Germany's oldest living chancellor turns 90

23rd December 2008, Comments 0 comments

Considered Germany’s foremost elder statesman, Helmut Schmidt continues to publish a weekly newspaper and has a new book.

Berlin -- More than a quarter of a century after being ousted as West German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt is remarkably active for a man about to turn 90.

He has just written a new book, released a CD on which he performs piano works by Bach and appeared in television ads to promote the weekly news magazine he helps publish.

This summer Schmidt received one of Germany's top media prizes for his life's work in politics and public life. At the awards ceremony in Leipzig, conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the Social Democrat as "one of Germany's most defining personalities."

Schmidt served as chancellor from 1974 when he replaced Willy Brandt, who resigned after his most senior aide was unmasked as a communist East German spy. His eight-year tenure as head of government came during a turbulent period in West German history.

The country had to cope with the effects of the 1973-74 oil crisis, deal with the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles across its borders and fend off an onslaught by the Red Army Faction (RAF), a radical left-wing group that terrorized German democracy.

To counter the Soviet missile threat, Schmidt pushed through a controversial dual-track proposal for NATO.

The strategy envisaged talks on arms control coupled with the threat of basing Cruise and Pershing II medium-range missiles in Europe if the Kremlin failed to agree to dismantle its SS20s targeted at the West.

The decision provoked massive anti-nuclear protests in Germany. Schmidt's own party failed to back him on the deployment but his tough stance eventually paid off and Moscow later withdrew its medium-range missiles.

He adopted a similar firm approach when dealing with the RAF. Formerly known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the group was responsible for more than 30 kidnappings and murders of prominent figures in the judiciary, politics and industry.

Schmidt refused to bow to their demands in 1977 when Palestinian extremists hijacked a Lufthansa airliner with 91 passengers on board in a bid to secure the release of RAF leaders from a German prison.

Instead, he ordered German commandos to storm the plane at Mogadishu airport in Somalia. The Lufthansa hostages were freed unharmed but immediately afterward, three RAF prisoners were found dead in their cells in what authorities said was a joint suicide.

In the autumn of 1982, Schmidt's coalition with the liberal Free Democrats collapsed and he was ousted by a parliamentary vote of no confidence, which saw Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl replace him as chancellor.

He quit politics a year later to concentrate on his work as co-publisher of Die Zeit, continuing to write critical articles and give interviews in the magazine to this day.

In November 2007, he noted that the US invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush was "a war of necessity, not a war of choice."

He also claimed that Russia was being unfairly treated by the West, an issue he again took up in his memoirs, Outside of Duty, published shortly before his birthday.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, "it was not Russia that expanded its military sphere of influence," Schmidt wrote. "Rather, it is the West that has pushed NATO up to Russia's borders."

An avid smoker, Schmidt was subject to a German police inquiry this year when an anti-smoking initiative claimed he was flouting the country's laws on smoking in public places.

The inquiry was subsequently dropped after public prosecutors judged that Schmidt's actions did not pose a threat to public health.

"You certainly need a positive attitude towards passive smoking if you have anything to do with the Schmidts," joked television presenter Reinhold Beckmann after he visited the former chancellor and his wife, Loki, at their modest terraced house in the Hamburg suburb of Langenhorn.

Schmidt enjoyed inviting the world's most powerful leaders to his home, among them French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, with whom he helped lay the foundation for the launch of the single European currency, the euro.

"If people are together in a private atmosphere, it is much easier for them to open up to each other than if they meet in a conference room with lots of diplomats on either side of the table," he said.

A talented musician, he has recorded piano concertos of both Mozart and Bach. On his latest CD, Chancellor and Pianist, he is accompanied by pianist Justus Frantz and the conductor Christoph Eschenbach.

In a recent interview, Schmidt complained of a growing problem with deafness that has affected his ability to appreciate music, particularly that of Bach and Mozart, who he says were great influences on him.

Mike Swanson/DPA/Expatica

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