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A Last Cigarette With Helmut Schmidt
Why one generation of postwar Germans rejected his leadership, and the next generation craved it.
“No, no, no. I have never thought about how I’ll be remembered after I’m gone. No.”
Helmut Schmidt, the former chancellor of Germany who died Tuesday at the age of 96, was quick to admonish me when I visited him a few years ago at his office in Hamburg. This had always been Schmidt’s style — clipped, curt, unsentimental — though his affect grew more curmudgeonly with age. (After his secretary showed me to his modest book-lined room, Schmidt did little to acknowledge my presence until I seated myself across from him at his desk.) In his regular articles for Die Zeit, the weekly newspaper where he worked as a publisher after leaving the chancellery in 1982, he aired opinions mostly out of step with the day: dismissive of political correctness and grassroots protests, harshly critical of the superficiality and materialism of youth. They were the types of crabby “get off my lawn” pronouncements likely to earn ridicule or, perhaps worse, quiet pity from younger readers.
Yet Schmidt, as public intellectual and unwitting pop icon, experienced a curious late-in-life boom in popularity. A nationwide poll several years ago named him the “coolest guy” in Germany, ahead of both the country’s leading heartthrob and its best-known comedian, and the dry political books he published in his later years — like Out of Office, a combined memoir and political ethics treatise — were routinely bestsellers, not only among nostalgic older readers but also young readers. In his final years, Schmidt made the shift from public figure to cultural phenomenon, from politician to star. It was a shift that spoke volumes about how German culture had changed over the course of his lifetime.
Outside of Germany, it might have seemed strange that a 90-year-old former politician — one who could move only with aid of a cane and was almost entirely deaf — had become a sort of symbol of hip. This was stranger still because during his heyday as a politician Schmidt had hardly been a popular figure. During his two terms as chancellor of West Germany, from 1974 through 1982, Schmidt even had trouble convincing his own Social Democratic Party to back him. His insistence on maintaining a balanced budget during an economic slowdown irritated his colleagues who were pushing for a stimulus; his push to station U.S. nuclear missiles on German territory angered the many members of the party’s grassroots who preferred to pursue rapprochement with the Soviet Union. Schmidt, for his part, scorned the inspiration-peddling politicians who stoked the idealism of late 1960s and 1970s Germany — and did so, according to Schmidt, in order to feed their own egos. “If you have visions, you should go see a doctor,” he growled. When his coalition crumbled in the early 1980s, it was because the country’s youth and his party’s free thinkers — the paragons of cool in that day — had abandoned him.
So why did contemporary Germans in their 30s and even 20s come to find Schmidt attractive? The first answer you tended to hear is that Schmidt was a chain-smoker in an age of smoking bans. Schmidt smoked whenever he appeared in public, refusing to ask for permission. (He had smoked eight cigarettes by the conclusion of our chat in his private office.) An air of rebelliousness attached itself to his throwback aesthetic.
Tobacco use aside, there was a newfound recognition and respect for Schmidt’s firsthand memories of hardship during and after World War II, when he served as a military officer. “There is a reason that Germans feels angst,” he told me. “They survived the hell of the Second World War. That’s part of the culture.” When he discussed democracy, it was with an awareness of its inherent fragility. “There is undoubtedly a connection between the conditions of democracy and economic success. One will not be ultimately had without the other.” Plenty of young Germans naturally identified with this kind of pessimism. Amid the ongoing euro crisis, they haven’t been sure that the economy will provide for them, and they are glad to delegate the problem solving to people older and wiser.
The Schmidt phenomenon was embedded in a larger Oedipal struggle between younger Germans and their parents, members of the so-called “1968 generation” who have held sway over their country’s culture for the last few decades with their professed rejection of materialism, nationalism, and traditional social hierarchies. Of course, before they were rebelled against, the 68ers had rebelled against their own elders — including Schmidt, who was eventually forced from office because people wanted inspiration, not his promise of a steady hand and continued prosperity.
Since the end of the Cold War, and the reunification of the country — a process that led to the first prolonged period of economic hardship in the western half of the country since the postwar period — German culture has been slowly tacking away from the tenets it inherited from the 68ers. Where Germans once talked down nationalism, younger Germans are now happy to wave their flag during soccer matches without indulging in any hand-wringing. The 68ers claimed that churches were debased institutions, repressors of freedom: Their kids are attracted in ever greater numbers to organized religion. Where 68ers made it their mission to politicize the country’s World War II past, today’s younger Germans have a more differentiated human interest in the soldiers who defended the country and sacrificed to put the country back on its feet. Meanwhile, the radical symbols of 1960s and 1970s have been slowly infiltrated, and debased, by consumerist packaging.
Schmidt claimed to have seen this all coming. “Anti-authoritarian education was always bullshit,” he told me assuredly, but given the way his hands pounded his desk, it’s clear that the conversation had struck a nerve. He went on to say that Europe’s most pressing current problems at the time were that it no longer had an identifiable elite. “Elites are an important part of all political systems. They have responsibilities that they need to carry out,” he muttered, again as he pounded the table. “All successful leaders — from Kennedy to Sadat to de Gaulle — had authority.”
This sort of talk was anathema to younger generations when Schmidt was chancellor. The German economy was coming off years of sustained growth, counterculture was in full swing, and young people were in the mood for rebellion, not deference. But young Germans now long for exposure to figures of authority like Schmidt. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the German public’s most popular nickname for Angela Merkel, who may soon become Germany’s longest-serving chancellor and has long been the country’s most popular active politician, is “Mutti” — German for “Mommy.”
Not long before I spoke with Schmidt, I attended a sold-out book talk he held at the Berliner Ensemble, a theater company that caters to the German taste for avant-garde political drama. The mere sight of Schmidt as he shuffled onto the stage leaning on his cane was enough to earn the first sustained applause of the night — though the loudest cheering came when he lit his first cigarette. It was an acknowledgement of an image made whole.
A group of students gathered afterward in front of the building, around a statue of Bertolt Brecht, the socialist playwright and director who held court at this theater in the early days of East Berlin. They lit their own cigarettes and began to discuss what they had heard. They all agreed that Schmidt didn’t say anything that he hadn’t said before, but on the whole they all seemed happy to have been there. One young man soon mentioned his surprise that Schmidt hadn’t answered questions about the then-upcoming German elections. “I just wish we had the chance to vote for Helmut Schmidt,” he added.
“That would be a huge mistake,” Schmidt snapped when I later told him what that student had said. “You simply cannot put an old man in charge of a country.” But there was a trace of irony in his voice as well — and the hint of a smile as he considered it for a moment. “No,” he said. “It’s pure nonsense.”
Photo credit: MICHAEL SOHN/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, Nov. 11, 2015: Helmut Schmidt left politics when he retired from the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, in late 1986. A previous version of this article said that he left politics in 1982 after stepping down from the chancellery.