Helmut Schmidt is 90 on Tuesday and Die Zeit has gone completely bonkers in the weeks leading up to the Big Day. So much for Hanseatic restraint.
Scandinavian readers who are pressed for time might want to read Michael Kuttner’s short and perceptive profile of the old Chancellor instead. Still, compared to today’s media groomed politicians, Schmidt can come across as almost endearing.
But what about Helmut Schmidt’s long-term legacy? After all, he was brought down by internal fighting in the SPD which found it impossible to accommodate both traditional working-class and mainstream policies on the one hand and the demands of the New Left and his party was left out in the cold for 16 years. I will point to two areas:
First, Schmidt and the political elite of the Federal Republic had to fight the small, but deadly terrorist groupings on the left. Even if some of the policies didn’t and doesn’t look too pretty (to Scandinavian eyes the Radikalenerlass stood out, but then we didn’t have the GDR to consider in the same way – and who knows what would have happened, had the Blekingegade group been uncovered by police in the 1970s?), the West German government avoided overstepping the limits of the rule of law. Or Rechtsstaat, in German. (You are free to compare with more recent events where the respect for the rule of the law has been much more limited.) Even if the RAF was a marginal group which would eventually have lost its impact, the long-term effect was to consolidate a more liberal state.
Second, even if Schmidt and the West German government didn’t find the solution to the stagflation crisis of the 1970s, he and the French president Giscard d’Estaing still understood that a return to the protectionist policies of the 1930s would be a recipe for disaster. Even if the European summits have been ridiculously over-covered in media since the 1970s, they still helped keeping the integration project on tracks.
What about his biggest misses, then? If Jens Otto Krag had lived to 90, it is likely that the Danes had softened their views of him, turning him into a dear old grandfather figure rather than an arrogant bureaucrat. In his time, Schmidt was not exactly uncontroversial in his own party, but then again the SPD has always been spectacularly unhelpful to its political leaders. If the Scandinavian Social Democracies were made out of solid metal, the SPD had and has a strong radioactive component.
Essentially, I see Schmidt more as the brilliant technician than the popular and organisational leader. With the other horse (Willy Brandt) pulling in the other direction, he was fighting a losing battle since 1980 – and we may consider what would have happened, had Helmut Kohl been the Union’s candidate in 1980 instead of Strauss? Or had Schmidt put greater emphasis on integrating the party’s electoral and organisational base?