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Germany

Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt turns 95

Helmut Schmidt, the Chancellor of West Germany from 1974 to 1982, has turned 95. Schmidt led Germany through Cold War tensions and a bloody wave of terror by far-left radicals.

German President Joachim Gauck led the congratulations on Monday, honoring Schmidt, Germany's fifth post-WWII leader, and one of just three Social Democratic Party chancellors between then and now.

"In your public offices, especially in the office of chancellor, you achieved great things," Gauck said in a statement, adding that the contribution of the Social Democrats "to inner peace within the Federal Republic of Germany and the increase of its reputation in the world" would "go right into the history books."

Gauck said Schimdt led with virtues such as "independence of spirit, courage and a sense of duty," providing an example for future generations of politicans.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Schmidt was a "great role model for all and for me, especially with your interest and commitment to international affairs, and your strategic global vision ... I hope that we can still count on your vast experience and your advice."

Tough times

Schmidt's eight-year tenure as head of government came during a turbulent period in West German history.

He took over as chancellor in 1974 after his fellow party member Willy Brandt resigned, after Brandt's most senior aide was unmasked as a communist East German spy.

One of his main initial tasks was dealing with the 1973-1974 oil crisis, as well as inflation and economic stagnation. Schmidt's style was fact-oriented and efficient. He took a hard stance towards domestic terrorism and the left-wing extremist group Red Army Faction (RAF), rejecting its demands, and faced the problem of the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in range of West German territory.

To counter the Soviet missile threat, Schmidt pushed through a controversial dual-track proposal for NATO. The strategy envisaged talks on arms control coupled with the threat of basing Cruise and Pershing II medium-range missiles in Europe if the Kremlin failed to agree to dismantle its SS20s targeted at the West.

The decision provoked massive anti-nuclear protests in Germany. Schmidt's own party failed to back him on the deployment, but his tough stance eventually paid off and Moscow later withdrew its medium-range missiles.

Schmidt also refused to bow to RAF terrorists who hijacked a Lufthansa plane in 1977. Palestinian extremists hijacked the airliner, carrying 91 passengers, in a bid to secure the release of RAF leaders from a German prison.

Instead, Schmidt ordered German commandos to storm the plane at the Mogadishu airport in Somalia. The Lufthansa hostages were freed unharmed but immediately afterwards three RAF prisoners were found dead in their cells in what authorities said was a joint suicide.

Schmidt was forced to step down in the autumn of 1982, as a result of a no-confidence vote in parliament following the collapse of his coalition with the Free Democrats. He was replaced as chancellor by Helmut Kohl from the Christian Democrats, who then held the post uninterrupted until 1998.

Smoking controversy

Perhaps Germany's most famous chain smoker, Schmidt was subject to a German police inquiry in 2008 when an anti-smoking initiative claimed he was flouting the country's laws on smoking in public places.

The inquiry was subsequently dropped after public prosecutors judged that Schmidt's actions did not pose a threat to public health.

In his memoirs "Outside of Duty", published shortly before his 90th birthday, Schmidt claimed that Russia was being unfairly treated by the West. He wrote that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, "it was not Russia that expanded its military sphere of influence. Rather, it is the West that has pushed NATO up to Russia's borders."

Last year, Schmidt was honored with the Westphalia Peace Prize, and called for "proactive" measures to save the EU amid its ongoing economic difficulties.

Schmidt's much-loved wife, Hannelore Schmidt, who was nicknamed Loki, passed away in 2010 at the age of 91. The pair met as schoolchildren and married in 1942. Both made headlines in 2008 for lighting up in a Hamburg theater that had banned smoking.

jr/msh (AP, Reuters, AFP)