Helmut Heinrich Waldemar Schmidt was a German politician and member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, who served as Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1974 to 1982.
Before becoming Chancellor, he had served as Minister of Defence and as Minister of Finance. In the latter role he gained credit for his financial policies. He had also served briefly as Minister of Economics and as acting Foreign Minister. As Chancellor, he focused on international affairs, seeking "political unification of Europe in partnership with the United States" and issuing proposals that led to the NATO Double-Track Decision in 1979 to deploy US Pershing II missiles to Europe. He was an energetic diplomat who sought European co-operation and international economic co-ordination and was the leading force in creating the European Monetary System in 1978. He was re-elected chancellor in 1976 and 1980, but his coalition fell apart in 1982 with the switch by his coalition allies, the Free Democratic Party.
He retired from Parliament in 1986, after clashing with the SPD's left wing, who opposed him on defence and economic issues. In 1986 he was a leading proponent of European monetary union and a European Central Bank.
Background, family, early life and educationHelmut Schmidt was born as the eldest of two sons of teachers Ludovica Koch and Gustav Ludwig Schmidt in Barmbek, a working-class district of Hamburg, in 1918. Schmidt studied at Hamburg Lichtwark School, graduating in 1937. Schmidt's father was born the biological son of a German Jewish banker, Ludwig Gumpel, and a Christian waitress, Friederike Wenzel, and then covertly adopted, although this was kept a family secret for many years. This was confirmed publicly by Schmidt in 1984, after Valéry Giscard d'Estaing revealed the fact to journalists, apparently with Schmidt's assent. Schmidt himself was a non-practising Lutheran.
Schmidt was a group leader in the Hitler Youth organisation until 1936, when he was demoted and sent on leave because of his anti-Nazi views. However, newly accessible documents from 1942 praise his "Impeccable national-socialist behaviour", and in 1944 his superiors mentioned that Schmidt "stands the ground of national-socialist ideology, knowing that he must pass it on." On 27 June 1942, he married his childhood sweetheart Hannelore "Loki" Glaser. They had two children: Helmut Walter, and , who works in London for Bloomberg Television. Schmidt resumed his education in Hamburg after the war, graduating in economics and political science in 1949.
Military serviceSchmidt planned to study without interruption, therefore volunteered at age 18 for military service in 1937. He began serving with an anti-aircraft battery of Luftwaffe at Vegesack near Bremen. In World War II, after brief service on the Eastern Front during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, he returned to Germany in 1942 to work as a trainer and advisor at the Ministry of Aviation. During his service in World War II, Schmidt was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class. He attended the People's Court as a military spectator at some of the show trials for officers involved in the 20 July plot, in which an unsuccessful attempt was made to assassinate Hitler at Rastenburg, and was disgusted by Roland Freisler's conduct. Toward the end of the war, from December 1944 onwards, he served as an Oberleutnant in the Flakartillery on the Western Front during the Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Offensive. He was captured by the British in April 1945 on Lüneburg Heath, and was a prisoner of war until August of that year in Belgium.
Early yearsSchmidt joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany in 1946, and from 1947-48 was the leader of the Socialist German Student League, the student organisation of the SPD. Upon graduating from the University of Hamburg, where he read Economics, he worked for the government of the city-state of Hamburg, working in the department of Economic Policy. Beginning in 1952, under Karl Schiller, he was a senior figure heading up the Behörde für Wirtschaft und Verkehr.
He was elected to the Bundestag in 1953, and in 1957 he became a member of the SPD parliamentary party executive. A vocal critic of conservative government policy, his outspoken rhetoric in parliament earned him the nickname Schmidt-Schnauze. In 1958, he joined the national board of the SPD, and campaigned against nuclear weapons and the equipping of the Bundeswehr with such devices. He alarmed some in his party by taking part in manoeuveres as a reserve officer in the newly formed Bundeswehr. In 1962, he gave up his seat in parliament to concentrate on his tasks in Hamburg.
SenatorThe government of the city-state of Hamburg is known as the Senate of Hamburg, and from 1961 to 1965, Schmidt was the Innensenator: the senator of the interior. He gained a reputation as a Macher – someone who gets things done regardless of obstacles – by his effective management during the emergency caused by the 1962 flood, during which 300 people drowned. Schmidt used all means at his disposal to alleviate the situation, even when that meant overstepping his legal authority, including employing the federal police and army units. Describing his actions, Schmidt said, "I wasn't put in charge of these units – I took charge of them!" He saved a further 1,000 lives and swiftly managed the re-housing of thousands of the homeless.
