Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has died at home in Hamburg aged 96, his doctors told journalists on Tuesday afternoon.
As Chancellor of West Germany during the Cold War, Schmidt of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), left a legacy of closer cooperation on the international stage and economic prosperity and social reform at home.
In his twilight years, his admission of an extramarital affair and accusations he sympathized with the Nazis during the Second World War stirred up controversy – while his dogged refusal to stop smoking in public buildings turned him into something of a cult hero.
Either way, Germany is mourning the loss of one of its most influential post-war Chancellors.
Setting the stage
In 1974, the West German government was in turmoil. It had just emerged that Günter Guillaume, personal assistant to Chancellor Willy Brandt (SPD), was an East German spy.
What was more, the government – and Brandt himself – had known this for some time. Brandt had been instructed to carry on as normal, and had agreed. He even went on holiday with Guillaume in full knowledge he was a spy.
After the news broke, Brandt resigned in ignominy in 1974.
The man who succeeded him would lead Germany through eight years of Cold War, and bring it closer to other nations than many believed possible – this man was Helmut Schmidt.
Early life and Jewish heritage
Schmidt was born in Hamburg in 1918. The son of two teachers, he studied at Hamburg Lichtwark school, and was a group leader in the Hitler Youth until 1936, when his anti-Nazi views saw him demoted and sent on leave.
Conscripted into the military in 1937, he was awarded the Iron Cross during his service in the Second World War.
However, the Schmidt family had a secret: his father, Gustav Ludwig, was the illegitimate son of a Jewish businessman – a fact that the younger Schmidt was to keep secret from the public throughout much of his military and political career.
In 1984, he finally confirmed his heritage, but only after French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had shared the information with journalists.
A great reformer
Schmidt pushed through many centre-left reforms during his time in office, including vast improvements to disability and old-age pension schemes, rehabilitation benefits and a reduction in income taxes.
His government set a 40-hour cap on weekly working hours, raised the minimum working age from 14 to 15 and restricted employment for young people in dangerous or unhealthy environments.
Meanwhile, a law introduced in 1977 enabled a married women to enter employment without her husband’s permission. In the same year, a Sex Discrimination Act was passed.
Terrorism and the ‘German Autumn’
Throughout his term in office, Schmidt was also respected for his tough stance on terrorism – and his reign as Chancellor saw him lead the country through the infamous ‘German Autumn.’
The Red Army Faction (RAF), a group of far-left radicals, had been gathering strength for the past seven years – but in late 1977, the fight became critical.
On September 5th, President of the German Employers’ Association Hanns Martin Schleyer was violently abducted. A letter was then delivered to the government, demanding the release of imprisoned RAF leaders.
The West German government formed a crisis committee – with Schmidt at the head.
Schmidt decided not to comply with the kidnappers’ demands, instead employing delaying tactics in the hope that police would discover Scheyer’s location – a move that ultimately proved unsuccessful, and saw Schleyer lose his life.
Things soon escalated further. On October 13th 1977 the RAF hijacked a Lufthansa flight from Mallorca to Frankfurt in collaboration with Palestinian terrorists. Again they demanded the release of their leaders
Again, Schmidt’s crisis committee refused to give in. Instead Schmidt authorised the GSG 9, a specialist police team, to carry out a rescue mission Feuerzauber (“Fire Magic”).
In a seven minute storming of the hijacked plane at Mogadishu airport, GSG 9 managed to secure the plane and rescue all 86 passengers.
Schmidt: an impeccable Nazi?
In his late life, Schmidt maintained his position in the public eye as publisher of the influential liberal weekly Die Zeit and as a regular guest on TV shows.
He was revered as a moral compass for the country and was respected for his loyalty to his wife Loki. But two controversies in the years before his death were to throw this perception into doubt.
Throughout his life, the left wing politician insisted that he had in no way supported the Nazi regime. But in December 2014 a biography by journalist Sabine Pamperrien uncovered documents which seemed to prove Schmidt was an exemplary member of the Third Reich.
He displayed “impeccable national-socialist [Nazi] behaviour,” reads one 1942 commendation. Superiors boasted that Schmidt “stands the ground of national-socialist ideology, knowing that he must pass it on.”
But the ex-Chancellor defended himself staunchly, saying such commendations were the norm if one wanted to escape the Gestapo’s attention.
The second scandal was caused by the man himself earlier this year, when the 96-year-old stunned fans and critics alike by revealing he cheated on childhood sweetheart Loki.
The affair happened several decades ago, said Schmidt. He didn’t go into detail, except to say that Loki offered to step aside for his mistress.
Schmidt said he was flabbergasted by this idea, telling his wife: “there’s no way I can leave you.”
The pair had been married for 68 years when Loki died in October 2010, aged 91.
In August 2012, Schmidt revealed on German television that, aged 93, he had fallen in love again – with his long-standing secretary Ruth Loah.
Illness and death
Throughout his life and political career, Schmidt was notorious for his heavy smoking habit – and was rumoured to have a stockpile of up to 38,000 menthol cigarettes in case the EU decided to ban them.
On September 1st 2015, he was rushed to Hamburg’s Asklepios Hospital after suffering a blood clot in his right leg.
The ex-Chancellor returned home two weeks after his operation. But it appears that he never recovered, as by early November he was once again ill.
On Tuesday, he passed away at around 3.45 pm, in his bed and surrounded by his family.
“He fell asleep peacefully and in a relaxed way. He simply stopped living. He didn’t need to suffer any more,” doctor Heiner Greten told Bild.
“It’s a sad day for all of us, even for me,” the doctor and family friend said.
By Hannah Butler
[BREAKING] German oldest former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt passes on