Helmut Schmidt, at 94 the oldest surviving German Bundeskanzler (Konrad Adenauer made it to 91) published in 2010 a volume of very short interviews with Giovanni di Lorenzo which were published in Die Zeit, Germany’s leading weekly newspaper, with which Schmidt himself has had a long association. The book’s title, Auf eine Zigarette mit Helmut Schmidt (A Smoke with Helmut Schmidt), refers to the length of the interviews (just as long as it takes …) which were conducted immediately after the Friday political conferences at Die Zeit’s Hamburg offices as Schmidt helped himself to a cup of coffee with lots of milk and an extraordinary amount of sugar and opened up his pack of Reyno Menthol.
Schmidt served in the German army during the Second World War, first with an anti-aircraft battery, then, briefly, on the eastern front at the Siege of Leningrad, then as a trainer at the ministry of aviation and finally on the Western Front, until he was captured by the British in 1945. In 1946 he joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD), serving in both the senate of the city-state of Hamburg and the Bundestag. He was Bundeskanzler from 1974 to 1982. Schmidt’s reputation in politics was as a centrist, a pragmatist and a Macher (a man who got things done). He had little patience with left-wing utopianism: “People who see visions should go see a doctor.”
The interview below is on Germany and Poland. The translation, perhaps a little approximate, is mine:
Dear Helmut Schmidt, you say that we take too little notice of Poland. Is that because the government in Warsaw [the Kaczynski government] gets so horribly on our nerves?
The relationship between Germans and Poles has been precarious for well over 200 years. Destiny gave Poland a geopolitical location in which it found itself between three great powers, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Prussia, who divided it up among themselves. Then came the crimes of Hitler and Stalin against their Polish neighbour. In the eyes of many, things are still the same as they were then when the great powers persecuted the Poles: they still feel hemmed in by big Russia and the big Bundesrepublik.
Poles have always suffered under occupation, partition or both.
Correct. In all there were five divisions of Poland, not three as we learned in school. Germany has a lot of immediate neighbours, but among these the Poles, together with the French, are the most important.
Because our mutual history has been so unhappy.
But haven’t the Germans done a lot because of their awareness of their guilt?
The Germans have only begun to make efforts in this direction in the last 35 years.
What was the starting point of these efforts? Willy Brandt’s kneeling? [In 1970, on a visit to Warsaw, Chancellor Brandt was laying a wreath at the Warsaw Ghetto when he spontaneously knelt down and remained for some time in silence.]
Yes, that and the treaty between Bonn and Warsaw.
Helmut Kohl’s engagement in favour of Poland’s membership of the European Union was also genuine and vigorous.
But the contributions of the last 35 years don’t outweigh those of the 200 before that.
Is this past so deeply anchored in the collective memory of the Poles?
Not just of the Poles. With many Germans there is a lingering sense of superiority, of looking down on the Poles …
Which Pole has impressed you most?
Probably Pope Wojtyla.
Have you ever heard of the poet Adam Mickiewicz?
Yes, I know his Pan Tadeusz.
That sets you apart from most Germans.
That could be so. It’s because I was able to read a little Polish literature as a schoolboy. Even more so because I was president of the German-Polish institute for five years. This institute, thanks to the work of Karl Dedecius, has done a lot to make Polish literature known in Germany.
Does the guilt which the Germans have taken on themselves justify the current behaviour of the two Kaczynski brothers?
We’re going to have to accept it whether it is justified or not. The way they speak chimes with their understanding of history …
What would you recommend to a German who wanted to get to know and understand the Poles?
If we’re talking about an adult I’d say visit Danzig [Gdańsk] or Krakau [Kraków] or Marienburg [Malbork] to see with what devotion the Poles have restored their centuries-old buildings. If it’s a young student I’d recommend spending two terms studying in Poland.