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Cold War Interview with Ex-Chancellor Schmidt: 'Both Sides Were in the Grips of Insanity ... Things Have Not Changed'

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the start of the Cold War. In an interview with SPIEGEL, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, 89, discusses the policy of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the stationing of nuclear weapons in Germany and the reasons behind the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt: Rapprochement with the Soviets was "only possible with the military support of the Americans."

Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt: Rapprochement with the Soviets was "only possible with the military support of the Americans."

SPIEGEL: Mr. Schmidt, you were released from a British POW camp in August, 1945. The Potsdam Conference of the victorious Allied Powers had just been concluded. At the time, did you think that deep divisions would soon divide East and West?

Schmidt: You know, after eight years in the armed forced, in times of peace and war, my overriding feeling was: "Thank God, it is over." I was 26 when the war ended and I knew nothing about the world. I had grown up during the Nazi period and, until I was made a prisoner of war, I had never heard the word democracy. I recall that during the last months of the war I said to my commander: "What we are doing here is utter nonsense. We should be trying to hold back the Soviets and allowing the Americans to advance as far as possible." He then replied: "Lil' Schmidt, I will pretend I did not hear that."

SPIEGEL: You already preferred the Americans back then.

Schmidt: Yes, of course. But I did not suspect that it would soon come to an East-West conflict.

SPIEGEL: In your opinion, what led to the confrontation? Was it unavoidable?

Schmidt: It quickly became clear that the soldiers of the Western allies were largely outnumbered by the Soviet Union's enormous buildup of troops. Generally, you would really have to say that from 1947-1948 the Western powers saw the military superiority of the Russians as a threat. That is where nuclear weapons entered into the equation. They were intended to prevent the Soviets from deploying their many tanks and soldiers. That was the principle known as nuclear deterrence.

SPIEGEL: Why didn't the West ever attempt to compensate in a conventional manner?

Schmidt: They could not. Given the large number of Soviet troops, it was impossible, despite the later introduction of military conscription in West Germany.

SPIEGEL: But from an economic perspective, the West was significantly stronger than the Soviet Union.

Schmidt: When it comes to war, as well as the prevention of war, it is not merely a question of economic capacities and the size of the defense budget, but also of the sheer size of the armed forces. You can see an example of this in Iraq. The Americans do not have enough people on the ground there, so they cannot win the war.

SPIEGEL: Recruiting soldiers in a dictatorial system is of course much easier than in a democracy.

Schmidt: The Americans intended to abolish the draft, which they of course did later on. The Soviets saw conscription as merely a matter of course. That is also how it was under the czars.

SPIEGEL: One of the most dramatic events of the early post-war years was the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49. For many West Germans, this operation to aid West Berlin during the Soviet blockade made former enemies into friends. What was it like for you?

Schmidt: I did not see the Americans and the British as enemies. Not even as a soldier, despite the fact that I am a native of Hamburg, where in 1943 some 30,000 to 40,000 people were killed by the British in a single week. But the people of Hamburg have been Anglophiles since the Napoleonic Wars and they held it less against the British then against Hermann Göring, who had failed to protect them.

SPIEGEL: In 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) was founded, followed by the German Democatic Republic (East Germany). Was the division of Germany inevitable?

Schmidt: It happened. That is clear. Whether or not it was avoidable or someone could have prevented it -- those are all hypothetical questions.

SPIEGEL: But it is a fact that in 1952 Josef Stalin offered to negotiate with the Western powers over the reunification of Germany. West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer rejected the offer. He thought the whole thing was a maneuver to prevent West Germany from being integrated into the West. Was an opportunity missed there?

Schmidt: I felt that Adenauer made a mistake, and today I would still tend to say that he acted rather rashly by flatly turning down the proposal. But Adenauer was not the key man; that was actually the US President at the time, Harry Truman. It was of course up to Washington to decide.

SPIEGEL: What did Stalin hope to attain with his proposal?

Schmidt: At the time, the US and Adenauer intended to rearm Germany. Of course the Soviets knew that. I think it is likely that the Stalin Note was an attempt to forestall this development. Nobody can really say how sincere the proposal was because no one knows what Stalin’s real intentions were.

SPIEGEL: Germany was one of the major battle fields of the Cold War. Were you afraid back then that it could actually come to a nuclear war in Western Europe?

Schmidt: Starting with my election to Germany’s lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, in the autumn of 1953, I delved into strategic issues. I quickly realized that the threat of nuclear retaliation from the West would provoke a nuclear response from the Soviet Union. The Russians had had their nuclear weapons for a long time, and then they also acquired the hydrogen bomb.

SPIEGEL: And you were not concerned that the situation could somehow escalate?

Schmidt: No. I only felt that the West had to be able to defend itself to avoid being drawn into a nuclear conflict.

SPIEGEL: In 1962, the Soviets stationed nuclear warheads on Cuba. This led to an extremely dangerous situation. The Cuban Missile Crisis clearly brought the dangers of nuclear war to the attention of the world. Many feel that averting this catastrophe was the beginning of the policy of détente that former German Chancellor Willy Brandt's government pursued in 1969 with its new Ostpolitik (German for eastern policies), which sought to normalize relations with Eastern bloc nations, including East Germany.

Schmidt: Credit for resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis goes not just to the Kennedy administration, but also to Nikita Khrushchev and his people.

SPIEGEL: Who triggered the crisis in the first place.

Schmidt: Yes. Khrushchev was without a doubt a very impulsive dictator. But in the end, it was not just the Russians who gave in, but also the Americans, who had stationed nuclear weapons in Turkey. And these were dismantled. Up until then, Turkey had served as the missile launching pad for the Americans. So both sides gave in. Incidentally, that did not lead to a period of détente -- afterwards, in 1968, the Russians marched into Czechoslovakia. It was merely the solution to a wantonly provoked brief crisis that was dangerous to the extreme.


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