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Obituaries

Helmut Schmidt dies at 96; West German chancellor fought domestic terror

Helmut Schmidt

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt meet in Bonn during the monarch’s visit in May 1978. 

(European Pressphoto Agency)

When terrorists took over a Lufthansa airliner in 1977, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt refused to meet their demands and free members of the Red Army Faction from prison.

Instead, he secretly sent a team of 28 commandos to the airport in Mogadishu, Somalia, where the jet was on the ground after a 7,000-mile hijacking. After Schmidt’s squad completed its lightning-quick raid, an aide to the chancellor told him, simply: “The work is done.”

The hijackers had killed the plane’s captain before the raid, but all 86 remaining hostages were rescued.

Three Red Army Faction leaders later killed themselves in prison, authorities said. A West German industrialist who had been kidnapped by the group was also found dead, killed in retaliation for the raid, but the violent underground cell would be smashed, and Schmidt’s reversal of his predecessors’ willingness to accommodate terrorist demands underscored his reputation as an independent, confident, brilliant and sometimes abrasive world leader.

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Schmidt died Tuesday at his home in Hamburg, according to the German opinion weekly Die Zeit, which he co-published for 32 years. He was 96.

Speaking out vigorously on public issues well into his old age, he remained a compelling figure, known for shepherding his country through tough economic times, pushing it closer to eventual reunification with Communist East Germany, and facing down the band of domestic terrorists.

The plain-spoken Schmidt played a leading role on the world’s preeminent East-West fault line. He headed West Germany’s ministries of defense, economics and finance before serving as chancellor from 1974 to 1982.

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“Schmidt’s influence on German politics is almost unmatched,” Die Zeit said in its obituary, lamenting the loss of “a shrewd counselor, a reliable companion and a good friend.”

Schmidt’s firm hand kept West Germany on course as one of the world’s most dynamic economies even as other developed nations faltered during the 1970s oil crisis.

His term as chancellor encompassed both the explosive growth of a vocal anti-nuclear-weapons movement in Germany and the peak of a vicious terrorism campaign by the Red Army Faction. A stereotypically tough northern German, Schmidt demonstrated cool, unswerving leadership in both crises.

A chess aficionado who painted abstract canvases and played the organ, Schmidt carved out an assertive new image for West Germany. Still occupied by three foreign armies and suffering from postwar self-doubt, the country had been recognized by the United Nations slightly less than two years before he took office.

While Schmidt may have lacked some of the achievements, popularity and bonhomie of other German leaders, the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine said Tuesday, “he trumped them all by combining elegance and power.”

Pro-American but unafraid to criticize U.S. policies, Schmidt was the first West German chancellor to visit Moscow before paying the customary introductory call on Washington. Although American diplomats initially applauded this as a sign of increased West German “maturity,” Schmidt’s later dealings with the Soviet Union were to make some Reagan-era politicians worry that he would loosen his country’s ties to the U.S., weakening the NATO alliance.

After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Schmidt refused to join President Carter’s program of economic sanctions, heightening long-standing friction between the two leaders.

In 1981, Schmidt spoke out in favor of self-determination for Palestinians — an extremely unusual step for a German politician, particularly one of Schmidt’s generation.

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Menachem Begin, then prime minister of Israel, pounced on Schmidt’s record of World War II military service, stating: “He never broke his oath of loyalty to his Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler.” Schmidt did serve in Hitler’s armed forces, the Wehrmacht, but as a draftee.

Elsewhere, Schmidt’s high international profile won him considerable acclaim. Britain’s Financial Times named him its “Man of the Year” in 1979. The Economist, the British weekly, applauded him as the only head of government with a clear understanding of his role at the center of world events.

Schmidt came to power in 1974, making “continuity” the slogan of his new government. He aimed to further the Ostpolitik program, which called for West Germany to remain a loyal member of the Western alliance while working for rapprochement with the Soviet bloc and striving to atone for the wrongs wrought by Nazi Germany.

Schmidt signed an immigration agreement with Poland, an economic cooperation agreement with the Soviet Union and a transportation agreement with East Germany. He was the first West German chancellor to meet with his East German counterpart.

Despite his successes, Schmidt’s economic policies and autocratic governing style increasingly alienated the left wing of his Social Democratic Party. By 1982 it was clear that Schmidt had isolated himself from the party mainstream while driving away the support he needed from his rightist junior coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party.

His coalition government collapsed, the first in postwar West Germany to do so.

Commentators have called it tragic that Schmidt left office before world events could bring to fruition the central goals of his government. The East Germany he cultivated would not unify with West Germany until 1990, under the leadership of his rival Chancellor Helmut Kohl — a Christian Democrat and a man Schmidt publicly disparaged as a lightweight.

Although Schmidt resigned from the chancellery a bitter man, he remained politically active in his later years. In 1983 he became the co-publisher of the multipartisan opinion weekly Die Zeit.

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Opinion surveys in the early 1990s found that 62% of Germans would have been happy to have Schmidt back in power in Bonn, but he said health concerns prevented his return to electoral politics. He suffered from a thyroid condition and was fitted with a heart pacemaker in 1981.

“He belongs among the outstanding figures of German postwar history. He counts as one of the most significant chancellors,” Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Schmidt’s foreign minister, wrote in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel on his former boss’ 90th birthday, in 2008.

Born Dec. 23, 1918, to educator parents, Schmidt had intended to become an architect or urban designer but was foiled by the rise of Nazism and the war. He was conscripted in the late 1930s, first to do factory work and later into the Wehrmacht. He served on both the Eastern and Western fronts in World War II, was promoted to first lieutenant and was briefly held by the British as a prisoner of war.

During his internment, his interest in Social Democratic politics was awakened in long political discussions with his fellow POWs, he later said.

After the war, Schmidt studied economics at Hamburg University and became active in student Social Democratic politics. In 1953 he won a seat in the Bundestag, where he quickly earned the nickname “Schmidt the Lip” for his aggressive debating style.

In 1962, he returned to Hamburg as the city-state’s interior minister. When the Elbe River flooded, he made a national reputation by taking personal control of army and border-guard rescue units, sending Hamburg’s mayor home with a curt “You’re just holding up the work here.”

In 1969, he became then-Chancellor Willy Brandt’s defense minister.

In May 1974, a spying scandal engulfed the administration and a weary Brandt resigned, paving the way for Schmidt to take over as chancellor.

Schmidt was married since 1942 to Hannelore, known as Loki, a former schoolmate who helped him complete his studies by working as a teacher and moonlighting as a dressmaker. The couple were parodied on German TV as “Loki and Smoki,” a reference to Schmidt’s ever-present cigarettes.

“In his supposed dotage in this country of rules, Mr. Schmidt enjoys a rare impunity,” the New York Times noted in 2013. “A heavy smoker, he does as no other mortal may: puff away anywhere, on television, at meetings, even, according to journalists who have witnessed it, in Washington.”

Hannelore Schmidt died in 2010. Helmut Schmidt is survived by his partner, Ruth Loah, and his daughter Susanne.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com.

Times staff writer Henry Chu contributed to this report. Walsh is a former Times staff writer.

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