Helmut Schmidt, the former West German chancellor who marshaled personal dynamism, managerial brilliance and often acid-tongued impatience to push his country into an assertive international role as the Cold War dragged on into the 1970s, died on Tuesday at his home in Hamburg. He was 96.
His death was confirmed by Teresa Maria Frei, spokeswoman for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, where Mr. Schmidt was co-publisher.
In a statement, Chancellor Angela Merkel said she had visited Mr. Schmidt at his home less than a year ago and praised him as a source of “advice and judgment I valued.”
Mr. Schmidt, a Social Democrat, had not shied from criticizing policies put forth by her as leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union Party.
Mr. Schmidt was for decades one of West Germany’s most popular politicians. With a firm jaw and intense gray eyes, he was handsome, witty and supremely self-possessed. In public he was a magnetic speaker and a pugnacious debater. (He was known as “Schmidt the Lip” early in his career.) Cultured and erudite, he was also an accomplished classical pianist and author. As recently as 2013, in a poll by Stern magazine, he was ranked as Germany’s most significant chancellor.
“We Germans have lost a father figure,” said Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, one of a generation of Social Democratic leaders formed by Mr. Schmidt and Willy Brandt.
Mr. Schmidt’s life all but traced the history of 20th-century Germany. A son of working-class Hamburg, he was born in the wake of Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I, witnessed the Nazis’ rise, joined the Hitler Youth, served in Hitler’s army — hiding the fact that he had a Jewish grandfather — and emerged politically in a postwar Germany divided against itself.
Elected in 1974, Mr. Schmidt rode a difficult period as chancellor: The global economy was in turmoil, and tensions with the Communist east had not slackened. Unlike his more accommodating predecessors, he jousted with the United States over global economics and relations with the Soviet Union. He barely concealed his disdain for President Jimmy Carter, a novice in international affairs, and his wariness of a bellicose President Ronald Reagan.
At home, he compelled his left-leaning Social Democratic Party to embrace pro-business policies and to support the buildup of the West German armed forces into a bulwark of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
At the same time, he pressed the Federal Republic of Germany to forge closer ties with the Communist regime in East Germany. And working with his close friend President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing of France, he helped soften European distrust of his country for its Nazi past, still fresh in painful memory.
(Meanwhile, a cigarette smoker almost to the end of his life, he was the only public figure in Germany allowed to disregard smoking bans.)
Mr. Schmidt made grievous policy errors, which were compounded by his unwillingness to admit mistakes and a seeming disregard for diplomacy, with foes and allies alike. They were failings that led the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, to dismiss him after eight years in office.
His detractors accused him of being overwilling to assuage Moscow in his desire to salvage détente, an effort, embraced by West Germany and France, to ensure peace through stronger political and economic ties with Moscow.
Moreover, his intemperate criticism of Washington promoted neutralist, anti-American tendencies in the Social Democratic Party, which only helped undermine his chancellorship.
Mr. Schmidt was confident — too confident, some said — about his ability to sustain prosperity in West Germany. Under his stewardship, his nation fared better than the rest of Europe during the economic crisis of the 1970s, provoked by a sharp rise in petroleum prices controlled by OPEC, the cartel of oil-exporting countries. But he was criticized in the early ’80s as having failed to prepare West Germans for recession.
Still, Mr. Schmidt remained popular, owing in no small part to the affection West Germans had for his down-to-earth wife, Hannelore Schmidt. A biologist and amateur botanist, she eschewed ceremony in favor of promoting conservation and protecting endangered plants. Flowers in Latin America and Africa were named after her, and she wrote or co-wrote books on plants and ecology. She died in 2010 at 91.
Mr. Schmidt might have been able to survive politically if he had antagonized opponents less. But in the Bundestag he was resented for his attacks on legislators who disagreed with him.
In 1982, a parliamentary majority voted him out of office by passing a no-confidence motion and replaced him with Helmut Kohl, leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Party. It was the first time that the Bundestag had removed a German chancellor since the end of World War II.
Even after his downfall, Mr. Schmidt was unapologetic. In a 1986 speech, on his retirement from the Bundestag, he noted that unemployment had continued to climb under Chancellor Kohl. Then, facing Mr. Kohl, he said that the real jobless rate “would be a little higher if you hadn’t manipulated the numbers a little downward.”
Nearing retirement, Mr. Schmidt spent much of his time in Hamburg, his native port city. He wrote a memoir and other books as well as articles in which he defended his outspoken exchanges with American presidents.
