What Would Helmut Schmidt Do? Leadership in a Time of Crisis

Dec 15, 2011

Lecutre at the GHI | Speaker: Theo Sommer

With the departure of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and George Papandreou in Greece, the present crisis of the Euro is turning out to be a crisis for Europe's leadership. In this lecture, Theo Sommer looked back at a European leader of a different moment, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.As one of the leaders of European integration in the 1970s, Schmidt was instrumental in the creation of the European Monetary System, a major precursor to the embattled European Economic and Monetary Union of today.

Theo Sommer is Editor-at-Large of the German weekly Die Zeit. From 1973 to 1992, he was the paper's Editor-in-Chief (Chefredakteur) and from 1992-2000 he served as one of its publishers (Herausgeber). His most recent book, Unser Schmidt: Der Staatsmann und der Publizist (Hoffmann und Campe, 2010), is a first-hand account of Helmut Schmidt's career as politician and as publisher for Die Zeit.

After introductory remarks about his long-standing friendship with Helmut Schmidt, their collaboration on the publisher's board of Die Zeit, and the many conversations they had in the course of preparing his book on Schmidt, Sommer gave an overview of Schmidt's views on the current Euro crisis. Since Germany was the beneficiary of significant international aid in the postwar period, Germany should stand ready to make major contributions to the economic recovery of the weaker members of the Euro zone. Referring to the disastrous consequences of Chancellor Brüning's deflationary policies in the early 1930s, Schmidt has argued that simply imposing austerity would be a recipe for disaster in the current crisis. Instead he has called for a European growth plan modeled on the Marshall plan as well as stricter regulation of financial markets.

Regarding Germany's role in world politics, Sommer reported that Schmidt has long been categorically opposed to military intervention abroad, even condemning German participation in the Balkan wars in the 1990s. Schmidt not only opposed the war in Iraq, but also believes that the war in Afghanistan is doomed to failure. He is also concerned that NATO functions too much as an instrument of US policy; instead, NATO should be scaled back to become a purely defensive organization. Regarding the United States, Schmidt predicts that the American population will soon begin to demand more social justice at home. Regarding China, he acknowledges China's military buildup but points out that China has historically been a peaceful nation and that the US military will remain superior for at least another generation. He warns that the West must not enter a new Cold War with China but continue on the path of cooperation.

Summer then turned to Schmidt's views on Russia and Turkey. Although Schmidt is concerned that Russia may be headed toward some sort of authoritarian government, he believes that it is not Germany's job to lecture the Russians. Given that Germany invaded Russia in two world wars, it is remarkable that current relations between Germany and Russia are as friendly as they are, and Schmidt believes that German foreign policy must do what it can to maintain these good relations. Schmidt is opposed to Turkey's accession to the European Union both because further expansion would water down the Union and because he does not regard Turkey as a stable democracy but as a country that is part of a different Kulturkreis. On this point, Sommer dissented from Schmidt, expressing strong support for Turkey's accession to the European Union.

In conclusion, Sommer noted that Schmidt was a pragmatic politician and that his political reputation has only soared since his retirement from the chancellorship in 1982. Today, he is regarded as Germany's most important elder statesman. The lecture was followed by a vigorous question-and-answer period.