Chancellor Schmidt in His Final Months - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Chancellor Schmidt in His Final Months

Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt died this week at age 96. In the late spring of 1982, several months before his ouster, his party’s think tank invited a host of U.S. journalists to Bonn and Berlin in an effort to reassure Americans that Schmidt remained strong and true and the NATO alliance secure. Meetings with him and others left a different impression. This piece originally ran under the headline “A Separate Peace” in the August 1982 issue of The American Spectator.

We are collected by our German hosts at the Cologne/Bonn airport, and suddenly a number of tired American travelers who minutes before in Frankfurt were oblivious of one another begin to partake in friendly introductions all around. On the spur of the moment, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation has invited a group of American journalists representing five opinion magazines, ten major metropolitan dailies, several news services and labor publications — and including two free-lance feminists — for an “information” visit to Bonn and Berlin on the eve of President Reagan’s European trip and the NATO summit. As the think-tank arm of the faltering West German Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Helmut Schmidt, the foundation has arranged the trip to clarify the West German position on the many issues disrupting relations between Bonn and Washington, as well as to reassure the United States of West Germany’s boundless devotion to the Western Alliance.

On the bus to Bonn, one of the Germans asks about my previous trips to his country and my impressions. Assuming we are still exchanging pleasantries, I recall six wonderful days spent in the Bavarian Alps in 1973. But my host is serious: “A lot has changed since then,” he cautions, and indeed it has. As late as 1979 there seemed to be no such thing as the peace movement, no revulsion at U.S.-NATO strategies, no deeply felt suspicion of U.S. intentions. In a continent shaken by Euro-communism and Hollanditis, the United States could at least look to West Germany as its staunchest supporter in the Alliance.

Then came the election of Ronald Reagan, which — Schmidt’s open contempt for Jimmy Carter notwithstanding — caught West Germans unawares. In America, the Reagan victory symbolized renewed recognition of the USSR as a global menace. West Germany, however, conditioned by the procedures of détente, simply has refused to budge from viewing the Soviets in anything but European terms. “By the way,” Willy Brandt was to remark to us in several days, “the Federal Republic of Germany is not a world power and has no ambition to be one. We are a medium-sized power in Europe” — an ingenious formula which washes West German hands of any greater responsibility in meeting the Soviet threat. As President Reagan sadly learned in Europe in June, the easiest way for the United States to heal the rift that has developed between Bonn and Washington is to subscribe to the views of NATO’s European minions.

But our German allies should not delude themselves into thinking that the major source of the problem has been Ronald Reagan, nor spend too much time assuming that eventually Reagan will have to “come around.”

For what was left unsaid in our many meetings with high SPD officials from Chancellor Schmidt and Party Chairman Brandt on down is that the crisis in U.S.-West German relations just might be a reflection of the SPD’s own domestic crisis. In power since 1969, the German Social Democratic Party is about to go under. Only the personal popularity of Chancellor Schmidt, it is said, and the inability of the Christian Democrats to produce a candidate of comparable stature has been keeping the party (ruling in a coalition with the liberal Free Democrats who are also in decline) afloat. But now the SPD’s poor showing in the June 6 state elections in Hamburg — Schmidt’s backyard — must be regarded as a blow to the Chancellor’s prestige as well. Should the SPD lose in the next round of regional elections, in Hesse on September 26, its fate in the near term will be sealed.

What has happened? An American official who has lived in Berlin for years remarked that it is simply the logical decline of a party that has been in office too long. Others spoke of the negative impact of the world-wide recession, high unemployment (e.g., ten percent in the major industrial city of Cologne, according to its Lord Mayor), and West Germany’s growing vulnerability to foreign (i.e., Japanese) competition. But most compelling has been the challenge posed by the Left, with its mish-mash of pacifist, neutralist, antinuclear, environmentalist, pro-Third World, anti-American, and other youthful enthusiasms. Though still a minority within the SPD itself, the Left in its inimitable way has succeeded in turning the SPD leftward in a manner reminiscent of the New Left’s successes within the Democratic Party during the late sixties and early seventies. This development is noteworthy less for the obvious generational conflicts it suggests (“a breakdown of Germany’s traditional patriarchal structure,” according to the above American) than for the timid, misdirected response of party elders to this fundamental assault on the SPD’s legacy and principles. “For the first time in their lives, my sons have something to believe in — peace,” a veteran Bonn correspondent who has worked in the capital since day one of the Federal Republic told me at lunch one afternoon. In this he was merely echoing no less a personage than Willy Brandt, who remarked to us that “I have experienced worse things in my lifetime than young Germans demonstrating for peace.”

