Many Germans will remember the fifth chancellor of the federal republic enjoying a cigarette. Perhaps his country’s best-known chain smoker, Helmut Schmidt was also seen as a thinker, as much as a statesman.
The former German Chancellor said: “I was not interested in power, or in that career. Admittedly, I was interested in public recognition, that’s true. Somebody who thirsts for power is potentially a dangerous fellow.”
Schmidt’s eight-year tenure as head of government came during a turbulent period in West German history. He took over as chancellor in 1974 after his fellow Social-Democrat Party member Willy Brandt resigned, when a most senior aide was unmasked as an East German communist spy.
He brought his talents to the fore on the stage of the east-west Cold War conflict. To counter a threat of Soviet missiles, Schmidt had pushed through a controversial strategy backed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation which envisaged east-west arms control talks.
This was coupled with the threat of basing US-medium-range missiles in Europe in case the Kremlin failed to agree to dismantle its SS20s targeted at the West.
The decision provoked massive anti-nuclear protests in Germany – but the tough stance eventually paid off; Moscow later withdrew its medium-range missiles.
On dire matters within Germany, Schmidt refused to give way before left-wing terrorists – the Red Army Faction.
They spread fear with bomb attacks and abductions.
Then, in 1977, Palestinian militants hijacked a German passenger plane in a bid to secure the release of imprisoned Red Army Faction leaders. Schmidt ordered West German commandos to storm the plane, and all the passengers were saved.
He was forced to leave office in the autumn of 1982, when a no-confidence vote in parliament followed the collapse of his coalition with the Free Democrats. He was replaced as chancellor by Helmut Kohl of the Christian Democrats.
But Schmidt stayed active in public life: he joined the national weekly newspaper Die Zeit as co-publisher and Managing Director, and for three decades his opinions retained importance in the public and political arena.