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Helmut Schmidt and Denis Healey, twin titans of another age

A giant in thought: Helmut Schmidt. Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F048646-0033 / Wegmann, Ludwig / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Much was made last month of the coincidence of the deaths a week apart of Denis Healey and Geoffrey Howe, two adversaries yoked together by posterity and senescence. Yet the death of former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt offers a more interesting and instructive obituarial exercise. Great friends for over 50 years, Healey and Schmidt were nonagenarians who had more in common with each other than they did with most of their confreres, and they represented both a generation and an era which now has passed.

“Helmut Schmidt is the Germans’ Denis Healey”, opined The Economist in 1971. And there was much to recommend this view. Looked at personally, both had been decorated combatants in World War II, were uxorious, linguists, and possessed of an uncommonly rich cultural “hinterland”, of which a great deal was made.

Politically, both moved from the left of their parties to the right, established their reputations as defence ministers before being promoted to finance ministers, and exulted in geo-strategic thinking and related international personal relationships.

No place for numbskulls

Neither could be said knowingly ever to have undervalued themselves. Their supreme self-confidence, impatience with intellectual inferiors (of whom there were many), and the equanimity with which they could cause offence became liabilities, as friends had long warned. Confrontational, both alienated many of those whose support they would need. One of Schmidt’s favourite words was “Machbar” (“numbskull”).

Another similarity – for some, an impediment – was summed up in Roy Jenkins’ observation that Healey “has long carried light ideological baggage on a heavy gun carriage”.

For all his charisma, Schmidt, too, was held to lack a vision or framing concept. While other major post-war German chancellors could be defined by their grand moments –Konrad Adenauer took Germany into the EEC and NATO, Willi Brandt pioneered Ostpolitik, and Helmut Kohl reunited Germany and led it into EMU – Schmidt left no such monument; Healey similarly had no animating cause as Jenkins did Europe or Tony Crosland, socialism. Instead, Healey and Schmidt were problem-solvers who enjoyed the challenges of office. Pragmatism was an epithet of which each was proud, but which could also be ascribed to them pejoratively.

Insofar as they had one, Schmidt and Healey’s great purpose was the Atlantic alliance, and the security and freedom they maintained NATO offered during the Cold War. Schmidt’s Atlanticism was attributed biographically to Hamburg (a port city), and his fluent, even idiomatic, English meant relations with the UK and the US were easily nurtured. But their devotion to NATO and their advocacy for strengthened defences worked considerably to the detriment of their positions in their respective parties in the early 1980s. Schmidt alienated much of his party by agreeing to American Pershing missiles being based in Germany; Healey lost the Labour leadership election in 1980 to the unilateralist Michael Foot in part because of his robust defence of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent.

End of an era

Schmidt overlapped with Healey as defence minister for six months and finance minister for two, when, in March 1976, Healey came a poor third (to Callaghan) to replace Harold Wilson and join Schmidt as a head of government. Both were pro-EEC, signing the 1971 full-page newspaper advertisement calling for UK accession, and Schmidt’s pro-EEC address to a 1974 Labour conference was not in effect unlike that of Jacques Delors to the TUC in 1988. His speech sanitised Europe for a sceptical audience: “Within ten minutes he had won them round,” Healey recalled.

In the apparently simpler, bi-polar, pre-digital, pre-globalised world of the 1960s and 70s, Western statesmen presided over economic growth, maintained the enduring peace between the great powers, and met at summits (the only women present were wives, something else that was about to change). But when, at the 1979 summit on Guadeloupe, Schmidt, presidents Jimmy Carter of the United States and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing of France said goodbye to prime minister Callaghan, it would be for the last time: “Sunny Jim” soon discovered that in the minds of voters summitry had been superseded by refuse collection. Politics had once more become local. All four would soon be out of office, as would Healey.

Writing during his exile from power (which, like Schmidt’s, proved permanent), Healey rued Schmidt’s downfall, and self-alluded that Schmidt’s popularity exceeded both that of his party and the person who was actually leader. Schmidt had been replaced by Kohl, as Healey had been by Howe, and each felt that they had been replaced by lesser figures. Worse: with Schmidt’s replacement by Kohl and Callaghan’s by Margaret Thatcher, Germany and Britain were now led by monoglot provincial nationalists.

A new world order

In 1982 Healey felt it “would be no surprise to his friends” if Schmidt returned to power, which would be “marvellous news for Germany and for the world”. But Kohl was no less secure than Thatcher, and both saw out the decade, and the Cold War.

Schmidt and Healey turned to the page and the podium. In an extensive 1983 treatise, Schmidt diagnosed the condition of the global economy and prescribed American-led reflation. “Most observers with practical experience of economic management would agree”, Healey wrote: the only exceptions were those who were actually in power.

Before long, Helmut Schmidt and Denis Healey had effectively retired, meeting and speaking at councils and conferences where elder statesmen put the world to rights without being able to. “I think he was the last great statesman in Europe”, Healey said of Schmidt, in something of a generational benediction.

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