– Bahri Yilmaz –
When I was in Berlin in September in 2009, I found myself within the 90th birthday festivities of the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. His latest book “Assuer Dienst” (2008) was just in print. Then, I had the chance to watch him on TV. What was of great interest to me was his vast memory and analysis skills despite his age.
I was swallowed up by his book. In a nutshell, it was a summary of his life and career. He candidly discussed his mistakes. He shared his views on the future of Germany and the future of international relations in general.
In his books, he uses history, economics and politics to analyze international issues and the problems face by his country. In his last book, which may well serve as a textbook, he gives important advice to politicians and emphasizes the importance of political ethics.
He underscores that “reliability” and “integrity” are the most important qualities of a politician. He further states that all politicians must have a vocation apart from their roles as politicians and know the histories of their own country as well as their neighbors well, arguing that reconciliation is the most important virtue of democracies. He candidly expresses his opinions on a variety of issues from the global economic crisis to environmental issues.
He opposes “untamed” capitalism and tells of the importance of ethics in life and politics. He analyzes the near history of Germany, the lessons that should be taken and its role within the EU. He criticizes the rather mediocre leadership skills of the elected leaders of the present day. He associates the success of postwar statesmen with being raised during two World Wars and having lived through great ordeals.
Helmut Schmidt was born 23 December 1918 in Hamburg. His father was a teacher, mother a housewife. He was in the military for eight years, from 1937 to the end of 1945. He tells his memoirs of the Hitler era in his book “Kinder und Jugend unter Hitler published in 1991”. During the war, he married Hannelore Schmidt.
After the War, he received a degree in Economics at the University of Hamburg, around the time of the renowned sociologist Professor Ralf Dahrendorf. After being elected the Minister of the Interior in the state of Hamburg, he entered the Parliament in 1952 as a deputy from the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).
The SPD renewed itself with the Bad Godesberg Program adopted in the party assembly of 1957. It left its Marxist roots and aimed to become a mass party. In the 1960s, the party went under some restructuring.
I was a student in Bonn/ Federal Germany at the time, and this was one of the most politically and economically active times of Europe and Germany in particular. The student movement was well underway, while the Ostpolitik implemented by Willy Brandt gave rise to reformist coalitions that included highly-qualified, committed and respected statesmen that we long for today.
The driving forces of the reform and the SPD were Willy Brandt, Karl Schiller, Herbert Wehner and Helmut Schmidt. Among them, Helmut Schmidt was special. The content, sarcasm and rhetoric of his addresses in the Federal Parliament during his Group Chairmanship of the SPD had gained him a unique political identity “Schmid Schnause” .
From 1969 onwards, Helmut Schmidt was appointed as Minister of Defense, Minister of Economics and Minister of Finances. Following the resignation of Willy Brandt in 1974, he became the Federal Chancellor and remained in this duty until 1982.
Helmut Schmidt retired from politics in 1986 and joined the leading German weekly Die Zeit. He is met with coolness in Turkey due to his strict opposition to Turkey’s EU membership. He is a realist and pragmatic politician. He is not aligned with ideologies.
Following his success in politics, he became a prolific author to share his experiences, opinions, convictions and his views of the right with the public. He speaks for the media and attends conferences in universities in Germany as well as other countries. He is a conscious and die-hard European.
He played a large part in the expansion of the European Union and the implementation of the Economic and Monetary Union. He is closely interested in political philosophy and history, and his influences are Karl Popper, Max Weber, Richard Löwenthal and Karl Dietrich Bracher. He is a particular proponent of Karl Popper’s principle to implement economic, social and governmental reforms step by step. Pragmatism and dependability are the cornerstones of his political and personal philosophy.
I have had the chance to read all books and articles by Helmut Schmidt. His memoirs “Menchen und Machte” (1990) is less a memoir and more a deep study of human relations as an element of historical events.
Another noteworthy aspect of Helmut Schmidt is his circle of friends within and outside politics. Some of the most renowned artists, politicians, scientists, businesspeople and journalists are within this circle. He explains these in detail in his “Weggefahrten” (1996).
One of his closest friends was the assassinated President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat. He mentions that he found out about the similarities and common properties of the three faiths from Sadat. Schmidt is a proud Hamburger.
He is a fan of Marlene Dietrich and a close friend of Herbert von Karajan. Their concert with the London Symphony Orchestra together with the famous German musicians Christoph Eschenbach and Justus Frantz is still remembered.
He frequently says that he thoroughly enjoys the works of J.S. Bach, Bruckner and Mahler. He answered many questions on his personal life and interests in “Hand aufs Herz” (2002), an interview with the famous German TV presenter Sandra Maischberger.
His colorful personality played a great part in his success in politics. I believe the “professional politicians” who are interested in nothing but politics have a lot to learn from him.
Another book by Helmut Schmidt was “Nachbar China”, an interview with journalist and China expert Frank Sieren in 2006. If you want to get to know China, you must read this book on the history, economy and his memoirs of China.
In 1975, Schmidt visited China for the first time as Federal Chancellor and had long and interesting discussions with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the creator of modern China, which he tells in this book.
He would then visit China periodically, discuss with its leaders and gain insight into the internal world, problems and future position of this country. Schmidt is interested in Confucian philosophy and discusses the role of the country in the region and its relations with the United States and Europe.
Helmut Schmidt’s “Auf der Suche nach einer Öffentlichen Moral” (2005) was translated into Turkish under the title “Toplumsal Ahlak Arayışı by Sabancı University”. Taken in its widest meaning, this is a political and social ethics manifesto by Helmut Schmidt. After acquiring the rights to translate this book, I had written him to request a foreword to the Turkish edition of the book. He suggested that I do this myself. I did my best to proudly fulfill this responsibility.
In a recent interview on German TV, the presenter asked him his last wish at the end of such a successful life. The statesman, thoroughly satisfied with a fruitful and prolific life, had a very simple response: To die peacefully and he peacefully died on 10 November 2015 at the age of 97.
Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt will be always remembered as a world citizen, a respected European Stateman, crisis manager and chain smoker.
*This paper was firstly published in Turkish by Friederich Ebert Foundation / Sabanci University Istanbul in 2010.This is a revised version of the original paper.
Bahri Yilmaz. Profesor en Sabanci University de Estambul (Turquía).