German chancellor Helmut Schmidt gesticulates during a speech in June 1979.
Schmidt giving a speech in 1979

Helmut Schmidt, the former West German chancellor who steered his country through the world economic crisis and cold war tension of the 1970s and early 1980s has died at the age of 96.

Of the six chancellors who led West Germany between the end of the second world war and its 1990 reunification with the east, none wore the mantle of statesmanship at home and abroad with more poise and more trenchant professionalism than Schmidt.

Angela Merkel, the current chancellor, praised Schmidt as a man who had “rendered outstanding service to his country”. She said she often sought his advice, and had visited him in Hamburg as recently as last year.

“He was a political institution,” Ms Merkel said.

Ms Merkel singled out how Schmidt had dealt with the challenge of terrorism in 1970s Germany, supported the deployment of Pershing cruise missiles in western Europe in the 1980s, a controversial decision that put strains on his Social Democratic party (SPD), and helped to launch the European Monetary System in 1979.

She called him “one of the fathers of summit diplomacy”, noting that he and the French president Giscard d’Estaing had held one of the world’s first economic summits 40 years ago.

When he succeeded Willy Brandt in 1974 as the country’s second Social Democrat chancellor, Schmidt — a former defence and finance minister — brought a wealth of experience to his office and quickly developed authority on the world stage.

The centre-left Social Democrat led West Germany from 1974 to 1982, when he lost power to conservative Helmut Kohl. His leadership qualities, like his principles, were turned to the best advantage of his country and of Europe.

Schmidt’s straight-talking, sometimes moralistic political style was influenced by a conviction that his country had to build on the most stringent lessons from the catastrophe of the war.

His view was that the shadow of Hitler and Auschwitz obliged Germany to promote European integration and international stability.

One his best-known sayings, which summed up his gritty, pragmatic side and suspicion of ideologues was “whoever has a vision should go and visit a doctor”. Schmidt went on to become an iconic elder statesman, weighing in on Germany’s political debates into his 90s.

The Suddeutsche newspaper said in an obituary: “As a politician, Helmut Schmidt was a crisis manager and global economist. As a pensioner, he was a publicist and elder statesman. After he was voted out of the chancellery, his popularity rose from year to year.”

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, foreign minister, said: “We Germans have lost a father figure …Helmut Schmidt was not only a chancellor of the Germans -— he was a mentor of the Germans.”

Mr Steinmeier praised Schmidt’s global vision, saying he “always saw Germany in Europe and Europe on the world stage”. He joked about Schmidt’s love of smoking, saying: “ Helmut Schmidt was a great statesman down to his last cigarette.”

Hans-Dietrich Genscher, a former German foreign minister, said: “We know that Germany has become poorer, and we feel that we will miss him again and again …For me, Helmut Schmidt’s death marks the parting from a companion in difficult times.”

Sigmar Gabriel, head of the SPD said: “Helmut Schmidt embodied in the best sense of the word the international tradition of social democracy …we will miss his judgment, his world view and his advice. We grieve for Helmut Schmidt and are proud that he was one of us.”

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