The elements might have been assembled by a Greek tragedian. There was the hubris—the overweening pride in the fact that he alone could hold together an increasingly splintered nation. There was the crumbling power base and a last-ditch parliamentary gamble that backfired, making him the catalyst of his own downfall. Finally, there was a stab in the back by his coalition partners, leaving him to rage against the “traitors” who had perpetrated what the headlines called his “betrayal in Bonn.” But, in the end, the only trouble with that metaphor seemed to be the hero himself. At 62, Helmut Schmidt appeared altogether too stolid and unlikely a lead for the bitter tragedy of ironies that last week conspired to bring down the curtain on his remarkable and turbulent eight-year career as the fifth chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Schmidt was initially ushered into office as a technocrat, an unassuming manager who would continue on the visionary course that his towering predecessor Willy Brandt had pioneered. But finally he was forced into the incongruous position of being confirmed by last week’s state elections in Hesse as the country’s most popular politician. Originally he was hailed for the economic talent with which he piloted a nation through two oil crises relatively unscathed. He went on to become the scapegoat for an economic stagnation that— while less severe than anywhere else in the West—was too sluggish for a citizenry that he had led to greater expectations.
With a moralist’s stern vigilance, Schmidt steered West Germany through its 1977 ordealby-terrorism without giving in to a clamor for an undemocratic clampdown, only to find himself ousted by a ploy that short-circuits the country’s recent tradition of popular democracy: allowing a change of government without permitting the electorate to express a view.
For many, there was a poignant aptness in the phraseology of the section of the constitution that his opponents wielded against him—the provisions for Königsmord, or death of the king. That was because Schmidt’s fall from power marks the end not just of a 13-year experiment in social democracy, or the mere winding down of West Germany’s 34-year economic miracle that made that social experiment possible, but it brings to a close a virtual one-man reign that saw Schmidt cut not just West Germany but Europe as a whole free from the U.S. umbilical cord. Lamented Denis Healey, former British chancellor of the exchequer: “He was the only Western leader who had experience, a policy and imagination.”
In fact, imagination is one quality Schmidt disclaimed when he assumed Brandt’s troubled mantle in May, 1974, amid the tempest of the Guenther Guillaume spy scandal. At the Social Democrats’ congress that year, Schmidt railed against the “dreamers and theorists” on the left who were calling for increased nationalization. A Hamburg high school teacher’s son, he prided himself on being “a man of the centre,” with his feet firmly rooted in realism and a faith in the free
market economy. As Brandt’s defence and finance minister, Schmidt was dubbed Der Macher (The Doer). He was the brisk and brilliant crisis manager who could get things back on the track, transforming Ostpolitik into détente—the “task of the century,” Schmidt called it. Guiding the country through the oil crises of 1973 and 1978, Schmidt propelled it to unprecedented prosperity.
But a new generation that came of age on the student barricades of 1968 judged the country’s very fatness obscene. That distrust spawned an implacable terrorist fist that smashed the seamless complacency of the rebuilt society in a hail of machine-gun fire and kidnapping. Schmidt refused the terrorists’ challenge to invoke repression and the fascist spectres of the past. “We shall not be infected by your madness,” he inveighed. The crisis left its scar, not only on his own steadily declining health but on the nation’s psyche.
On the international stage it was Schmidt who was one of the architects of NATO’s doubleedged decision to pursue disarmament talks while deploying Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe. With his friend Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, then president of France, he led Europe into a new monetary system that effectively unhitched the Continent from the dollar’s up-and-down apron strings. The leader, once regarded as “America’s man,” slowly removed first West Germany then the Continent from Washington’s political orbit. That culminated in this year’s inevitable collision between President Ronald Reagan’s attempts at a trade embargo against the Soviet Union and Schmidt’s own extension of Brandt’s Ostpolitik: a loan that made possible construction of Moscow’s trans-Siberian gas pipeline to Europe. A man of lightning intelligence, humility and patience were not Helmut Schmidt’s strong points. But his arrogance was never more than 2 intellectual. In lifestyle he remained a model of 5 unpretentiousness, retreating to his modest § bungalow in a garden suburb of Hamburg to play Bach on the organ or strolling the beach under his inevitable blue sailor’s cap with Hannelore, whom he calls Loki, the high school sweetheart who had become his life’s companion.
Always a solitary man, Schmidt gradually found himself alone in the centre from which he tried to govern. That solitude was only exacerbated last week by the fact that his wife was in Brazil on a research trip as he faced defeat alone. But, with his face drawn in the painted fatigue that has recently become almost a trademark, Der Macher rose to the scapegoat’s role and briskly got on with the finale.
When it was all over, Schmidt’s initial sense of betrayal had metamorphosed into a serenity that was characteristically pragmatic. Aides were sent scurrying around to photocopy the key papers he had designated for the memoirs that he plans to write. In that retrospective he will undoubtedly repeat his skepticism of world leaders who see themselves as visionaries. But his espousal of that limited view may, in the end, have been his most tragic mistake. For in the new divided Germany, shaken by the fear of its own ungovernability, a visonary, not a doer, may be exactly what is needed.
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