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Meeting Helmut Schmidt: the man behind the statesman

15 October 2015. Another cold, grey afternoon in Hamburg-Langenhorn. My last research visit to Helmut Schmidt’s private archive next to his home, a simple bungalow in the northern suburbs of the city. I was there to check some final references before sending my book off to press. But unexpectedly there was a chance to say hello to the former Chancellor, now ailing and housebound, before I took a taxi to the airport. It turned into a full hour of animated discussion, a meeting that I shall never forget – and one that was very different from our only other personal encounter two years before, on my first trip to Hamburg.

I had already been researching the book for a couple of years, spending weeks in governmental archives on both sides of the Atlantic – in Bonn, Berlin, Koblenz, Paris, London, Washington, Atlanta and so on. From this cornucopia of official telegrams, minutes of meetings, and policy memos I gained a vivid impression of Schmidt as a major player on the international stage – totally at ease with the likes of Kissinger, Giscard and Brezhnev, pushing himself into the role of self-styled ‘double interpreter’ between East and West at the nadir of the ‘New Cold War.’ I discovered that he was far more than the man who features in many of the biographies – the German politician, besieged by party problems and forever in the shadow of his charismatic predecessors Adenauer and Brandt. Hence, for me, he is the ‘global chancellor.’

This image of Schmidt the international statesman was reinforced by my first meeting with him in October 2013. Highly formal, it took place in his personal office in the HQ of Die Zeit, the German weekly newspaper, with a grand view across the city to the Elbe. He was sitting on the other side of a huge modern desk – immaculately dressed in pink shirt and two-piece suit, with a handkerchief carefully folded in his breast pocket, and surrounded by ceiling-high shelves packed with books that he had written. The pressure was increased by the smokescreen that Schmidt put up between himself and the visitor: he must have got through at least twenty of his notorious menthol cigarettes in two hours.

Photograph of Berlin Mayor Richard von Weizsaecker, President Reagan, and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt at Checkpoint Charlie at the Berlin Wall, November 1982. Public domain courtesy Ronald Reagan Library via Wikimedia Commons.
Image credit: President Reagan stands with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Berlin Mayor Richard von Weizaecker at “Checkpoint Charlie” at the Berlin Wall. 6/11/82 by Ronald Reagan Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This was clearly political theatre. Here was Helmut Schmidt the Elder Statesman, aged 94 yet still a consummate operator. You were left in no doubt of being in the presence of a supreme political animal, self-consciously aware of his power and position. The conversation unfolded like a summit meeting – and one in which he held the best cards and could call the shots. The afternoon proved useful, up to a point. I got a feel for his personality but he evaded most of my politically sensitive questions on matters of substance. His main aim, it seemed, was to confirm the image he had created for himself, through his memoirs and journalistic commentaries ever since leaving office in 1982.

That was before I really started to encounter Helmut Schmidt through his personal papers. Over the next two years I paid a couple of dozen visits to his private archive, located in a modern glass building in his garden. I pored over thousands of pages of letters, speech manuscripts, newspaper commentary and book drafts from the 1950s to the 1980s – many of them sheets of paper scrawled in his own hand or typescripts covered by annotations in his famous green pen. Gradually I penetrated an intellectual hinterland that other authors on Schmidt seemed to have missed.

Schmidt always repudiated the tag ‘intellectual’ but he was undoubtedly a thinker and writer, full of energy and ambition, who thrived on argument. No wonder he called politics a Kampfsport: the more challenging the adversary the better, because he loved to stretch his own intellectual capacities. Writing so much in English helped gain him the international recognition that he craved, especially in America and not least from a young Harvard professor called Henry Kissinger. These insights, gleaned from his Eigene Arbeiten files, proved fundamental to my understanding of Schmidt as both ‘world economist’ and ‘strategist of balance.’ But it also helped me to understand the gamesmanship of that first meeting. The vanity and arrogance was not mere display: his palpable self-assurance was rooted in real intellectual power.

My second personal meeting in October 2015 was very different from the first. It took place in the study of his home, full of mementoes from his travels – a much friendlier environment than the cool, clear Die Zeit office. Schmidt had been seriously ill and was convalescing at home, wearing a zipped-up polo shirt. Once again we faced off across a desk and the cigarette smoke was ever present, but this time there was coffee and biscuits and the tone was firm yet gentle. This wasn’t a summit but a conversation.

I tried out on him some of the main conclusions of my book – about his key political friendships, about China and Russia, and about how Germany had come of age through his chancellorship. Increasingly animated, he suddenly switched from German into English, maybe just to remind me that he was still the boss. Yet there was now a twinkle in his eye. And a more human dimension of Schmidt emerged as the hour progressed: we chatted about his war experience, his passion for music and the pleasure of performing in public as a pianist. By the end I was on his side of the desk – captured in this photo snapped just before I left.

Three weeks later Helmut Schmidt was dead.

Headline image credit: Photo of Kristina Spohr and Helmut Schmidt, October 2015. © Kristina Spohr. Used with permission

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