“I have always regarded myself as a reliable friend of the United States, but never have I misunderstood an alliance to be a system of control and command,” he said in a 1984 interview with The New York Times. “It’s rather a system of advice and consent, if I may borrow a phrase from your Constitution.”
Family Secret Revealed
Helmut Heinrich Waldemar Schmidt was born on Dec. 23, 1918, in Barmbek, a working-class district of Hamburg. His father, Gustav, was a schoolteacher; his mother, Ludovica, was an artistically gifted homemaker.
Behind this facade of bourgeois rectitude there was a family secret, one he revealed long afterward. “I had a Jewish grandfather,” he told The New York Times Magazine at the end of a lengthy interview in 1984. By falsifying documents, he said, he and his father had hidden the truth from the Nazis.
With Hitler rising to power in 1933, Helmut Schmidt joined the Hitler Youth, and in 1937 he was drafted into the German Army. After the war began in 1939, he became a first lieutenant in an antiaircraft artillery battery on the Russian front and was awarded the Iron Cross.
He and Hannelore Glaser, known as Loki, married in 1942. They had known each other since they were schoolchildren. They had a daughter, Susanne.
After the war, Mr. Schmidt obtained a degree in political economy at the University of Hamburg, and his wife became a schoolteacher. While still a student, he joined the Social Democratic Party and took a job in Hamburg’s municipal government in 1948. Five years later, he was elected to the Bundestag in Bonn, the West German capital.
Early on he established himself as a conservative, pragmatic maverick in the left-leaning Social Democratic mainstream. He backed West German rearmament in the 1950s, for instance, while most party members opposed it.
Bored with the Bundestag, he returned to Hamburg in 1961 and became the city’s interior minister. Early the next year, while the mayor was away on vacation, Mr. Schmidt vaulted into national prominence by supervising the emergency response to a calamitous flood in which at least 300 people drowned, victims of heavy rains that had sent a swollen Elbe River pouring over its dikes. Even after the mayor hurried back to the city, Mr. Schmidt relegated him to the sideline while remaining in charge on the ground.
(In her statement, Chancellor Merkel, a native of Hamburg, warmly described a childhood memory of Mr. Schmidt in command of rescue efforts.)
Mr. Schmidt returned to the Bundestag in 1965 and became an expert on defense policy. He also drew closer to the views of Mr. Brandt, the Social Democratic Party leader, who wanted to normalize relations with East Germany. In 1969, after the Social Democrats gained power, Chancellor Brandt named Mr. Schmidt defense minister, and any lingering doubts about the willingness of the antimilitarist Social Democrats to reconcile themselves with the armed forces vanished. Military spending rose, weaponry was modernized, and Mr. Schmidt embraced the United States military presence in Europe.
Mr. Schmidt was named finance minister in 1972 and promptly sought to make left-wing Social Democrats understand that West Germany’s open-armed social benefits could be financed only by a thriving capitalist economy.
He also, crucially, developed a friendship and alliance with his French counterpart, Mr. Giscard d’Estaing — one that would determine the balance of power in Western Europe.
They seemed mismatched. Mr. Giscard d’Estaing was tall, aristocratic and politically conservative; Mr. Schmidt was short, devoid of social pretensions and leader of a center-left party. But both had lightning intelligence, technical expertise and a proclivity to believe they were always right. Most important, they shared a vision: of Western Europe under French-German leadership achieving economic integration.
Mr. Schmidt’s path to the pinnacle of power was cleared in 1974, when Mr. Brandt resigned in a scandal in which a close adviser had been revealed to be an East German spy. A few days later, on May 16, 1974, Mr. Schmidt became the fifth chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. His first trip abroad was to Paris, to meet with the new French president, Mr. Giscard d’Estaing. Unable to speak each other’s language, they conversed in English.
French-German unity had been a cornerstone of West European postwar policy. The prevailing view was that West Germany offered economic strength while France lent a confident voice on foreign affairs — one that West Germans, hesitant to speak out so soon after the Hitler era, eagerly welcomed.
The more pragmatic, if not cynical, take on the relationship was that it allowed the French to keep close tabs on a historic rival and Germans to rid themselves of the Nazi stigma.
The Schmidt-Giscard d’Estaing bond went beyond pragmatism, however. They spoke often by phone and made unannounced visits to each other. At international conferences they usually sat side by side, whispering to each other as they shaped common positions.
Together they pushed for the establishment of the European Council, in which heads of governments met regularly. They backed the European monetary system, which in 1999 led to a common currency, the euro, for members of the European Union.