Return to federal politicsIn 1965, he was re-elected to the Bundestag. In 1967, after the formation of the Grand Coalition between the SPD and the Christian Democratic Union, he became chairman of the Social Democratic parliamentary party, a post he held until the elections of 1969. In 1968, he was elected deputy party chairman, a post that he held until 1983. Unlike Willy Brandt and Gerhard Schröder, he never became chairman of the party.
In October 1969, he entered the government of Willy Brandt as defense minister. During his term in office, the military conscription time was reduced from 18 to 15 months, while at the same time increasing the number of young men being conscripted. Additionally, Schmidt decided to introduce the Bundeswehr universities in Hamburg and Munich to broaden the academic education of the German officer corps, and the situation of non-commissioned officers was improved. In July 1972, he succeeded Karl Schiller as Minister for Economics and Finances, but in November 1972, he relinquished the Economics department, which was again made a separate ministry. Schmidt remained Minister of Finances and faced the prospect of rising inflation. Shortly before the Oil Shock of 1973, which rattled Britain and United States, Schmidt agreed that European currencies should be floated against the US Dollar. He remained in charge of finance until May 1974.
ChancellorSchmidt became Chancellor of West Germany on 16 May 1974, after Brandt's resignation in the wake of an espionage scandal. The worldwide economic recession was the main problem his administration faced, and Schmidt took a tough and disciplined line, in reduction of public spending. Schmidt was also active in improving relations with France. Together with the French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, he was one of the fathers of the world economic summits, the first of which assembled in 1975. In 1975, he was a signatory of the Helsinki Accords to create the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the precursor of today's OSCE. In 1978, he helped set up the European Monetary System, known as the "Snake in the Tunnel".
He remained as Chancellor after the 1976 federal election, in coalition with the liberal Free Democratic Party. He adopted a tough, uncompromising line with the indigenous Red Army Faction extremists. In October 1977, he ordered an anti-terrorist unit of Bundesgrenzschutz policemen to end the Palestinian terrorist hijacking of a Lufthansa aircraft named Landshut, staged to secure the release of imprisoned RAF leaders, after it landed in Mogadishu, Somalia. Three of the four kidnappers were killed during the assault on the plane, but all 86 passengers were rescued unharmed.
Schmidt was re-elected as Chancellor in November 1980. Concerned about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Soviet superiority regarding missiles in Central Europe, Schmidt issued proposals resulting in the NATO Double-Track Decision, concerning the deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe, should the Soviets not disarm. This decision was unpopular with the German public. A mass demonstration against the deployment mobilised 400,000 people in October 1981.
At the beginning of his period as chancellor, Schmidt was a proponent of Keynesian economics, and pursued expansionary monetary and fiscal policies during his tenure. Between 1979-82, the Schmidt administration pursued such policies in an effort to reduce unemployment. These were moderately successful, as the fiscal measures introduced after 1977, with reductions in income and wealth taxes and an increase in the medium-term public investment programme, were estimated to have created 160,000 additional jobs in 1978–79, or 300,000 if additional public sector employment was included in the figure. The small reduction in the unemployment rate, however, was achieved at the cost of a larger budget deficit, brought about by fiscal expansion.
and Schmidt in July 1977
During the 1970s, West Germany was able to weather the global financial storm far better than almost all the other developed countries, with unemployment and inflation kept at comparatively low levels. During the 1976 election campaign, the SPD/FDP coalition was able to win the battle of statistics, whether the figures related to employees' incomes, strikes, unemployment, growth, or public sector debts. Amongst other social improvements, old age pensions had been doubled between 1969–76, and unemployment benefits increased to 68% of previous earnings.
Whilst visiting Saudi Arabia in April 1981, Schmidt made some unguarded remarks about the Israel-Palestine conflict that succeeded in aggravating the delicate relations between Israel and West Germany. Asked by a reporter about the moral aspect of German-Israeli relations, he stated that Israel was not in a position to criticise Germany due to its handling of Palestinians, and "That won't do. And in particular, it won't do for a German living in a divided nation and laying moral claim to the right of self-determination for the German people. One must then recognize the moral claim of the Palestinian people to the right of self-determination." On 3 May, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin denounced Schmidt as "unprincipled, avaricious, heartless, and lacking in human feeling", and stated that he had "willingly served in the German armies that murdered millions." Begin was also upset over remarks that Schmidt had made on West German television the previous week, in which he spoke apologetically about the suffering Germany inflicted on various nations during World War II; but made no mention of the Jews. On his flight home from Riyadh, Schmidt told his advisers that war guilt could not continue to affect Germany's foreign relations.
Schmidt was the first world leader to call upon newly elected French president François Mitterrand, who visited Bonn in July 1981. The two found themselves in "complete agreement" on foreign policy matters and relations with the United States and the Soviet Union, but differed on trade and economic issues.