Even Schmidt, who has been known to use stronger language in discussing the peace movement, said that he “resents” its being depicted “so vituperatively” in the United States. “There has been an enormous change for the better between the Hitler Youth demonstrators and today’s… I won’t condemn them.” On the eve of the massive anti-NATO, anti-Reagan demonstration in Bonn, perhaps Schmidt felt discretion to be the better part of valor. Yet there can be little doubt but that neutralist pressures have undermined Schmidt’s own foreign policy with regard to NATO. Schmidt has staked his credibility within the Alliance on the installation of the Pershing II and Cruise missiles— which, we were told in no uncertain terms by Horst Ehmke, deputy chairman of the SPD caucus in the German Federal Parliament and one of Schmidt’s few major SPD supporters on the question, are a clearly needed deterrent to the unprecedented Soviet build-up of SS-20s. Whatever the threat posed by the Soviets, the Left rejects the “Euromissiles” out of hand as but another manifestation of Washington’s arms race obsessions, a response which plays on growing concern in the Federal Republic that in the event of a European war Germany will be the first to go. A perverse corollary, referred to by Ehmke, is increasing German suspicion that the U.S. and USSR will strike a strategic deal leaving Western Europe on a limb. In this climate, Schmidt’s few supporters on the matter have been reduced to arguing in effect that the Pershing II and Cruise are the one guarantee Germany has that America will share in its fate should worst come to worst.

The New Republic recently reported on the SPD mood in these words: “The West Germans are deeply committed to détente, but they are even more committed to the alliance.” Though I am confident this is precisely the message our hosts wished to convey, I would reverse the emphasis: In the SPD’s view, West Germany is above all committed to détente. And, they insist, who can blame them? Ostpolitik has brought West Germany closer to East Germany than previously thought possible, it has stabilized the situation in Berlin, and it has allowed West German influence to be felt throughout the Soviet bloc. There is intense public pressure in West Germany that nothing be allowed to jeopardize West German access to East Germany. Moreover, the West Germans exhibit a curious confidence in their own cultural, economic, and political strength—and a concomitant contempt for the Soviets in these areas. This permits them to remain both unconcerned with the dangers inherent in extending economic ties with the Soviet bloc and willing to stomach the humiliating payments extorted by the East Germans and Soviets in return for this access to the East—and even on occasion for the release of a hapless German from Communist hands. And so, the unspoken nationalism that has been injected into German attitudes toward the Alliance has become more discernible in the SPD’s insistence that détente be maintained — at all costs, and with no disruptions. This is one matter on which the Left leaves the SPD alone.

The SPD confirmed this dedication to détente by its response to the suppression of Solidarity in Poland. “With regard to the people of Poland, we reacted with much sympathy when they joined the free Solidarity movement. We would watch Walesa on television and think how remarkable that this is going on inside a system like that, and we hoped he won’t go too far.” Thus remarked Johannes Rau, governor of North Rhine-Westphalia and SPD deputy chairman. His instinctive caution speaks for itself. Yet it should be noted that Rau was the sole SPD leader on our itinerary to go so far as to “denounce the state of martial law in Poland and demand the release of all political prisoners and the restoration of freedom of association and trade unions.”

From everyone else we heard expressions of sympathy for the Poles coupled with a reluctance to say anything inflammatory about the Jaruzelski crackdown. It must be stressed that the West German public has responded magnanimously: 30,000 parcels are being shipped to Poland daily (postage free, the government presumably covering the mailing costs). However humanitarian, though, the aid is clearly intended (by the government, at least) not to revivify Solidarity but simply to stabilize the Polish situation—in other words, to rescue détente. When asked why the West German government has not accompanied humanitarian aid with greater pressure on Jaruzelski, Helmut Schmidt replied by defending the general: “Jaruzelski is certainly not loved by the Kremlin.” Then — in direct contradiction of a statement issued jointly with President Reagan last January — Schmidt volunteered: “Jaruzelski is not acting on orders from Moscow, he believes to be acting in the interests of the Polish nation.” Viewing developments in Poland as “a tragedy of Greek dimensions,” Schmidt insisted that “a rebellion would serve nobody’s interest.”

Like many others (“Every day is a Solidarity Day here,” Brandt declared), Schmidt is openly proud of the humanitarian aid his country is providing. According to one study cited to us, West Germany is responsible for 30 percent of the food Poles are eating. The SPD leaders speak of American aid to West Germany after World War II and how one good turn deserves another. “I have deep compassion for the Polish nation,” Schmidt continued, and added that he and Mrs. Schmidt have been sending parcels to their many Polish friends — “some of them Communists.” Concluded Schmidt: “I realize what I have said will not be popular in America, particularly among Americans of Polish origin” — nor among Poles of Polish origin, I should imagine.

“I am for changement only in the long run. About Solidarity: When there is no food, the government can only react Stalinistically. People suffer.… An arms race to bring down the Soviet system I’m against. They’re sitting on tons of arms which they’ll exploit externally.… Americans must see the interests of partner too.… I’m not sure of my plans. I wish to read, to think, to write — to re-create myself.…” The speaker is a handsome, youthful SPD diplomat, brought to our final gathering by one of our traveling feminists who for all her credentials sits at his side clearly enchanted by the soothing music of his continental English. We are at an outdoor restaurant, high above West Berlin’s Havel lake, dining on venison and watching the sun disappear into the mist and trees far away. In Bonn someone had said, “The Germans are a Romantic people, they need something to cry about.” Thinking back on our five hours in a somber and empty East Berlin earlier in the day, I can only guess what they wouldn’t all give to be sitting next to me. 

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