Mr. Schmidt also had early successes at home. His government was skillful in handling the sharp rise in oil prices that began in 1973, and despite a huge bill for oil imports, the country built a record trade surplus. He also proved effective in dealing with a West German terrorist group, the Red Army Faction, whose ranks were decimated by arrests after the kidnapping and killing of a German industrialist, Hanns-Martin Schleyer, in 1977. Mr. Schmidt emerged with the highest public opinion ratings of any German politician since the first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer.
Meanwhile, friction was growing between the United States and West Germany. One cause of unease in Bonn was a perception that President Carter, elected in 1976, was inexperienced and unpredictable. “Personally, he was a very nice man,” Mr. Schmidt said in his 1984 interview with The Times Magazine. “But you couldn’t depend on his carrying through what he had agreed with you to do.”
The most contentious question was how to cope with the arsenal of Soviet SS-20 nuclear missiles aimed at Western Europe. In December 1979, NATO decided to install American nuclear-armed Pershing and cruise missiles in several Western European countries by 1983 unless the Soviets agreed to remove their SS-20 missiles.
Mr. Schmidt, defying opponents in his own party, agreed to base the bulk of the American weapons in West Germany. But he complained that Washington failed to understand how critical it was to overcome West Germans’ vehement opposition to the missiles.
“Think of a situation where an American administration puts 5,000 nuclear rockets in Oregon” — a state roughly the size of West Germany — “and makes plans for adding some hundreds more that could hit the Soviet Union and thereby make Oregon a great target area for Soviet missiles,” he said in a 1982 Times interview.
The Euromissile talks were suspended after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and Mr. Carter decreed a grain embargo and a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.
In Europe, only West Germany, Monaco, Norway and Turkey honored the boycott. Though Mr. Schmidt went along with it, he grumbled that American officials had assured him several times that no boycott would be called.
Relations between Washington and Bonn did not improve after Reagan denied Mr. Carter a second term in 1980. Early on, Reagan took a hard line toward the Soviet Union and scared Europeans by suggesting that the West could win a limited nuclear war.
Meanwhile, setbacks at home and abroad had begun sapping Mr. Schmidt’s power.
Recession Takes a Toll
In France, Mr. Giscard d’Estaing lost his re-election bid in 1981, and though his successor, François Mitterrand, a socialist, had links to West German Social Democrats, he and Mr. Schmidt had a cool relationship. Mr. Mitterrand suspected that Mr. Schmidt had supported Mr. Giscard d’Estaing in the election.
At home the economy was in trouble. Signs of stagnation had appeared when Mr. Schmidt won re-election in 1980, but he had not issued warnings. Soon recession set in, unemployment rose, and the public was angry. Left-wing Social Democrats pressed for more state ownership of banks and industry, wider social benefits and subsidies to create jobs — measures anathema to Mr. Schmidt.
And suddenly he was out, on a no-confidence vote in the Bundestag. On Oct. 1, 1982, Mr. Kohl, the Christian Democratic Party leader, replaced him. Mr. Schmidt was furious. Legislators, he said, had broken precedent by not waiting for a general election. “Your conduct is legal, but it has no inner, no moral justification,” he said in the Bundestag.
The Christian Democrats blamed the Social Democrats for Mr. Schmidt’s fall. “None of us spoke so insultingly about you as did some of your own people,” one conservative politician said to him.
The country’s rightward shift was confirmed in 1983, when Mr. Kohl’s conservative coalition trounced the Social Democrats in a general election.
Mr. Schmidt’s survivors include his daughter, Susanne, a television producer in London; and Ruth Loah, his longtime assistant, who was introduced as his companion in 2012. A son born in 1944, Helmut Walter, died in infancy.
Out of power, as co-publisher of Die Zeit, Mr. Schmidt enjoyed a platform from which to write about current affairs. As a pianist he made recordings of Bach and Mozart, including one album with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Nearing 95, he went to Moscow to see old Soviet friends and was invited to a chat with President Vladimir V. Putin. He regained his high personal standings in the polls. And he remained as combative as ever.
Asked to assess his successor, Mr. Kohl, he was characteristically withering. “I think there are still two or three fields in which he still needs a lot of education,” he told The Times. Asked which ones, he answered, “International affairs, arms control and military strategy, and economics and finance.”
Correction: November 10, 2015
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the year Mr. Schmidt was re-elected chancellor. It was 1980, not 1981.
Correction: November 11, 2015
An earlier version of the caption for picture No. 11 in the accompanying slide show misspelled the given name of a former political leader in Germany. He is Helmut Kohl, not Helmet.