The storm surge in 1962
On the night of 16 February 1962, northern Germany faced the greatest flood in its history. Helmut Schmidt had only been the Senator for Police (later to become Senator of the Interior) of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg for a few weeks. Approaching midnight, the first dykes along the Elbe broke, leaving the southern suburbs flooded and thousands of people in danger of losing their lives. Many huddled on their roofs as the waters swirled around their homes.

The island of Wilhelmsburg in the Elbe River, with its many low lying homes built after the Second World War, bore the brunt of the inundation. Quickly taking control of the situation, Helmut Schmidt coordinated a rescue effort comprising 40,000 emergency personnel, and calling in the military to assist – officially speaking very much on the edge of his purview under the Constitution. It was his decisive action that led to only 315 lives being lost, cementing his reputation in Hamburg as a cool-headed crisis manager.

For more information about the great storm surge of 1962, see the Hamburg City website (QR Code):

Helmut Schmidt on the Hamburg storm surge in an excerpt from the film “Spirit of Hamburg”:


The Schmidt Family from Barmbek
Helmut Schmidt was born on 23 December 1918, and grew up in modest surroundings in the working-class district of Hamburg-Barmbek. At the beginning of the 1920s, his father Gustav was working his way up through night school – from apprentice law clerk, to teacher at a business school before finally becoming headmaster. He was sacked from this position after the Nazi party took over in 1933. Gustav Schmidt was the illegitimate son of a Jewish banker and a waitress and was adopted by a virtually illiterate unskilled harbour worker and his wife. Gustav hid his Jewish roots out of fear of National Socialist repercussions. Even within the family the topic seldom came up. It may seem astonishing today, but Helmut Schmidt described his family as deliberately apolitical: “Even when I became a Minister and later Chancellor, politics remained beyond my parents’ horizon.”


Almost a lifetime together: Helmut und Hannelore “Loki” Schmidt
Helmut and Loki Schmidt married during the Second World War in 1942. They had been married for almost 70 years when Loki passed away in Hamburg in 2010, ending a relationship that inspired many. In one of his last books, Was ich noch sagen wollte (“What I still want to say”), Helmut Schmidt wrote of his wife: “Today I know that a not insignificant part of the public affection that was granted to me over the years is thanks to Loki.”


“Loki” from Hammerbrook
Helmut’s Schmidt future wife, Hannelore “Loki”– then still Loki Glaser – awoke a certain social conscience in young Helmut: Loki grew up in very simple, poor conditions in Hamburg-Hammerbrook. On his first visit to the Glaser family apartment – the family of five lived in an apartment measuring 28m2 – the ten year old Helmut Schmidt was struck by such a strong feeling of injustice that it would never leave him for the rest of his life. The two of them met at the progressive Lichtwarkschule in Hamburg-Winterhude. It was Hannelore (she was a head taller than her classmates) who gave herself the nickname Loki as a small child, by the way.


From the head of the state to the head of the ZEIT
After leaving the office of Chancellor, Schmidt’s words became almost more important: After being replaced as the head of the government by Helmut Kohl (CDU) on 1 October 1982, Former Chancellor Schmidt became the co-publisher of the weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT. In the 30 years following, he would write about 300 articles for the paper. His opinions on current financial and political developments, in Germany and across the world were constantly sought: alongside regular articles in the newspaper, Helmut Schmidt wrote dozens of books, most of which became best sellers. The German people trusted the wealth of knowledge held by this Elder Statesman, making him a popular guest for television interviews. According to surveys conducted, Helmut Schmidt remained the most popular politician in Germany until well into his very senior years.