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Was Helmut Schmidt an 'impeccable Nazi'?

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Was Helmut Schmidt an 'impeccable Nazi'?
Helmut Schmidt with Angela Merkel in 2012. Photo: DPA
16:22 CET+01:00
It's a perennial question about the Nazi period: When does going with the flow for survival become willingly paddling the canoe? The debate resumed this month with publication of a new book citing above-average assessments of the ex-chancellor's military service under Adolf Hitler.

Due for release on December 8, German journalist Sabine Pamperrien's biography "Helmut Schmidt and the lousy war" runs counter to most portraits of the politician, as well as his own portrayal of his stance towards the Nazis.

Evaluations newly dug out of the Wehrmacht archives in Freiburg would seem to distinguish the 95-year-old former German chancellor as an exemplary servant of the Third Reich: "Impeccable national-socialist [Nazi] behaviour" reads one commendation from 1942.

And in 1944 his superiors gushed that the young lieutenant "Stands the ground of national-socialist ideology, knowing that he must pass it on".   

Not what you would expect to hear about a revered post-war political leader and "the most popular German of today" (Hamburger Morgenpost).

The presentation of the new material has outraged many people who rate Schmidt highly.

"It is stomach-turning how reputed German politicians with profile and charisma are dragged through the muck," commented a reader of a Focus Online story about the new book.

Dab hand at ack-ack and admin

Schmidt served with an anti-aircraft battery near Bremen early in the war before he did time on the Russian front and again in an AA unit in Germany from December 1944 until his capture by the British four months later.

He also performed administrative roles in which he reportedly excelled, mastering skills that would later serve him well in politics.

A member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Schmidt served as chancellor from 1974 to 1982.

While acknowledging that he was not an active member of the resistance to the Nazis, Schmidt has always maintained that he was no supporter of the regime either. To this day he refuses to use the word Hitler, referring only to 'Adolf Nazi'.

Schmidt's grandfather was also Jewish. While this did not result in him being persecuted by the Nazis, he was officially classed as 'Mixed race Grade 2'. This may have played a part in his failed attempt to join the elite paratroop regiment.

In 1979 he did concede that in the first years of the Hitler dictatorship he "came under the influence of the brown rulers". But in 1992 he stressed that he was also a "Nazi opponent".

It was Schmidt who assisted Pamperrien in gaining access to his old records before he then refused to admit her to his own library of personal documents.

Saw and knew more?

Others who studied the veteran leader's life have added more grist to the mill.

"It is quite clear that Helmut Schmidt was no murderer or office desk perpetrator," historian Michael Wolffsohn told Focus Online. But he added: "He must have known and seen more than he has so far sought to persuade us all and perhaps himself."

"It is academically honest and permissible to refer Schmidt to supposed gaps in his memories and inaccuracies in his accounts in his own biography," commented Bild newspaper. "But to topple him from some resistance fighter monument that he has never pretended to is cheap and dirty."

"He was and remains far above those who try to scratch at his pedestal," commented a reader of Focus Online magazine. "Lay the past to rest finally, concentrate on your own children and the future and forget all this Nazi sh** - it's time."

"With Schmidt we know that he was a soldier, served his fatherland like millions of others and was shaped accordingly," added another Focus reader before turning the tables on the current chancellor.

"It's a different story with Merkel. She was FDJ (East German youth organization) secretary in the GDR era with the special task of 'agitation'. She is our chancellor today and you have to ask who she agitated against, maybe the country she now serves as chancellor."

But Schmidt also lost some sympathy with the wider public in March when he said he understood Putin for annexing Crimea and played down the significance of this internationally.

And that's not all...

It's not the only curve ball he must reckon with in his old age. Another new book about the political intrigues and love affairs of German politicians alleges that he kept a mistress for many years in Hamburg.

He gave her up only when he came into the spotlight as chancellor, claims 87-year-old journalist and former government advisor Klaus Harpprecht.

Meanwhile, some commentators note that no-one is above being taken down a peg or two. 

"I'm indifferent to these same old chestnuts, but Schmidt was inappropriately glorified in recent years," wrote a reader of Spiegel magazine about the infidelity claim, adding that if true it didn't say much for his character.

The ex-chancellor has not commented publicly on either book, possibly saving his reaction for the launch of the next of his own books in February.

As for the praise he received from his wartime commanders, the Hamburg Morgenpost also points out that Schmidt's records contained many other positive comments - that wouldn't necessarily mark him out as a Nazi fanatic.

"Who wouldn't want such evaluation from their superiors?" the paper said of remarks that the 23-year-old lieutenant had "organizational talent" and "tenacity in difficult situations". 

SEE ALSO: Most-wanted Nazi dead, say Holocaust hunters

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