Europa & die Welt Debattenbeitrag

Helmut Schmidt at 90 – A great European statesman




A clue to the measure of Helmut Schmidt’s greatness is that it cannot be captured by association with a single event or defined by a single quality. His stature and influence is multifaceted and rests on a range of human qualities which taken together give him a good claim to be the most impressive of Europe’s post-war leaders.


No other leader has matched his level of competence over such a range of issues or grounded this competence in such an intimate acquaintance with economics and philosophy. It is a tribute to his formidable intellect that this influence is personal and did not end with his term of office but continues through his writings in ‚Die Zeit‘ and his many books. To invert a famous and wounding phrase from the armoury of British political abuse he has remained in power but not in office.

Any attempt to write about Helmut Schmidt must therefore be partial and cannot do justice to the whole. In the many evaluations of Helmut Schmidt’s contributions two areas appear to have been relatively neglected. Manfred Lahnstein makes a compelling case for his central role in European integration and there is an equally strong case to be made for regarding him as the most effective social democratic head of government in the post-war era.

Helmut Schmidt was not born into the SPD and originally had placed his faith in the Protestant Church as the basis of a reconstituted Germany but he very quickly came to the conclusion that the SPD had to play a key role in the establishment of a stable democracy in Germany. Having come to this conclusion the SPD has remained his political home, his Verein for more than sixty years despite his views rarely conforming to the party orthodoxy. That Helmut Schmidt is held in such high regard by his own party while often publicly disagreeing with it, rests on two elements. Firstly, they realize that these disagreements do not spring from any self regarding notions of triangulation, of profiling himself at the expense of the party but are the result of his thinking deeply and honestly about the issues. They are also aware that he was the most effective social democratic chancellor and the most competent chancellor in post-war Germany.

Schmidt came to the Chancellorship better prepared than any other Chancellor with extensive experience at Defence and Finance and as a parliamentary leader. This background also provided him with a host of international contacts unlike most German Chancellors who emerge from the Land level and develop international contacts once in office. His experience also allowed him to recruit an extraordinarily talented group of officials to the Chancellor’s Office, not all of whom by any means were social democrats. Whilst these preconditions were important, the key to Schmidt’s domination of the governments he led and the effectiveness they displayed lay in the intellect he brought to that experience. All German governments are coalition governments and the Basic Law further divides power between the departmental principle and the chancellorial principle of determining the guidelines of policy. Faced with this situation, chancellors are invariably selective with most concentrating on foreign policy. Schmidt’s unique experience, working methods (he is a speed reader) and intellect allowed him to be the only German Chancellor who really determined the guidelines of policy. This was achieved not by overstretching formal chancellorial power, which would have broken the coalition, but by the persuasive force of his arguments.

Social democratic governments outside Scandinavia are often seen as weak in economics, as basing policy on good intentions rather than grounded analysis. For Schmidt, economics was the foundation and if the economics were not right then nothing else could be got right. It is symptomatic that in a recent lecture he sees the successful establishment of democracy in the Federal Republic as owing more to Ludwig Erhard and the Marshall Plan than the efforts of what he calls the Weimar survivors (Helmut Schmidt, Gewissen und Verantwortung des Politikers, 2008). Getting the economics right involved for Schmidt not an abstract obsession with economic theory but producing careful policy solutions based on a sound knowledge of economics. Outstandingly gifted, he did not make the sort of mistakes attributed to intellectuals in politics and epitomised by the story of Garrett Fitzgerald, Prime Minister of Ireland, like Schmidt an economist, who is famously reputed to have responded to the first plans of his Finance Minister by exclaiming ‘I know these plans work in practice but do they work in theory?’

Helmut Schmidt succeeded a Chancellor who was famously uninterested in economics and his first imperative was to get the economics right. Internationally that involved multilateral action to deal with the after effects of the oil price shock and subsequently a recalibration of international monetary arrangements to make up for declining American leadership that culminated in his collaboration with President Giscard d’Estaing. Internally he regarded himself as the Chief Executive of Germany PLC .Under Brandt the system had got out of kilter with very high wage demands from the trade unions. Schmidt was able through his extraordinary competence and dedication to restore balance and to get business and labour to cooperate in a very productive manner throughout almost all his period in office. In essence he was able to
preserve intact and flourishing a system which contained large elements of social democracy while his old friend Jim Callaghan presided over the exhaustion of social democracy in Britain.

The relationship between social democracy and the area of security and defence had always been troubled in Germany and threatened to become equally difficult in the postwar era. The influence of the ‘ohne mich’ spirit was widely felt in the SPD and the trade unions and in the early years of the Federal Republic the attitude of the SPD to the Bundeswehr could best be described as ambivalent. Helmut Schmidt played a unique role in the development of a more positive relationship between the SPD and the Bundeswehr. Together with his friend Willi Berkhan he took part in early Bundeswehr manoeuvres as a reservist and in 1961 he brought out the first German book on nuclear deterrence (Verteidigung oder Vergeltung, Stuttgart, 1961). He was an outstandingly effective Defence Minister. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the security issue, his proposals to deal with the Soviet SS 20s, whilst disavowed by his own party did play a major role in the process that led finally to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Whilst Willy Brandt made a central contribution to security in post-war Europe through Ostpolitik, no social democrat or indeed any other European leader can compare with Helmut Schmidt as a contributor to policy and thinking on defence issues.

As Chairman of the German British Forum it is appropriate to add some words on Helmut Schmidt and the United Kingdom. Based in Hamburg, Helmut Schmidt was one of a number of outstanding talents including Ralf Dahrendorf spotted by Robert Birley and he was much influenced by British contacts and ideas. I can think of no other foreign statesman (and come to think of it no British one either) who numbered Henry Moore and Karl Popper among their friends. He was a major force in the Königswinter Conference. Almost alone in the SPD Parliamentary Party he voted against German entry into the EEC on the grounds that the United Kingdom was not a member. His closest allies included Jim Callaghan, Peter Carrington and Denis Healey. He understands us very well and his discourse is perfectly suited to our tastes. In his famous address to the Labour Party Conference in December 1974, he began by comparing
himself to the Salvation Army girl in the pub. No post-war German chancellor has been so admired in the United Kingdom and in the dark days of the 1970s many halfwished for ‘Superschmidt’ as PM. This last phenomenon was all the more remarkable as German efficiency was more often resented than admired. He remains a keen and shrewd observer of the UK scene. When asked whether Germany needed a Thatcher to introduce dynamism, he replied that in order to introduce more dynamism in Germany one would require first an Arthur Scargill, i.e. someone who would definitively prove that the system was dysfunctional.

Whilst we have retained our admiration for Helmut Schmidt our European policy has been a great disappointment to him and those like him who believed that Britain would have played a greater and more productive role in the councils of the European Union. I do hope however that we British have retained some of the openness and intellectual energy which inspired him in the post-war days and that this will be fully reflected in a conference dedicated to someone who has enjoyed a lifelong status as the leading European statesman and who has in our eyes at least always been an Honorary Brit.