Helmut Schmidt: West Germany's Cold War master of realpolitik

Helmut Schmidt in 1972 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Helmut Schmidt was finance minister under Willy Brandt before becoming chancellor in 1974

Pragmatic, outspoken and often controversial, Helmut Schmidt was a far-sighted political and economic strategist who led West Germany during turbulent times in the 1970s and lived to see his ambitions of a reunified country fulfilled.

Born in a tough, working-class, district of Hamburg in 1918, a month after the end of World War I, Helmut Schmidt spent his early years in a Germany wracked by political, economic and social strife.

Aged 14 when the Nazi party came to power, he became a group leader in the Hitler Youth, joined the German army in 1937 and, during World War II, saw action on both the eastern and western fronts.

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Media captionA look back at the career of German ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt

Promoted to first lieutenant and the recipient of an Iron Cross, he was captured by the British after the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45.


While in captivity, his fellow prisoners of war convinced him to become a Social Democrat. Joining the centre-left party on demobilisation in 1946, he progressed effortlessly through its ranks.

He graduated from Hamburg University in 1949, having been national chairman of the Social Democrats' student wing, and became an economic adviser to the government of Hamburg state.

He was elected to the federal parliament in 1953, where his verbosity soon earned him the nickname "Schmidt-Schnauze" - Big Mouth Schmidt.

He won a reputation as a maverick, defying his party's anti-rearmament policy, and he refused to compromise with East Germany on its plans for an interim confederation with its western neighbour.

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Image caption As SPD chairman Willy Brandt (R) helped Helmut Schmidt's election campaign in 1976

For a short period he left parliament and as Hamburg's interior minister directed clear-up operations after a disastrous North Sea flood.

But he soon returned to Bonn, and became defence minister, overseeing the revival of the West German defence industry. It was this role that helped him lay down a marker for the highest office.

By 1972 he was finance minister under Chancellor Willy Brandt and became known as a brilliant manager of the West German economic miracle and a strong advocate of Ostpolitik, his leader's policy of reconciliation with Eastern Europe.

Within two years he was himself chancellor.

The Berlin Wall, dividing West and East Germany, was the front line in a dangerous Cold War. Helmut Schmidt stressed his goal of "political unification of Europe in partnership with the United States".

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Image caption Helmut Schmidt was seen as a friend of the UK and US

With skilled diplomacy, he pursued detente with communist leaders on the other side. But, when the Soviet Union stepped up the arms race, he stood firm.

In the face of fierce protests at home, he allowed the US to deploy medium-range nuclear missiles on West German soil, to maintain the military balance.

Among his biggest challenges came when the left-wing urban guerrilla group, the Red Army Faction (RAF), hijacked a German passenger plane and kidnapped a leading industrialist, Hanns Martin Schleyer.

The hijackers demanded the release of other RAF members from jail but Helmut Schmidt had stood firm.

Anti-terror commandos successfully stormed the plane, rescuing all hostages on board. But Mr Schleyer was murdered.

Fall from power

Helmut Schmidt used forcefulness and wit in challenging those who wanted the UK to leave the European Community. He told a Labour Party conference to think again about its anti-European stance.

And, together with French leaders, he launched a European monetary system which paved the way, much later, for the single currency, the euro.

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Image caption He actively campaigned for Gerhard Schroeder (R) in 1998 but for years did little work for the SPD

But, in 1982, after eight years in power, his shaky coalition was undermined by left-wing rebels within his own party. It fell to Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats to lead West Germany to reunification.

Once ironically called "the greatest chancellor the Christian Democrats ever had", Helmut Schmidt had little time for his successors, although he publicly supported Gerhard Schroeder's election campaign in 1998.

In retirement, Helmut Schmidt was a popular and often outspoken commentator on political affairs, both domestic and international, as a regular contributor to Die Zeit newspaper.

He once provoked outrage in Germany by saying that multiculturalism would not work in Germany as many of its people were generally xenophobic.

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Image caption Helmut Schmidt addressed an SPD convention in 2011 after years of absence from the party

"We brought in far too many foreigners as a result of idealistic thinking that resulted from the experience of the Third Reich," he said.

In 2011, he returned to the party fold, addressing the SPD convention in Berlin with a speech on Germany's role within the EU.

It had been little more than a year after the death of his wife, Loki, and Helmut Schmidt spoke fondly of the time, 65 years before, when the couple had painted signs for a party meeting in Hamburg.

Late in life the man who campaigned for European economic union and the single currency accused his country's leaders of failing to grasp modern international finance and complained that the EU lacked leaders capable of crisis management.

And he became critical of the growing power of the EU claiming, in a speech in 2013, that all European institutions, other than the European Central Bank, were guilty of eroding democracy in Europe.

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