In Memoriam: Remembering Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt

In Memoriam

Remembering Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt

Former West German Bundeskanzler (chancellor) Helmut Schmidt: At the age of 96 he passed away on November 10th, 2015. The chain-smoking ever grumpy-looking politician was as beloved as he was controversial: Even after his death he caused a ruckus on Twitter.

Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-F048646-0033, Dortmund, SPD-Parteitag, Helmut Schmidt

The Life of a Century

“Der Jahrhundertlotse” is the title of the Spiegel Online obituary. “Jahrhundertlotse” means a person who controlled the fate of a century. That is how many see Helmut Schmidt.

Schmidt’s almost one-hundred-year-long life began in 1918 in Hamburg, shortly after the Weimar Republic was founded and 15 years before Adolf Hitler was elected Reichskanzler. He served in the army and fought at the eastern front in the 1940s.

His political career began in 1946 when he became a member of the SPD (Social Democratic Party). In 1974 he was elected chancellor of West Germany and held the office until 1982.

The reason why Spiegel Online sees Helmut Schmidt not just as a chancellor, but as someone who controlled the fate of the second half of the 20th century, is described in the obituary:


“And then I decided!” That he did. Always. Whether it was the storm tide in Hamburg (1962), during the oil and economic crisis (1973), [or] in conflict with his party about how to handle the RAF terrorists (Red Army Faction, 1977) he always decided. Helmut Schmidt wasn’t a man for long discussions—he was a politician who had the instinct and will to power, a commander. A lover of blunt words.

„Und ich habe dann entschieden!“ Hat er. Immer. Ob bei der Sturmflut in Hamburg, in der Öl- und Weltwirtschaftskrise, im Streit mit seiner Partei oder im Umgang mit RAF-Terroristen, er hat immer entschieden. Helmut Schmidt war kein Mann für lange Diskussionen …, er war ein Politiker mit Machtinstinkt und Machtwillen, ein Befehlshaber. Ein Liebhaber deutlicher Worte.

Cause for Controversy

Helmut Schmidt was not just a politician. After he retired as chancellor, he became a publisher at the weekly magazine Die Zeit. About working with him Die Zeit writes:


“…His authority among the editorial team grew year after year. …The initial skepticism of his colleagues turned into honest curiosity and at the end even into fondness and pride: Helmut Schmidt became one of them. He listened, could laugh, and reacted sensitively to vulgar text passages. …He knew how history was made—and by whom. His pragmatic arguments could be ice-cold. In an editorial office, where its secular humanism insisted on respecting human rights, painful discussions could not stay out: The geopolitician Schmidt, who considered the big historical context, could find references to inhumanness of the Chinese regime or the Russian power projections only naïve.”

(…) Seine inner-redaktionelle Autorität wuchs von Jahr zu Jahr (…) die anfängliche Skepsis der Kollegen verwandelte sich in aufrichtige Neugier und am Ende sogar in Zuneigung und Stolz: Helmut Schmidt war einer von ihnen geworden. Er hörte zu, konnte lachen und reagierte empfindlich auf vulgäre Textstellen. (…) Er wusste, wie Geschichte gemacht wurde – und von wem. Seine realpolitischen Argumente konnten eisig werden – in einer Redaktion, deren säkularer Humanismus auf der Einhaltung der Menschenrechte pochte, konnten schmerzliche Diskussionen nicht ausbleiben: Dem Geopolitiker Schmidt, der in großen historischen Zusammenhänge dachte, konnten Hinweise auf die Unmenschlichkeit des chinesischen Regimes oder russischer Machtprojektionen nur naiv erscheinen. (…)

Helmut Schmidt’s interest in China was so big that at the age of 93 he flew to China one last time, where he met and spoke with China’s top politicians. “Until recently, Schmidt was accused of busying himself with the big political eras in China but not with the system’s victims. His answer to his critics was: “For human rights in my own country I would go to the barricades if necessary, but I do not have the right to give other people in other countries public advice on how they should attain human rights.” Until the end, Schmidt said that foreign policy should not be “linked to values” but “based on peace”.” writes the Deutsche Welle in English.

Reactions on Twitter

It is blunt words like this that seemed to have caused controversy, but also sympathy among German citizens until this day—even after his death. On the day of his death a quote by Helmut Schmidt caused uproar yet another time.
It was posted by parliament member Erika Steinbach (CDU). Just one hour after Schmidt’s death became public knowledge she twittered this quote from 1981:


“We cannot accept more foreigners; that will lead to blood and thunder”

Wir können nicht mehr Ausländer verdauen, das gibt Mord und Totschlag.

erika steinbach

Erika Steinbach is known for her anti-refugee attitude and as the conservative newspaper FAZ puts it, she is also known “for not thinking too much”:


Unfortunately, Steinbach did not mention why the news of (Schmidt’s) death could be an occasion for remembering this sentence. But that is probably too much to ask of a woman who has sent out about 16100 tweets since December 2011, which means statistically more than ten a day, in which case not everything can be considered elaborately. When she tweeted shortly after the attack on the French satire magazine “Charlie Hebdo”: “Only criticize the Catholic Church, otherwise life-endangering,” Steinbach already showed that once before.

Leider verriet Steinbach nicht, warum die Todesnachricht Anlass für die Erinnerung an diesen Satz sein könnte. Aber das ist womöglich auch zu viel verlangt von einer Frau, die seit Dezember 2011 gut 16100 Tweets verschickt hat, rechnerisch also mehr als zehn am Tag, da kann vorher nicht immer erst aufwändig gedacht werden. Mit dem kurz nach dem Anschlag auf das französische Satiremagazin „Charlie Hebdo“ verschickten Kurznachricht „Nur katholische Kirche kritisieren, sonst lebensgefährlich“, hatte Steinbach das schon einmal bewiesen.

Making herself the center of attention and using Schmidt’s death for her own political agenda is criticized thus in the words of the SPD-politician Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel:


“The abuse of Helmut Schmidt’s death by Erika Steinbach is outrageous, impious, and shameless. Conservatives without an ounce of decency!”

„Missbrauch von Helmut Schmidts Tod durch Erika Steinbach ist ungeheuerlich, pietätlos und schamlos. Konservative ohne jeden Funken Anstand!“

What might also have played a role in causing the SPD politician Schäfer-Gümbel to react so vehemently is that seeing the probably currently most popular SPD member associated with an anti-foreigner opinion, which is also so starkly against the party line that the SPD is struggling to keep up while Germany faces the refugee crisis .

As the Twitter-storm on his death-day showed, Helmut Schmidt was not always popular because of his opinions, but because he spoke his mind no matter what.

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