Chancellor and crisis manager

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On the death of former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt Chancellor and crisis manager

Helmut Schmidt died at the age of 96. He was German Chancellor from 1974 to 1982. His term of office was marked by the oil crisis and the terrorist threat posed by the Red Army Faction (RAF). With NATO’s “double-track” decision, Helmut Schmidt laid the foundations for overcoming the division of Germany and Europe.

4 min reading time

Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt gives an address.

Right up to the end Helmut Schmidt was considered an intelligent and informed observer of current affairs

Photo: Bundesregierung/Bergmann

Following the resignation of Willy Brandt in 1974, Helmut Schmidt was elected Chancellor by the German Bundestag, and took over at the helm of the existing social-liberal coalition. He had previously served under Willy Brandt as Minister of Defence and later as Minister of Economics and Minister of Finance. His role as effective crisis manager in the disastrous flood that hit Hamburg in 1962, during his term as senator responsible for internal affairs in the city state, had already brought him great popularity.

The greatest challenges of his chancellorship were the oil crisis triggered by the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and the subsequent global economic crisis, as well as a series of horrific terrorist attacks inside Germany. The sudden leap in energy prices plunged the world into a prolonged economic crisis. Although the Federal Republic of Germany managed to weather the crisis relatively well compared with other countries, unemployment re-emerged on a larger scale in West Germany for the first time again as of the mid-1970s.

A series of terrorist attacks culminated in 1977 with the murder of the Chief Federal Prosecutor Siegfried Buback and the Chairman of the Board of the Dresdner Bank Jürgen Ponto, and the kidnapping and murder of Hanns Martin Schleyer, President of the Employers’ Federation, by the extreme left-wing Red Army Faction (RAF) as well as the hijacking of the Lufthansa aircraft “Landshut”. Thankfully the now famous GSG9 elite force managed to free the hostages in Mogadishu. Helmut Schmidt did not yield to the demands of the terrorists. Thanks to the resolute stance of the Chancellor and the German Bundestag it proved possible to defend Germany’s free and constitutional state and protect it from harm.

The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) held in the summer of 1975 in Helsinki was a foreign-policy highlight of the nineteen seventies. It was the first time Helmut Schmidt had come face to face with the East German leader Erich Honecker. The signing of the Helsinki Final Act by the Soviet Union and the other Eastern communist dictatorships marked a turning point. The countries of Western Europe recognised the borders of the Eastern states; all signatories undertook for the first time to respect human rights throughout Europe.

NATO’s decision in 1979 to pursue a “double-track” approach was the brainchild of Helmut Schmidt. It was the response of the western defensive alliance to the Soviet Union’s dramatic military build-up of medium-range nuclear missiles. When he was Chancellor, the woeful political reality was that Germany was a divided nation. It was practically inconceivable that only a few years later the historic opportunity for German reunification would come. With his consistent support for NATO’s decision, Helmut Schmidt laid the groundwork for this.

Fierce protests within the country and within his own party, the SPD, over the NATO decision and NATO’s future relations to the Soviet Union culminated in a crisis within the SPD-FDP coalition. The situation was further aggravated by fundamental differences of opinion over economic and financial policy. In autumn 1982 the social-liberal coalition collapsed and the FDP left the government. Helmut Schmidt lost a constructive vote of no confidence in the German Bundestag and was replaced as Chancellor.

Since 1983 Helmut Schmidt has been co-editor of the German weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT. In this capacity, he has acted as editorial advisor and looked in depth at issues of political, economic and contemporary history importance – away from the cut and thrust of day-to-day politics. Helmut Schmidt was respected as an intelligent and informed observer of current affairs. His economic expertise in particular was highly acclaimed. In many articles and publications he advocated action to ensure peaceful coexistence in Europe and in the world.

Helmut Schmidt was Germany’s most famous smoker. No appearance was complete without his much loved menthol cigarettes. Even when serving as a minister under Willy Brandt, his eloquence and keen wit earned him the nickname “Schmidt Schnauze” (Schmidt the Lip).

An overview
- Born on 23 December 1918 in Hamburg
- 1953 to 1962 and 1965 to 1987 Member of the German Bundestag
- 1961 to 1965 Senator for Internal Affairs, Hamburg
- 1967 to 1969 Chairman of the SPD parliamentary group in the German Bundestag
- 1969 to 1972 Minister of Defence
- 1972 Minister of Economics and Finance
- 1972 to 1974 Minister of Finance
- 1974 to 1982 Chancellor; confirmed in office in 1976 and 1980
- October 1982 replaced as Chancellor by Helmut Kohl (following a constructive vote of no confidence)
- Since 1983 Editor of the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” and author of various publications
- Died on 10 November 2015 in Hamburg