Helmut Schmidt, leading civil servant of the German Republic
After entering the German Bundestag as a member of Parliament for the SPD in 1953, Helmut Schmidt revealed his extraordinary rhetorical talent, his predilection for clear expression and his passion for debating. The young politician (he was only 34 years old when he began in Bonn) quickly earned himself the nickname of “Schmidt Schnauze” (Schmidt the Lip).
Helmut Schmidt took over from Willy Brandt, also from the SPD party, after Brandt resigned in 1974. He held power right up until the parliament passed a constructive vote of no confidence eight years later. His political style was characterised by his pragmatism, personal sense of duty and dedication towards democracy.
As the “leading civil servant of the Federal Republic” – as Helmut Schmidt, perhaps with a twinkle in his eye, referred to himself – he proved himself to be a crisis manager par excellence. Numerous challenges awaited him throughout the eight years of his Chancellorship: the effects of the oil and global financial crisis, the “German Autumn” of the RAF terror, international political resistance against the NATO double-track decision and the anti-nuclear power movement. Helmut Schmidt always represented responsible financial policy in a time of economic turmoil brought on by the enormous increase in oil prices.
Schmidt the crisis manager: RAF period and the hijacking of the ”Landshut”
In the mid 1970s, the Federal Republic of Germany suffered a wave of terrorist attacks organised by the “Red Army Faction” (RAF). These reached their zenith in a period known as the “German Autumn” in 1977, with the kidnapping of the leader of the German Employers’ Association, Hanns Martin Schleyer. The position of the Crisis Unit is firm: RAF members being held in prison would not be released in exchange for the kidnap victim, the State would not be blackmailed. In the wake of the crisis, both Helmut Schmidt and his wife Loki left written instructions that should either ever be kidnapped, no terrorists should be freed in exchange for their release.
On 13 October 1977, the Lufthansa-Boeing 737 called “Landshut” was hijacked by Palestinian sympathisers of the RAF on its return journey from Palma de Mallorca to Frankfurt am Main with 82 passengers and five crew on board. Helmut Schmidt sent state secretary of the Foreign Office, Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski, to Mogadishu in Somalia, the last stop of the hijacked plane. After five days of negotiations, German special troops from the counterterrorism unit GSG 9 stormed the plane, and successfully managed to liberate the hostages with no loss of life. Back in Germany, the RAF members being held in the high-security prison Stammheim commited suicide. On release of the news, Hanns Martin Schleyer was murdered by his kidnappers. Schmidt would later say that he was weighed down by the outcome, but his steadfast refusal to give in to terrorist demands found a great deal of public support among the German population.
Schmidt and Europe
Helmut Schmidt was always driven by his belief in European integration, seeing it as the bedrock for enduring peace between the nations on the continent. This passion united him with Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the French President, leading to a long and close friendship between the two leaders. They both ascended to the pinnacle of power in their respective countries at almost the same time in 1974, amid the simmering economic tensions of that decade. Overcoming domestic resistance, the two statesmen set about creating collaboration between France and Germany and coordinating economic policy, both bilaterally and across Europe. Together, they launched the first global economic summit in 1975, an act that lives on in the G7 and G8 summits held today.