Schmidt, Helmut (b. 1918)

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German politician.

Helmut Heinrich Waldemar Schmidt was the fifth chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) from 1974 to 1982. Born in Hamburg in 1918, he served in the Wehrmacht (German army) and attained a degree in economics in 1949. Schmidt's political career took off during the first postwar decade. Active in the Hamburg Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or SPD), he was elected to the Bundestag (federal parliament) in 1953. A leading member of the SPD's postwar generation, Schmidt established himself as an expert on finance and security questions during the 1950s and 1960s. During the chancellorships of Konrad Adenauer (1949–1963) and Ludwig Erhard(1963–1966), he worked with Willy Brandt and other SPD leaders to edge the party away from socialist economic and anti-Western security policies toward an acceptance of market economics, NATO, and the European Community. With the culmination of this strategy came the formation of the Grand Coalition in 1966, a power-sharing arrangement that featured the Christian Democrat Kurt Georg Kiesinger as chancellor, Brandt as foreign minister, and Schmidt as leader of the SPD's parliamentary group.

After the 1969 elections, Brandt replaced Kiesinger as chancellor and formed a ruling coalition with the smaller liberal Free Democratic Party (Freie Demokratische Partei, or FDP). Schmidt assumed a series of important posts within the new government. As defense minister he supported Brandt's diplomatic opening to the East, the New Ostpolitik, while maintaining strong ties with Washington, London, and Paris. In 1972–1974, amid the country's growing economic difficulties, Schmidt took over as finance minister and economics minister. His popularity persisted through the first oil crisis (1973–1974) and a deepening economic recession, even as Brandt's suffered a precipitous decline. In the wake of revelations about an East German spy in his entourage Brandt resigned, leaving the chancellorship to Schmidt in May 1974. In 1976 Schmidt secured reelection by a small margin, beating back a challenge from the Christian Democratic candidate, Helmut Kohl (b. 1930).

As chancellor, Schmidt focused his energies on the Federal Republic's economic problems. At home he instituted a policy of fiscal austerity—a break with the previous government—and made the battle against inflation and for economic growth his main priority. This caused strains with Brandt, who had stayed on as SPD chairman, and with the party's left wing, but served as glue for the coalition with the Free Democrats, long supporters of a free-market orientation. Abroad, Schmidt and his foreign minister, the FDP chairman Hans-Dietrich Genscher (b. 1927), worked through multilateral channels to cope with international economic problems. In 1975 Schmidt and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (b. 1926) of France organized the first of a series of annual meetings of leading industrialized countries—later known as the G-7 and G-8 summits—to discuss and coordinate macroeconomic policies. During the late 1970s, both men initiated the European Community's Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), a successful effort to foster economic convergence and inject new momentum into the flagging European integration process.

During the early 1980s a confluence of international and domestic policy problems overwhelmed Schmidt's chancellorship. Growing East-West tensions undermined his multilateral approach to foreign policy. Schmidt had always prided himself as a mediator between East and West, a strong supporter of the West open to dialogue and diplomacy with the East. This stance proved very popular through the 1970s and contributed to his 1980 reelection victory over Franz-Josef Strauss (1915–1988), leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (Christlich-Soziale Union, or CSU) and foreign-policy hawk. But the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and crackdown on Solidarity in Poland in 1981 combined with U.S. sanctions and arms buildup to undermine East–West détente. Schmidt's efforts to engage the Soviet leadership in continued dialogue aroused the suspicions within the administrations of Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) and Ronald Reagan (1911–2004). In late 1981 he managed to persuade Reagan to enter negotiations over intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Europe. But despite Schmidt's best efforts to foster a compromise, no progress was made through the summer of 1982.

By that point Schmidt's domestic political position had unraveled. His popularity had remained high through the late 1970s, reinforced by the country's relatively strong economic performance and the success of his campaign against the terrorism of the radical Red Army Faction. But the second oil crisis of 1979 and subsequent recession undermined Schmidt's economic policies and political fortunes. After his 1980 victory over Strauss, a renewed emphasis on fiscal austerity drew sustained criticism from within the SPD. Brandt provided cover for a series of younger party leaders on the party left, who were upset about Schmidt's perceived cooperation with the INF policies of the Reagan administration and abandonment of the party's traditional strong support for the welfare state. SPD disunity and the FDP's eagerness to press ahead more forcefully with austerity measures brought the coalition to the breaking point. In October 1982 Genscher and the FDP abandoned Schmidt and joined a CDU-led government under Kohl.

See alsoEuropean Union; G-8 Summit; Germany; Welfare State.


Primary Sources

Schmidt, Helmut. "A Policy of Reliable Partnership." Foreign Affairs (spring 1981).

——. Men and Powers: A Political Retrospective. Translated from the German by Ruth Hein. New York, 1989.

Secondary Sources

Carr, Jonathan. Helmut Schmidt: Helmsman of Germany. New York, 1985.

Thomas Banchoff

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Schmidt, Helmut (b. 1918)

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