Eulogy for Helmut Schmidt

In 2012, in a letter to Helmut Schmidt acknowledging an article he had sent me, I wrote: “Our long friendship is one of the pillars of my life.” We had cooperated closely over six decades: when we were both in government; even more frequently after we both left office; and exchanged ideas at conferences all over the world. We visited each other’s homes; spoke at festive occasions for each other. Helmut delivered the laudatio when my birthplace, the city of Fürth, honored me. On the occasion of Helmut’s 90th birthday celebration given in Hamburg by Die Zeit, I pointed out that when I was a boy, it never occurred to me that one day I might participate at the birthday of a German Chancellor. But that was before I knew that smoking four packs of cigarettes and consuming ten Coca-Colas a day guaranteed longevity. In time, our friendship expanded to include Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew and former Secretary of State George Shultz.

Yet I would be hard-put to provide this distinguished audience with personal illustrations of the nature of our friendship. After sixty years, we still did not use the personal pronoun of “du.” The record is barren of any letters expressing personal attachment. The furthest Helmut went was to say to a reporter: “The four of us can rely on each other, because we four will not say anything to the others except the absolute truth.”

Therein resided the special quality of Helmut Schmidt. He described his profession as that of a practicing politician. But his vision of it transcended politics. He was one of the most erudite of Germany’s postwar leaders; he played the piano well enough to have performed a Mozart concerto with the London Symphony. He had entered politics almost as an afterthought, his first love having been architecture and city planning. Had he possessed sufficient funds at the end of the Second World War to pursue time-consuming studies, he would have devoted his extraordinary energy and intelligence to rebuilding Germany’s war-ravaged cities. As it was, Helmut chose political economy, the least expensive course of study.

Helmut lived in an age of transition: between Germany’s past as an occupied and divided country and its future as the strongest European nation; between its obsession with security and the need to participate in building a global economic world order; between his Social Democratic Party’s belated commitment to the Atlantic Alliance and the emergence of the quest for a more universal concept.

Helmut was imbued with a deep sense of obligation to take his country from where it was to where it had never been. The most important prerequisites for statesmanship are vision and courage: vision to overcome the danger of stagnation; courage to navigate hitherto uncharted territory.

Helmut never claimed these attributes for himself, though he embodied them. In a profound speech at the University of Tübingen in 2007, he distilled the variety of motivations that might guide political leaders such as reason, law, peace, and religion into his personal guideline:

   “For me, the final authority remains my own conscience, although I realize that there are many theological and philosophical opinions about the conscience. The word was already used in the time of the Greeks and Romans. Later, Paul and other theologians used it to mean our awareness of God and God’s ordained order and, at the same time, our awareness that every violation of this order is a sin… Kant described the conscience as ‘the awareness of an inner court of justice in man.’”

It was the dedicated pursuit of that conscience that made Helmut appear so austere in his personal relationships. Small talk deflected him from his duties as he saw them. Helmut felt obliged to spend his time on the acquisition of the knowledge required to master the challenges fate had set out for his generation. And his concerns covered a spectacular gamut: the European Union, international security, global world order, the evolution of democracy, the international financial system, the evolution of Asia and all the regions of the world—all this mitigated by his spiritual relationship with music, especially Bach and Mozart. So intense was this inner concentration that—as he told me on one occasion—though in his old age substantially deaf, he could hear the music by looking at a score.

These attributes imbued Helmut’s friendships with a special quality. Friendship for Helmut was a kind of partnership in pursuit of the necessary and the true. With his friends, he was in a permanent conversation. Each meeting began where the previous one had left off. And despite their seeming formality, these relationships were sustained by deep affection. For at the reverse side of his understated conduct was sentimentality. In entering into relationship with Helmut, one was recruited, as it were, into an intellectual order that pursued essential truth with humility: “I shall add rather quietly: all of us have gone against our own conscience more than once. We have all had to live ‘with a guilty conscience.’ Of course, this all too human weakness is shared by politicians, too.”

There were not many occasions for this. For Helmut’s convictions shaped his conduct when he was in office. “Politics without a conscience tends towards criminality,” he said on one occasion. “I understand politics as pragmatic action for moral purposes.” In 1977, a German commando unit undertook a daring raid to rescue German hostages who had been hijacked by terrorists to Mogadishu in Somalia. A few weeks later, Helmut recounted to me his anguish in the hours before he knew that the raid had been successful. If he could feel so deeply about the survival of eighty-six hostages and the lives of the commando unit, he mused, how would he ever be able to implement the NATO strategy involving nuclear weapons? And yet, when the time came to decide on the deployment of medium-range missiles in Germany, Helmut carried out what intellectually he considered to be his duty, in opposition to the majority of his party. It turned into the proximate case of his fall from office.

Helmut was a driving force behind the European Security Conference of 1974, which accelerated the process of delegitimizing the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Together with his friend Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, he institutionalized the meetings of heads of state—first the G-5, now the G-7—to express the pursuit of a joint global approach to world order. Again in concert with Giscard d’Estaing, Helmut championed the European Union.

For a time after Helmut left office, it seemed as if destiny had been unkind to him. Political leaders operate under the shadow of transitoriness. They act as if their decisions were permanent, while their time in office is usually shorter than the rhythm of history. Legacy, therefore, often depends on the accident of dramatic events. But as the decades went by, Helmut came to epitomize the deeper meaning of legacy. He conducted himself as if his life’s contribution was not a function of office but of conscience. He traveled around the world lecturing, writing nearly a book a year, explaining issues, calling us all to our duty so that, at the end, he had become an expression of the deepest values of his society and a kind of conscience to the world.

Permit me to cite one more passage from Helmut about Germany’s moral obligations:

   “One final, double insight is very important to me. Firstly, that is, that our open society and our democracy suffer from many imperfections and deficiencies, and that all politicians still have all-too-human weaknesses. It would be a dangerous error to think of our real, existing democracy as a pure ideal. But, secondly, we Germans—due to our catastrophic history—nonetheless have every reason in the world to cling on to democracy with all our might, constantly revitalizing it and constantly standing up bravely to its enemies.”

On Helmut’s 90th birthday, I made the comment that I hoped he would survive me, because a world without Helmut would be an empty one.

I was mistaken. Helmut will remain with us—crotchety, perfectionist, questing, demanding, inspiring, ever reliable. We will be sustained for the rest of our lives by his devotion and striving and the honor of having been contemporary of a great and good man.