eight-and-a-half-year period of supreme office essentially for strength and intelligence. Faced with the economic consequences of the mid-70’s oil crisis, he did the exact opposite of Britain’s Edward Heath. Where Heath desperately attempted to reflate the economy, Schmidt in 1974 became the first acknowledged monetarist in office, setting, through the Bundesbank, the first target for the growth of the money supply for the next year. Highly important too was the creation of the European Monetary System, a hideously complex, not always successful, but still formidable attempt to keep continental currencies in rough alignment. It was probably the most intelligent creation of the otherwise sterile European Common Economic Community.

Schmidt is also to be remembered as the Chancellor who faced and put down the outbreak of juvenile dementia known as the Red Army Faction or Baader-Meinhof gang. This group carried out a succession of murders of judges, industrialists, and other public enemies, on behalf of a lunatic ideology with many sympathizers. It was finally defeated by a superb piece of West German soldiering which rescued hostages held by kidnappers at Mogadishu airport in Somalia and resulted in the deaths, at their own hands, of the despairing gang leadership.

To defend a liberal state Schmidt had been obliged to use means imperfectly liberal. Germany’s old reputation being what it was, the openings for smears against the essential democracy and legitimacy of the government were extensive. But by the end, a democratic state had done something to make Germans decently proud of the right sort of soldiery and of a government fit to command them. A man of unadvertised democratic conscience, Schmidt in a violent crisis acted rationally and planned his way out of circumstances created by unreason.

He had, and has, his detractors. Toward the end he failed to carry his party with him and meet its emotional needs, so completely was he a manager and a Macher; and the SPD, since his fall from office in 1982 at the hands of a shifty coalition partner, the Free Democratic party, has lapsed into a soft leftism of a kind the English could warn them about. Indeed Helmut Schmidt arguably was never much of a politician. He ruled not autocratically but almost too rationally, and there was never sufficient diplomatic gloss held over for the soothing of those who reasoned less well. Yet he remains, Charles de Gaulle not excluded, the ablest man to have governed any West European country in the last forty years.

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About the Author




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