Former Social Democratic chancellor and the country’s beloved elder statesman Helmut Schmidt, who died at 96 this week, reminded me of my German grandmother, Oma Gisela, who passed away four years ago. For both, the singular experience of growing up in Nazi Germany and living through the apocalyptic war that followed shaped everything they thought, said and did. And Schmidt’s words “Die heutigen wissen alles besser” (“people today know everything better”) could have come straight from Gisela’s mouth. Schmidt said that in an interview when asked about his role in the Luftwaffe. All he wanted to say was: “You’ll never understand.”
He was a member of a generation that has nearly died out completely: those Germans who experienced and contributed to the devastation and suffering of World War II, and had to live the rest of their lives in a haze of unspoken, unfathomable trauma – and terrible guilt – that lingered on in their souls for decades.
Those of us “blessed by late birth” – in the words of Schmidt’s successor Helmut Kohl, who himself escaped combat in WWII by a hair – will never comprehend what it felt like to come of age and have one’s values shaped in the Germany of the 1930s and then have that world view smashed to pieces by the total defeat and disgrace that followed (assuming one survived). It was easy for the children that followed to condemn their parents who had joined the Hitler Youth at 15 (like Schmidt) or were drafted into the SS (like author Günter Grass) as teenagers late in the war, without truly asking what they would have done in their parents’ shoes.
Like Grass, Schmidt believed democratic change should only happen at a snail’s pace. He mistrusted – or even dispised – charasmatic politicians (he disliked Barack Obama), revolutionaries and visionaries: “Anyone with a vision should go to the doctor.” The Nazi dictatorship had grown out of a radical, ideological revolution and Schmidt saw a similar danger in the left-wing radicalism of the 1970s. The confrontation between the post-war generation and the war generation climaxed in the “German Autumn” of 1977, with the RAF’s kidnapping of industrialist (and former SS Obersturmführer) Hanns Martin Schleyer and the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane by Palestinian terrorists allied with the RAF. The hijackers demanded a ransom of $15 million and the release of 10 imprisoned RAF members. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt refused to meet their demands. German special forces raided the plane at Mogadishu airport. Schleyer was consequently murdered.
Despite Schmidt being a lifelong member of the centre-left Social Democrats, his unyielding, authoritative Prussian style of leadership was often attributed to the eight years he had spent as an officer in the Luftwaffe, and didn’t appeal to the new left of the 1970s and 1980s. His economic policies, his disdain for environmentalists and embrace of nuclear power, and his insistence that Germany play a strong role in NATO turned off the younger progressives in his party, many of whom split to join the grass-roots, pacifist Greens in the early 1980s. The German left has yet to recover from this fracture.
With the exception of the far left, ex-chancellor Schmidt was admired by nearly everyone – although he held stances that are no longer compatible with the SPD of today. After the news of his death, the conservative CDU MP Erika Steinbach shamelessly tweeted a Schmidt quote from 1981: “We cannot digest any more foreigners, that will end in ‘blood and thunder'”. This was perhaps the majority view in Germany three decades ago, but the attitude of most Germans towards immigrants has changed radically, especially among left-leaning voters. But Schmidt held on to his doubts about immigration till the end of his life, even lamenting the increasing number of immigrants in Germany in his very last TV interview in spring 2015.
So what wisdom should we keep from the deceased elder statesman? “With will and cigarettes, one can achieve anything,” Schmidt, an infamous chain-smoker, was fond of saying. Who can argue with that?