By the end of his term, however, Schmidt had turned away from deficit spending, due to a deteriorating economic situation, and a number of welfare cuts were carried out, including smaller increases in child benefits and higher unemployment and health contributions. Large sections of the SPD increasingly opposed his security policy, while most of the FDP politicians strongly supported that policy. While representatives of the left-wing of the Social Democratic Party opposed reduction of the state expenditures, the FDP began proposing a monetarist economic policy. In February 1982, Schmidt won a motion of confidence; however on 17 September 1982, the coalition broke apart, with the four FDP ministers leaving his cabinet. Schmidt continued to lead a minority government composed only of SPD members, while the FDP negotiated a coalition with the CDU/CSU. During this time, Schmidt also headed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On 1 October 1982, parliament approved a constructive vote of no confidence and elected CDU chairman Helmut Kohl as the new chancellor. This was the only time in the history of the Federal Republic that a chancellor was removed from office in this way.
Life after politicsIn 1982, along with his friend Gerald Ford, he co-founded the annual AEI World Forum. The following year he joined the nationwide weekly Die Zeit newspaper as co-publisher, also acting as its director from 1985 to 1989. In 1985, he became managing director. With Takeo Fukuda he founded the Inter Action Councils in 1983. He retired from the Bundestag in 1986. In December 1986, he was one of the founders of the committee supporting the EMU and the creation of the European Central Bank.
Contrary to the line of his party, Schmidt was a determined opponent of Turkey's bid to join the EU. He also opposed phasing out nuclear energy, something that the Red-Green coalition of Gerhard Schröder supported. In 2007, Schmidt described the climate debate as "hysterically overheated". When asked about social media, Schmidt said he perceived the internet as "threatening". He was particularly concerned about the superficiality of communication on the web.
On 16 May 2014, Schmidt said the situation in Ukraine was dangerous, because "Europe, the Americans and also Russia are behaving in a way that Christopher Clark, described in his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 that's very much worth reading, as the beginning of World War I: like sleepwalkers."
Schmidt was the author of numerous books on his political life, on foreign policy, and political ethics. He made appearances in numerous television talk shows, and remained one of the most renowned political publicists in Germany until his death.
FriendshipsSchmidt described the assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat as one of his friends from the world of politics, and maintained a friendship with ex-president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing of France. His circle also included former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who went on record as stating that he wished to predecease Helmut Schmidt, because he would not wish to live in a world without him.
He was also good friends with former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. At the 4th G7 summit in 1978, the two discussed strategies for the upcoming Canadian federal election, and Schmidt gave him advice on economic policy. In 2011, Schmidt made a pilgrimage to the Trudeau family vault in St-Rémi-de-Napierville Cemetery, accompanied by Jean Chrétien and Tom Axworthy.
Personal lifeSchmidt admired the philosopher Karl Popper, and contributed a foreword to the 1982 Festschrift in Popper's honor.
Schmidt was a talented pianist, and recorded piano concertos of both Mozart and Bach with German pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach. Schmidt recorded Mozart's piano concerto for three pianos, K. 242, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Eschenbach in 1982 with pianists Eschenbach and Justus Frantz for EMI Records. In that recording, according to the CD's liner notes, Schmidt played the part written for Countess Antonia Lodron's youngest daughter Giuseppina, "almost a beginner" who commissioned the work. The part brilliantly "enables any reasonably practiced amateur to participate in a performance". The same musical notes also indicate that Schmidt and Frantz had played duets during Frantz's student days. In 1990 Schmidt joined Eschenbach, Frantz, Gerhard Oppitz and the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra in Deutsche Grammophon's recording of Bach's Concerto in A minor for four harpsichords, BWV 1065.
All his adult life, Schmidt was a heavy smoker. He was well known for lighting up during TV interviews and talk shows. On 13 October 1981, Schmidt was fitted with a cardiac pacemaker.
On 25 January 2008, German police launched an inquiry after an anti-smoking initiative charged that Schmidt was defying the recently introduced smoking ban. The initiative claimed that the ex-chancellor had been flagrantly ignoring anti-smoking laws. Despite pictures in the press, the case was subsequently dropped after the public prosecutor's office ruled that Schmidt's actions had not been a threat to public health.
On 6 April 2010, with a lifespan of 33,342 days, he surpassed Konrad Adenauer in terms of longevity, and at the time of his death was the oldest former chancellor in German history.
His wife of 68 years, Loki Schmidt, died on 21 October 2010, aged 91.
