May 16th in German History: Helmut Schmidt Becomes Chancellor

Bundeskanzler Helmut Schmidt.jpg
Helmut Schmidt. Image Credit: Wikipedia

On May 16th, 1974, Helmut Schmidt became Chancellor of West Germany. Schmidt was the successor to Willy Brandt, who had attempted to improve relations with eastern Europe while maintaining relations with the US. Brandt had resigned due to a corruption scandal and Schmidt assumed the position of Chancellor unelected. Schmidt perused closer ties with the West and integration with the rest of free Europe.

Helmut Schmidt was the son of two teachers and grew up in the city of Hamburg. He was a member of the Hitler Youth before being forced to leave due to anti-Nazi beliefs, although he later was described as a faithful Nazi in documents from the 1940s. He served in various anti-aircraft units during WWII until his capture in 1945. In the 1960s, Schmidt served as a senator in the senate of Hamburg during which time he gained popularity for his effective management during the 1962 flood. In 1967 he became president of the SPD, the Social Democratic Party. He entered the government of Willy Brandt in 1969 and served in various finances positions. After an East German spy was found in the West German government, Brandt resigned and Schmidt assumed power. He would remain Chancellor after the elections of 1976 and 1980. Schmidt’s proposals led to the NATO Double-Track Decision which saw the deployment of Patriot missiles to Europe. Schmidt attempted to use Keynesian economics to reduce unemployment through tax reduction and investment. This program increased the deficit but did create jobs. West Germany performed better during the financial crisis of the ’70s than most other Western Nations which helped maintain SPD popularity even with scandals and unpopular remarks made by leadership. The early 1980s saw a worsening economy, however, and Schmidt faced opposition from within his own party on foreign policy issues. The FDP, historically the third largest German party, had been in a coalition with the SPD but broke that coalition in 1982. The SPD then formed a party with the conservative CDU. Schmidt continued to serve in the German parliament until he left in 1986 due to conflicts with the left wing of the SPD. After his time in government, Schmidt founded several organisations and continued to advocate for causes like nuclear energy. He died in 2015 at the age of 96.

Helmut Schmidt was not a particularly remarkable politician. Certainly, he implemented domestic and foreign policy that went counter to that of his predecessors and he took power following a famous scandal, but his impact on history does not equal that of Konrad Adenauer or Helmut Kohl. However, his efforts to integrate Germany with the West were significant and his economic policies stand in contrast to the austerity measures that are more typical in Europe.

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