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Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt turns 90

DPA/The Local · 23 Dec 2008, 07:55

Published: 23 Dec 2008 07:55 GMT+01:00

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He doesn’t want a gala for his birthday, or a state dinner, or any of other high-profile event that would probably be his for the asking. Helmut Schmidt wants to be left in peace.

“On my birthday, three friends and their wives are coming, and that’s it,” the former Social Democratic chancellor said, adding that the countless interview requests and uproar over his 90th birthday is becoming a burden. He doesn’t see the event as anything that special, he told reporters, saying as is tradition, he’s expecting his wife Loki to give him a single red rose. That’s it.

Still, the media is not about to let Schmidt’s day pass unnoticed. Germany’s two public television networks are broadcasting specials devoted to the event; one regional station is even holding a “Helmut Schmidt Night.” Newspapers are printing countless column inches examining Schmidt, his life, and his time in office. Much of it is praise for a figure who is seen as one of the last Renaissance men of German politics. He is the author of a non-fiction book now topping the bestseller lists and an accomplished musician, whose CD of Mozart and Bach concertos is doing respectably on the classical charts.

Schmidt was born in on 23 Dec, 1918 in Hamburg, the son of a teacher. He originally wanted to be an architect and served on the eastern and western fronts in World War II. After the war’s end, he studied economics and joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1946. He soon began working his way up the ranks and became known as an effective crisis manager.

Under Chancellor Willy Brandt, Schmidt became finance minister and was chosen by the SPD for the top job after Brandt stepped down in the wake of a Stasi spy scandal.

Schmidt served over eight years in office, longer than any other SPD chancellor, and most were marked by crisis. He entered the Chancellery during a global recession and oil crisis. Three years later, Schmidt found himself face to face with a national crisis during the “German autumn,” when the homegrown terror campaign of the leftist Red Army Faction reached its peak.

The terror campaign took the lives of state prosecutor Siegfried Buback and banker Jürgen Ponto, as well as employers' association President Hanns Martin Schleyer, who was shot after an extended high-profile kidnapping. Throughout it all, Schmidt held his nerve. After the hijacking of a Lufthansa airliner that was forced to Somalia, Schmidt called in German special forces to free the plane. He had his resignation letter prepared in case the action failed.

In the foreign policy arena, Schmidt faced off against the Soviet Union with a high-risk strategy in which he threatened to station missiles in Europe aimed at Moscow unless the Kremlin dismantled its own missiles targeting the West. Moscow eventually pulled back but it cost Schmidt politically and he eventually lost the backing of his party, handing the keys to the chancellery to Helmut Kohl in 1982 after his liberal coalition allies deserted him.

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But Schmidt then began a second career as a co-publisher of the respected weekly Die Zeit, where he has not been afraid to air sometimes controversial views, such as his opposition to Turkey’s EU membership or NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders.

At 90, age may taking its toll – Schmidt uses a cane and a hearing aid – but it has not dulled his pen, nor his fondness for smoking. He has been unfazed by the anti-smoking wave that has swept over Europe. Rarely seen without a cigarette in hand, Schmidt was the target of police inquiry this year when an anti-smoking initiative claimed he was flouting the country’s new laws prohibiting smoking in public spaces by lighting up with his wife in a theatre lobby.

Schmidt was unapologetic, and the inquiry was eventually dropped.

DPA/The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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