Laudatio on Helmut Schmidt

City Hall of Vienna

March 26th 2014

Dear Major and Governor of Vienna, Mr Häupl

Dear Ministers,

Dear IAC Members,

Dear Religious and Theological Leaders,


Meine Damen und Herren,

I am happy to be here tonight, in this marvelous City Hall with all of you and I thank the Major and Governor of Vienna, Michael Häupl, for the invitation.

We discussed the interesting topic of ethics in decision making, today. And the presence of prominent professors and experts on the subject made it a rich and fruitful debate.

But tonight, the issue we’ll fix our attention on is another one: Helmut Schmidt. And I am glad that among all of us, I have been granted with the status of expert to testimony our regards to you, my friend, Helmut.

To remain in the field of ethics, we could define the notion of ethical action as the one providing the most good while doing the least harm. I will try to respect this principle in my laudation on Helmut.

Of course he deserves all our respect. He has indeed always shown courage and consistency in his action on the head of Germany.

It was when Helmut Schmidt was Chancellor of Germany that the country was able to restore its image that had been so terribly damaged by the horrors of war and the crimes that went with it and to find its place amongst the great nations once more. Of course the recovery of Germany's image was the result of some very hard work that started with the firm democratic management by Chancellor Adenauer who was voluntarily modest; this was continued by the remarkably courageous effort made by the German people in terms of in-depth self-criticism. But it was Helmut Schmidt who led the process to its conclusion. This was achieved thanks to his qualities that rallied competence, simplicity and sound judgement. The Germans returned to a state of happiness in this new definition of their nation.

And the international context at the time was all but favorable.

The first cracks in the Soviet system started to appear during the Polish crisis over which Brezhnev and his team hesitated not knowing which attitude to adopt. Helmut Schmidt helped to fend off the option of military intervention. At the same time, he criticised the adventurism of the Soviet forces' intervention in Afghanistan, which ultimately were condemned to exhaust themselves in a war with no positive outcome.

The stances he adopted led him to provide a new opinion on the role to be played by the USA. Until then American leaders' attitude towards Germany continued to be a culture of occupation: in a casual manner they still decided what the Germans had to do. Helmut Schmidt patiently sought to extricate his country from this simplistic constraint. He was forced to do this by the indecision of the Carter administration, which, with regard to sensitive issues such as the manufacture of the neutron bomb or the non-participation in the Olympic Games in Moscow demanded Germany's support but then suddenly gave up its objectives without the slightest word of explanation.

This development convinced Helmut Schmidt that it was urgent for Europe – then the Europe of Nine and then Ten members – to have a strong political structure.

Also in this field, consistency - meaning absence of contradiction - has always guided his action. Helmut Schmidt was indeed a convinced European.

Could it be otherwise?

We had met at the end of the 1960s in a somewhat premonitory place: the house of Jean Monnet, who convened meetings with the members of his “Commitee for the United States of Europe.”

Entering the first time the place, I saw a great cloud of smoke, and under it, Helmut Schmidt.

I remember that when, in 1972, we met again as Ministers on a summit, one of us got the name cards changed on the table so that we could sit close to each other and comment on the ongoing presentations.

There has always been a natural complicity between us, based on similar vision of things and total personal loyalty. Helmut was the embodiment of remarkable simplicity in his work. Everywhere he went, the crowd showed him the respect they had for what I would call his “authenticity.”

Back to 1972, he had just taken over from the flamboyant Economy Minister, Karl Schiller, the advocate of floating currencies and a broader opening of economic borders to the benefit of German companies which then had the wind in their sails. Thanks to his incredible capacity for work and his pragmatic intelligence, Helmut became one of the major players in the broad intellectual debate that went on from 1971 to 1974 on the scrapping of the Bretton Woods fixed rate system, and on the quest for a new type of international monetary organisation. This, I think, is when he discovered the need to establish a new kind of solidarity between European currencies that were disrupted by floating exchange rates.

We set to work with our colleagues to give shape to this new solidarity. The “monetary snake” had collapsed under the pressure of excessively different development trends. We tried to set down a stronger procedure. Our efforts finally gave rise in 1978-1979 to the European Monetary System and to the introduction of the Ecu, the forerunner of the Euro.

Helmut Schmidt deserves the greatest share of merit because he had to convince his countrymen, contrary to the explicit opinion of the Bundesbank, to link the Deutsche Mark to the other weaker European currencies. And as you know, for the German opinion the Deutsche Mark was the very symbol of the country's economic recovery and a factor of security and pride. It took all of Helmut Schmidt's powers of persuasion and his message of competence and impartiality to win the support of the German economic classes to agree to the creation of the European Monetary System.

I cannot think of any other person who could have achieved this result. This is why in contrast with those who wrongly seek to take the merit of having created the European currency an eminent place must be set aside for Helmut Schmidt.

When in 1986 we created the "Committee for the Monetary Union of Europe" whose report prefaced the texts that established the Euro, he confirmed, before the relative inertia of the leaders in power, his commitment to Europe.

Nowadays, all Europeans should be conscious about the fact that in the today crisis, without the Euro, we would have been struck by competitive devaluations that would have caused some very strong jolts in our system. The Euro has been an extraordinary shield of protection of the whole zone!

Other decisive progress has been done in Europe thanks to our reliable partnership at the time: without it, we would not have been able to create the European Council in 1974, and the members of the European Parliament would not be elected directly by the European citizens on May as they now are since 35 years.

But the most dramatic momentum of the political career of Helmut Schmidt was I think, the inner German autumn.

Helmut Schmidt then had to cope with the abominable terrorist actions of extremist who did not even fear death. When the employer and industry representative Martin Schleyer had been kidnapped, the chancellor’s consistency was roughly put to the test: he had to weigh between life and national security, between the concrete loss of a citizen and higher abstract state interest.

Years later, Helmut Schmidt said that this had been his hardest choice to make in life. And we can only show respect to this courageous attitude.

It is in these moments that virtue shows its face.

As Confucius once said “The man of virtue makes the difficulty to be overcome his first business, and success only a subsequent consideration." (Analects, bk. vi., c. xx.)

That is what you followed during your lifelong career, Helmut.

And that is what made of you a real Statesman, and a very special friend to me!

Happy Birthday!