Helmut Schmidt’s World

BERLIN – Germany lost one of its giants this week when former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt died at the great age of 96. Schmidt was the country’s defense minister from 1969 to 1972, finance minister from 1972 to 1974, and federal chancellor from 1974 to 1982. Our own day and age may seem particularly tumultuous; but the years when Schmidt governed Germany were anything but quiet.

His was the age of Ostpolitik and détente, of the first global oil crisis, of economic recession, stagflation, and the return to Europe of mass unemployment. His generation confronted the scourge of domestic terrorism and witnessed revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the rise of Solidarity in Poland.

Schmidt is remembered as a hands-on pragmatist, but above all as an accomplished crisis manager. He proved his judgment and his leadership abilities early on, when, as a city senator in Hamburg, he confronted the great flood of 1962, which devastated the city. Schmidt reinforced his image as a pragmatist by consistently voicing his deep skepticism of grand designs and long-term visions, albeit without ever renouncing his fundamental belief that there was a moral basis for his political objectives. So it should be no surprise that Karl Popper, with his pragmatic yet value-based approach, was his favorite philosopher.

But there was always more to Schmidt’s outlook on the world: As a son of Germany’s largest port city, he was a committed internationalist, genuinely interested in what lay beyond our borders. As a student of Popper, and carrying the memories and scars of the catastrophe of the Nazi years, he was acutely aware throughout his life of both the strengths and the vulnerabilities of our open societies.