About Schmidt

Why is former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt so beloved?

01/09/2010 | by Alan Posener

Category: History, Political Culture, Government and Society, Europe, Germany, Central Europe

Helmut Schmidt was, in a way, an accidental and incidental chancellor. He assumed the office in 1974 after his visionary but vacillating predecessor Willy Brandt had resigned in a huff, and Schmidt himself was forced to relinquish the office to another visionary, Helmut Kohl, in 1982.

Brandt is generally revered today (as he was reviled in his day) as the architect of the Ostpolitik that helped to restore Germany’s moral standing in the world and corrode the Iron Curtain; Kohl of course is recognized as the architect of German unity. But nothing world-shaking happened under Schmidt’s watch. There was the bloody farce of the Red Army Faction’s terrorist rampage that Schmidt treated as a national emergency, though the state was never in real danger. But that was about it.

Strangely, though, Schmidt’s stature has grown steadily in the intervening years, during which he has been one of the publishers of Die Zeit, a vaguely liberal weekly paper. A series of interviews he gave that paper’s editor-in-chief, collected under the title “A Cigarette with Helmut Schmidt,” is a national bestseller, as are his memoirs and this book, Unser Jahrhundert (Our Century), a conversation with the left-leaning U.S. historian Fritz Stern. 

Just what the Germans admire about their former chancellor is difficult to say. Nostalgia may play a part: in Schmidt’s day the world was a comparatively easy place to understand. West Germany was safe under the American nuclear umbrella, and for all his hard talk about the unsustainability of a lavish welfare state after the oil crisis of 1973, Schmidt expanded state spending time and again, true to his dictum that “five percent inflation is better than five percent unemployment.” At the end of his chancellorship, both were heading briskly toward ten percent. In spite of this, Schmidt has managed to retain the nimbus of a praeceptor mundi in economic matters. The Germans have never taken kindly to the economic liberalism that superseded the established Keynesian wisdom of the pre-Reagan era, and it may be Schmidt’s unrepentant statism, together with his Kissingerian insistence that the West in general, and Germany in particular, should accept that the world can’t be changed and stop meddling in other countries’ affairs that endears Schmidt to his compatriots.

As is only natural in a discussion between a Jewish-American historian who was forced to leave Germany as a child and a German politician who spent eight years in Hitler’s army, much of this book is dedicated to a discussion of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Schmidt professes to being “completely puzzled” by the whole “process” and concludes that “there must be some genes that play a role here.” When Stern criticizes this “biologistic, almost racist” approach to history, Schmidt shrugs it off: “Call it an inherited trait... If you want to avoid the connotation associated with the word gene, call it a predisposition.”

Of course, this seemingly radical—though patently absurd—criticism of the Germans in general has the useful side-effect of making any specific examination of German history and individual failings superfluous. Thus, Schmidt can assert that although he was 14 when the German elites handed power to Hitler (and although he had a Jewish grandfather and had to fake his “Aryan passport”), his family, being “lower middle-class state employees” had “no idea what the word Jew meant.” “I doubt that,” says Stern mildly, and given the prominence of anti-Semitism in the Nazis’ propaganda and the fact that state institutions were almost immediately purged of all non-Aryan employees, Schmidt’s assertion is obviously self-serving; as is his assertion that his family “just didn’t notice” Kristallnacht; or that he had no idea the Nazis were using concentration camps to “re-educate” political enemies—although, as Stern points out, the Nazis themselves made sure that this became known in order to intimidate the populace. Indeed, Schmidt says that he realized the regime was “crazy” when it attacked modern art, but didn’t realize it was “criminal” until 1944 when he attended the notorious political show trials at Freisler’s “People’s Court.”

This, at least, is honest. But it is precisely the fact that so many Germans chose not to ask too many questions about what was happening to the Jews, communists, social democrats, etc. and had no particular distaste for dictatorship, racism, and militarism, that goes a long way to explaining what Schmidt professes to be puzzled by.

Given his amazingly clear conscience—and his apparent exemption from the German genetic tendency to Nazism, perhaps thanks to his non-Aryan grandfather—it’s not surprising that Schmidt states categorically: “Germany has no responsibility for Israel.” After all, “one ought to remind oneself that there are at the most 15 million Jews in the world” and that Israel is only “a small state that by its settlement policies in the West Bank and even longer in the Gaza strip (sic!) renders a peaceful solution practically impossible.” The implication is that Germany should not compromise its historically good ties to the Arab world by any kind of special relationship to Israel—as Angela Merkel did in 2008. But, moans Schmidt, “hardly anyone dares to criticize Israel for fear of being accused of anti-Semitism”—an argument taken directly from the handbook of secondary anti-Semitism.

Schmidt belongs to what the sociologist Helmut Schelsky called “the sceptical generation”—disillusioned and anti-ideological, pragmatic and wary of big ideas. Though this stance obviously has its merits, the danger of scepticism is that it underestimates the big idea of liberty, tends to distrust people’s capacity to govern themselves, and places too much faith in government by pragmatic experts. These failings become obvious when Schmidt professes his admiration for Hitler’s finance wizard Hjalmar Schacht, “one of the most successful economists Germany has ever had,” who “practised Keynesianism in its purest form;” or when he says that after 1989 Russia would have needed “someone like Peter the Great: disregardful of the people but open for every technical and economic development.” Unfortunately, the country got Gorbachev: “Anyone in power who starts a difficult maneuver called Perestroika and at the same time creates a public opinion, and a critical one at that, is embarking on an adventure.” One could go on; one could attempt to list all the almost unbelievable deficits in historical and political knowledge—for instance, Schmidt apparently has never heard of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But it gets depressing. Better to stop here with the observation that it is precisely people who believe they are above or beyond -ideology who fall victims to their own preconceived ideas and prejudices, which they do not recognize as ideology. Schmidt is a case in point.  

Herbert Wehner, the communist turned social democrat who engineered the rise (and fall) of Willy Brandt, once remarked that Schmidt had “learned his manners in the officers’ mess.” Schmidt is scathingly dismissive of Wehner, pointing out that as an émigré he had “experienced neither the first nor the second world war as a soldier” and would therefore not know that Schmidt, as a non-commissioned officer in the Luftwaffe “never once saw an officers’ mess from the inside.” But Wehner was right, of course, and this book shows it. Schmidt’s apodictic statements that conceal his lack of real education, his self-righteousness, and the brusque tone he adopts towards the mild-mannered and truly cultured Fritz Stern all smack of the boorish Prussian military man; and the fact that in a three-day discussion dedicated to “our century” Schmidt cannot find it in himself to honor his great predecessor Brandt indicates a meanness of spirit that is deeply troubling.

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