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 Stalins 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 Germanys 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.
'The Americans Still Have around 10,000 Nuclear Warheads'
SPIEGEL: During the Cuban Missile Crisis you served as interior minister in the state of Hamburg. A lot of people have said that you acted out the conflict with people playing various roles.
Schmidt: That is utter nonsense. I never dreamed of doing something like that. Who supposedly would have played the other side? It only could have been someone like (Bavarian politician) Franz Josef Strauss.
SPIEGEL: But the conservative German minister of defense with the Christian Social Union (the Bavarian sister party to the national Christian Democrats) was unfortunately not in Hamburg very often.
Schmidt: In any case, it is a totally false story.
SPIEGEL: Starting in 1969, the German policy of rapprochement under Chancellor Willy Brandt slightly eased East-West tensions.
Schmidt: Correct. But this was viewed by the Americans at first with suspicion. Then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon were very skeptical. I would like to think that we helped convince them to ease off. But it would be an exaggeration to say that we won them over to the détente camp.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, the US launched a number of initiatives, including the Four Power Agreement on Berlin in 1971 that paved the way for the period of détente and the SALT negotiations on strategic arms limitations.
Schmidt: Correct. But SALT, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and so on were not part of a strategy of rapprochement, but rather a strategy to maintain equilibrium.
SPIEGEL: And what was the chief objective of Germanys Ostpolitik? Was it to secure peace or did German unity play the key role? What was the main focus? Historians are still debating this point.
Schmidt: Let them argue about our motives.
SPIEGEL: You have no opinion on the matter?
Schmidt: The idea was to maintain the substance of the nation, our consciousness as a nation. But Brandt, (then German Minister for Special Affairs) Egon Bahr and Walter Scheel, who served as foreign minister and vice-chancellor, realized that this policy was only possible with the military support of the Americans as the leaders of NATO. A number of dreamers and ideologues in Germany have inflated our Ostpolitik, which was guided by reason, into a policy motivated by a yearning for peace. It was clear that it could not have continued if, for instance, the Americans had said no.
SPIEGEL: Would you, in retrospect, say that the German policy of détente was a success?
Schmidt: It was a success. In any case, it helped minimize the risks of confrontation between the two German states. Although it did not convince everyone in the Soviet leadership, it definitely reassured Leonid Brezhnev of our peaceful intentions.
SPIEGEL: In the mid-1970s, tensions rose again. The Soviet Union began to station SS-20 missiles. What prompted this move?
Schmidt: Years ago, I asked Mikhail Gorbachev: "Were you not a member of the Politburo when these SS-20 missiles were deployed? Each equipped with three independently targeted warheads. With a single missile you could have wiped out (the German cities of) Hamburg, Bremen and Hanover, all at once. What prompted you to make this threat?"
Gorbachev responded, and I have no reason to doubt what he said: "That was never decided in the Politburo. The old man did that on his own initiative with the army." The old man was Brezhnev. Perhaps he thought at the time that it was not important enough or too important to bring before the Politburo. In reality, these new Soviet medium-range missiles were perfectly suited to upset the military balance; most of them were aimed at West Germany.
SPIEGEL: You were instrumental in orchestrating NATO's response in 1979 with the Double-Track decision. This included an offer for negotiations combined with the threat to deploy more missiles if no agreement could be reached. Did you really believe that the Soviet Union wanted to use its missiles?
Schmidt: Probably nothing would have happened under Brezhnev. He was actually afraid of war, I knew that. But I realized that things might look different later on, under another Soviet leadership; and with the extremely nervous population in Germany, people might then break down and roll out banners reading "better red than dead." All of this had the potential to generate pressure. And I also gave some thought to how an American administration would react if only Germans were at risk.
SPIEGEL: Since negotiations failed to produce an agreement, in 1983 the West began to deploy Pershing II and cruise missiles. In Moscow -- as we now know -- this move led to an outbreak of war hysteria. Many members of the Soviet leadership believed that the West was planning a first nuclear strike. In that sense, the Double-Track decision did not make the world any safer, did it?
Schmidt: I am totally open to all self-criticism, but it is nonsense to say that it made the world less safe. On the contrary, since the West and former Chancellor Helmut Kohl stuck with the Double-Track Decision, in 1987 this in fact led to the elimination of the dreaded medium-range missiles on both sides -- thanks to the very first disarmament treaty since 1945!
SPIEGEL: If it had come to a war between the Soviet Union and the US, Germany would have been one of the main battlegrounds. Did West Germany have the right to veto the possible use of nuclear weapons?
Schmidt: On paper, yes, de facto probably not. The veto only concerned nuclear weapons that could have been launched from German soil. Nonetheless, in the 1970s we did manage to ban the ridiculous nuclear mines between the zones of occupation, which would have more or less automatically triggered a nuclear war.
SPIEGEL: Thousands of nuclear weapons were at times stockpiled in West Germany. Why did the German government never make more concerted efforts to drastically reduce this threat?
Schmidt: Both sides were in the grips of this insanity. And things have not changed. The Americans still have around 10,000 nuclear warheads. And the Russians have a few more.
SPIEGEL: As the German chancellor, you could have stood up and called for a reduction.
Schmidt: I was interested in creating a strategic equilibrium because a balance of power reduces the likelihood that someone will press the wrong button. There would have been no point in convincing the Americans to unilaterally reduce their numbers.
SPIEGEL: You were a member of the German government for 13 years, the last 8 of which you served as chancellor. During this time, was there ever talk of developing or producing German nuclear weapons?
Schmidt: No. To the best of my knowledge, the last time the topic was broached was during the second or third cabinet under Adenauer. Strauss was the minister of defense and was pushing for the German armed forces to have nuclear weapons. It is conceivable that some people may have suggested that we could produce them ourselves. There is no doubt that we could have mustered the scientific and technological expertise to create them. But as far as I know it has never seriously been considered by a West German government, although the conservative Christian Democrats rejected the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
SPIEGEL: The collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of the era of East-West confrontation. In the end, did the Cold War affect the fall of the Soviet empire or accelerate it?
Schmidt: The fact of the matter is that up until the 1980s, the Soviet Union used its physical potential to fuel a military buildup to a greater degree than any other country. Without glasnost and perestroika this could have continued for a number of years. It was of course a rigid dictatorship. But it is another question as to whether the Cold War or a number of megalomaniacs in the Kremlin or perestroika and glasnost were responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union.
SPIEGEL: The Soviet Union lost the Cold War. Did the West win it?
Schmidt: The Soviet Union imploded, but not as a result of the Cold War. Some Americans would like to believe that they ran the Russians into the ground with the arms race. That is an understandable exaggeration, but it is also absurd.
SPIEGEL: US President George W. Bush and others believe that the threat of international terrorism makes the current world situation as dangerous or even more volatile than during the Cold War era. Do you share these views?
Schmidt: No. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the most perilous moment in the second half of the 20th century. The greatest strategic challenge in the 21st century is not terrorism but rather the population explosion and the growing cultural conflict between the West and the Islamic part of the world. These problems could produce mass migrations and possibly even wars.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Schmidt, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by SPIEGEL editors Klaus Wiegrefe and Hans-Ulrich Stoldt. Translated from the German by Paul Cohen.