Helmut Schmidt, whose death at the age of 96 has just been announced, was the man who, in my view, did most to bring about the end of the Cold War. Very few people appreciated this at the time.
I was a foreign correspondent based in the West German capital of Bonn during four of the years when Herr Schmidt was Chancellor.
I had the privilege of interviewing him on one or two occasions. He was also one of the most approachable and open of statesmen.
That said, I recall him not remembering his manners too well when in the company of Margaret Thatcher. I attended a news conference with the two of them at the Federal Chancellery in Bonn. Herr Schmidt puffed away on his cigarettes throughout the news conference, as if he wanted the billows of smoke to hide the British prime minister and her views on Europe – views that he didn’t always share.
When it came to one of the most important decisions in post-war politics, however, Helmut Schmidt’s position was not shrouded in mist. He emerged as a towering figure.
West German foreign policy had to a large extent been based on the policy of Ostpolitik – trying to maintain political, economic and trade ties with the Soviet Union and other eastern bloc countries, in particular East Germany; this in tandem with loyalty to the United States and the NATO alliance – a difficult balancing act.
However, while Schmidt was Chancellor, the Soviets attempted to tip the balance of power in their favour by deploying medium-range SS20 missiles in eastern Europe. These were the missiles that would have been fired at NATO forces in support of any Soviet invasion of West Germany.
In response, Herr Schmidt took the decision to allow the United States to deploy Pershing Cruise missiles in West Germany.
This must go down as one of the bravest of decisions in the Cold War. Schmidt saw the need to cement the relationship between the United States and western Europe – a decision he took in the face of widespread opposition to the missile deployment within his own Social Democratic Party.
It was a move the Soviets could not match.
By allowing the deployment, Schmidt sent a clear signal to Moscow that the West was prepared to do all it took to deter any threat of Soviet aggression. That was the beginning of the slippery slope that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Moscow just didn’t have the resources to keep pace with the West. Eventually, Gorbachev realised the game was up.
Schmidt’s great virtue at that time was consistency – based on his profound belief in the importance of the transatlantic alliance, even though he didn’t see eye-to-eye with every US president.
That consistency came to my rescue when I was once put on the spot by the great Bob Williams – esteemed presenter of the ‘PM’ programme on BBC Radio 4.
The Americans called for a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the previous year.
On the day the Americans called for the boycott I did a live two-way from Bonn with ‘PM’. Like the great interviewer he was, Bob put me right on the spot: “Would West Germany join the boycott?”
At that moment a fair bit of my reputation as Bonn correspondent was on the line. In a split second, I thought of Helmut Schmidt and his record on east-west relations and asked myself, “Knowing what I know about Schmidt, which way will he go?” “They will boycott the games,” I replied, fingers crossed.
A little while later Helmut Schmidt announced that West Germany’s athletes would not be going to Moscow.
There aren’t too many world leaders around these days that journalists can rely on in the same way.