On the death of the former West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt last week, The Scrapbook has two observations.
First, we cannot help but admire a man who seemed to smoke cigarettes incessantly and yet lived until a month before his 97th birthday. Indeed, on the few occasions over the years when The Scrapbook was privileged to be in Schmidt’s presence, we’re embarrassed to say that we remember his smoking more vividly than his talk. When asked a question, he had the habit of taking a long draw on his cigarette before answering—an obvious device to give him a moment to think. And when he did answer the question, we were always distracted—in fact, mesmerized—by the sight of the dangerously long ash he waved around in the air.
We always expected it to fly off the end of his cigarette and land in his lap, or in The Scrapbook’s lap; but it never did. In smoking, as in politics, Schmidt knew what he was doing.
Which was fortunate, since he was the West German chancellor in interesting times (1974-1982). He followed on the heels of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik policy of reaching out to the Warsaw Pact, especially Communist East Germany, and he straddled the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. This was the flood tide of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union’s dying gasps took the form of belligerence, and Western resolve (with West Germany on the front lines) was of paramount importance.
As a lifelong Social Democrat, Helmut Schmidt was closer politically to Jimmy Carter than to Ronald Reagan. But Carter’s weakness and dithering in the face of the Warsaw Pact’s SS-20 nuclear missiles, aimed directly at Western Europe, drove Schmidt to distraction. When Reagan fulfilled this country’s pledge to install Pershing II and cruise missiles on NATO territory, unless Moscow withdrew its SS-20s, Schmidt supplied his unwavering support in the face of huge left-wing protests in Europe and America.
Indeed, throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, when his fellow Social Democrats veered toward unilateralism and disarmament, Schmidt was especially outspoken in his criticism of his own party, and in his devotion to the Atlantic alliance and close relations with Washington. Of course, in the long term, the main beneficiary of these policies was his principal domestic rival and successor, the Christian Democratic leader Helmut Kohl, who was chancellor when the Soviet Union collapsed and Germany was reunified.
In that sense, Helmut Schmidt was a statesman as well as a politician—a rare combination, like a long-lived smoker.