At the beginning of August 2012, Schmidt gave an interview on German television and revealed that at 93 years of age, he had fallen in love again. His new life-partner was his over 57 years long-standing associate Ruth Loah.
Illness, death and state funeralOn 2 September 2015, Schmidt underwent surgery for a vascular occlusion in his right leg. On 17 September, Schmidt was discharged from hospital. After initial improvement, his condition worsened again on 8 November, with his doctor saying he "feared for the worst." Schmidt died in his Hamburg home on the afternoon of 10 November 2015, aged 96. At the time of his death, he was the longest-lived German Chancellor.
A state funeral for Schmidt was held on 23 November at the Protestant St. Michael's Church, Hamburg, where Loki Schmidt's funeral had been held. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in remarks to mourners, said, "He will be missed. He was an astute observer and commentator, and it was with good reason that he had a reputation for dependability." Others who spoke included former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Speaking in German, he lauded Schmidt for "vision and courage," based on the principles of "reason, law, peace and faith," and said Schmidt had been "a kind of world conscience."
Among the 1,800 who attended were German President Joachim Gauck, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, whose tenure in office paralleled Schmidt's as German chancellor. Other guests included former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, former presidents Christian Wulff, Horst Köhler, Roman Herzog and Hamburg's mayor Olaf Scholz. A flag-draped coffin containing the remains of the former chancellor, also a former German defense minister, was escorted by the German Army's Wachbataillon from St. Michael's to Ohlsdorf Cemetery for a private interment ceremony. Helmut Schmidt's remains were buried there one day later, in the family grave alongside the remains of his parents and his wife, Loki.
Honours and awardsHelmut Schmidt received a number of accolades, among them was the Grand Cross Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, which he chose not to accept in Hanseatic tradition in line with the history of independence of this city.
In 2003, the university of Germany's federal armed forces in Hamburg was renamed Helmut Schmidt University – University of the Federal Armed Forces Hamburg in 2003, in honour of the politician whoas minister of defensehad introduced mandatory academic education for German career officers.
Freedom of the City
- 1983: Hamburg
- 1983: Bonn
- 1983: Bremerhaven
- 1989: Berlin
- 1995: Güstrow
- 1998: State of Schleswig-Holstein
FoundationsThe Bundeskanzler-Helmut-Schmidt-Stiftung was established in 2016 by the German Bundestag as one of six non-partisan foundations commemorating politicians. Its aim is to honour Helmut Schmidt’s historic achievements and to work on political issues Helmut Schmidt was concerned with throughout his political life and which have lost none of their relevance today. The foundation's headquarters are located in Hamburg.
- 1978: Theodor Heuss Prize for his crisis management in the time of RAF-Terror
- 1978: Peace Prize of the Louise Weiss Foundation in Strasbourg
- 1986: Athena Award of the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation
- 1988: Red Cross Four Freedoms Award
- 1989: Prize "The Political Book" award of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation for Men and Powers
- 1990: Friedrich-Schiedel-Literaturpreis for Men and Powers
- 1996: Spanish journalism prize Godo
- 1998: Carlo Schmid-Prize
- 2001: Gold Medal of the Foundation Jean Monnet, for his dedication in the service of the European Monetary Union
- 2002: Martin Buber-Plaque
- 2002: Dolf Sternberger-Prize
- 2005: Prix des Generations of the initiative VIVA 50plus
- 2005: Oswald von Nell-Breuning-Prize of the city of Trier
- 2005: Adenauer-de Gaulle Prize, for his work at the Franco-German cooperation
- 2007: Henry Kissinger Prize of the American Academy in Berlin
- 2007: Global Economy Prize of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy
- 2008: Osgar Media Award of the Bild Zeitung
- 2009: Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy-Prize
- 2010: Point-Alpha-Prize
- 2010: Henri-Nannen-Prize for his journalistic lifetime achievement
- 2011: Millennium-Bambi
- 2012: Eric M. Warburg Prize
- 2012: Westphalian Peace Prize
- 2013: Hanns Martin Schleyer Prize. The Schleyer family's decision to award him this prize 36 years after Schleyer's death deeply moved him.
- 2014: German-French Journalists Prize
- 2015: Gustav-Stresemann-Prize of the Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons of Germany
Controversies over service in World War II
- Menschen und Mächte, Siedler, Berlin 1987. Memoirs with focus on cold war politics.
- Die Deutschen und ihre Nachbarn, Siedler, Berlin 1990. Strong focus on European politics.
- Kindheit und Jugend unter Hitler, with Willi Berkhan et al.. Siedler, Berlin 1992.
- Weggefährten, Siedler, Berin 1996. Personal memoirs, with focus on personal relations with domestic and foreign politicians
Political books (selection)