The secrets of statesmanship
Helmut Schmidt and the search for a better past
by David Marsh in Hamburg
Tue 24 Nov 2015
Self-reinforcing waves are crashing on to Europe’s shores: war on the borders, unemployment and terrorist fears within; the sabre-rattling of President Vladimir Putin and the trapdoor-rattling of Prime Minister David Cameron; the separate yet intertwined risks to stability in Germany and France. It’s hardly surprising that, at the centre of it all, in Germany a search is underway for a strong, wise and compassionate leader who can solve all the problems.
Since, as everyone knows, for all the well-known reasons, such a person is not available today, it’s only human to seek refuge in nostalgia. Precisely at a time of something modern-day Germans do rather well – existential Angst – a leader has died who seems to fit the bill rather well: Helmut Schmidt, West German chancellor for eight years between 1974 and 1982, before that, defence and finance minister. For four times as long since then, he has been the nation’s conscience-in-chief, a publisher of the Hamburg-based weekly heavyweight Die Zeit.
At a funeral service of underplayed emotion in Hamburg’s coolly ornate Scandinavian-Hanseatic church of St Michael, ceremony and affection were on full display. ‘We have lost a giant,’ proclaimed Olaf Scholz, Hamburg’s lord mayor. Angela Merkel, today’s chancellor, on the ropes over her can’t-please-all-of-the-people-all-of-the-time handling of the immigration tide, spoke of her admiration for Schmidt when, as a Hamburg government senator in the 1962 floods, he made mincemeat of the German constitution and brought in the military to rescue the city-state from the North Sea. She was seven at the time, living in communist East Germany, and had relatives in Hamburg. This was the only part of her homily that didn’t appear to have been written by a computer.
Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state, his voice cracked with age and melancholy, summed up the man he had known for six decades. ‘Perfectionistic, demanding, moody, inspiring…he will remain with us.’ Debating with Schmidt – as I myself can testify after many hours over the years in his tiny cigarette fume-filled office in Hamburg – was, Kissinger affirmed, a battle for ‘truth and wisdom’; Schmidt saw politics as ‘pragmatic action for moral objectives.’
There was much talk of the great man’s prowess in setting up summit meetings and the European Monetary System with his friend Valery Giscard d’Estaing (in the congregation, looking a little more sepulchral but marginally less sarcophagal than three decades ago). Homage was paid to Schmidt’s refusal to bow to blackmail during terrorist outrages in the 1970s, of his feat in laying down the groundwork for disarmament and the end of the Soviet Union with his backing (opposed by his Social Democratic party) for medium-range nuclear weapon deployment in the early 1980s.
Orators skirted over the less rosy aspects. Manfred Lahnstein, a long-time aide and friend, one of four past and present federal German finance ministers paying respects in Hamburg to a former incumbent, accused the Bundesbank in February 1981 of holding a ‘guillotine’ over the Schmidt government with draconian interest rate rises to counter the D-Mark’s weakness caused by emergency US monetary tightening. The discord with the Bundesbank was one of the factors eventually forcing Schmidt out of office in October 1982 – a move which, he later admitted, he should have precipitated a year earlier.
A third of a century on, Germany is in a not dissimilar position. The Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank are about to move interest rates in separate directions in a landmark action that could send the euro to parity and below against the dollar in the next six months. This time the Bundesbank, outvoted on the ECB council has – as Schmidt had wished – lost its clout. It will complain, politely and without power, as the currency succumbs. Wise strategic activist Schmidt would have little leeway now. For Germany, as ever, the secrets of statesmanship are buried from view; with Schmidt departed, the key will be still more difficult to find.
David Marsh is managing director of OMFIF.
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