top of page


14 November 2015

(originally published in the Queenwood newsletter)




As regular readers of our newsletter, you will know that increasingly we try to raise awareness of current issues and political as well as philosophical questions at our school.  We aim at fostering a curiosity that will prompt the girls to watch the news and read the papers as part of their daily routine.  As a daughter of journalists, I have grown up with political debate around the dinner table, and the news of the death of Helmut Schmidt, German chancellor from 1974-1982, who died this week aged 96, has reminded me of one particularly poignant ethical dilemma, which I hope to explore further with your daughters at some future date.  I would like to share this with you, as a fitting tribute to a great statesman, the news of whose death reached us on Remembrance Day. 


Even though I was only 11 at the time, I vividly remember one of the darkest years in post-war German history, 1977, when terrorist attacks haunted Germany. My father worked as political editor at the time and we, like probably many other German households, had vivid discussions as a family about the dilemma Schmidt faced.  Following a couple of murders (first West Germany’s Attorney-General Siegfried Buback, then a few months later the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Dresdner Bank, Jürgen Ponto) the terrorists abducted Hanns-Martin Schleyer, the President of the Confederation of the German Employers’ Associations.  In return for setting Schleyer free, the kidnappers demanded the release of some of the criminals who had been imprisoned for several previous crimes, and the decision fell to Helmut Schmidt whether to negotiate with the terrorists or not. 


Schmidt stood firm:  he would not bargain with terrorists, and he knew that he was jeopardising Schleyer’s life.  I remember the heartfelt appeals by his family, in particular his 33-year old son Hanns-Eberhard, and the tough talking by Schmidt, and how this dilemma divided the nation.  In the end the terrorists resorted to desperate measures and worked with Palestinian terrorists who hijacked a German passenger plane to increase the pressure on the German government, abducting it on its flight from Palma di Mallorca to Frankfurt.  On its five-day odyssey the plane with its 87 terrified hostages on board landed first in Rome, then Lanarka, then Dubai, then Aden and finally in Somalia's capital Mogadishu. Still, Schmidt stayed true to his beliefs and obtained permission to have special military forces storm the plane, instead of giving in to the terrorists’ demands. 


The pilot was shot dead by the terrorists, but the remaining 86 passengers and crew survived their horrific ordeal.  Schmidt became the hero of the nation.  Little comfort for the Schleyer family, as in an act of retaliation Schleyer, after 44 days of captivity, was shot by the terrorists on the same day. The terrorist prisoners, for whose release the abductors had campaigned, committed suicide in their cells.  Schmidt had no regrets.  He knew what he stood for and was prepared to defend the hard line he took.  But he admitted that he wept when he heard the news of Schleyer’s death.  He had been personally acquainted with Schleyer and knew him well.


In an act of rare and touching forgiveness, around 35 years after Schleyer’s abduction, his son, then 68, met with Helmut Schmidt, then 94, and acknowledged that his father had always said he would not want politicians to give in to terrorists, should anything happen to him.  And Schmidt acknowledged that he had always understood the son’s actions at the time.  Not only did Hanns-Eberhard plead for his father’s life, he even took the matter to the Supreme Court in Germany, the Bundesverfassungsgericht, to force the government into helping his father and releasing the political prisoners. 


The ultimate act of forgiveness happened in 2012 when the Hanns-Martin-Schleyer prize, donated in Schleyer’s memory five years after his death and since the eighties given annually, was awarded to Helmut Schmidt.  The prize whose recipients are honoured for "outstanding contributions to consolidating and strengthening the foundations of a community based on the principle of individual freedom” is allocated by the Hanns-Martin-Schleyer Foundation, and Hanns-Eberhard was a member of the awarding committee.  His generous gesture of understanding had to wait until after the death of his mother though, Schleyer’s widow Waltrude.  She grieved for the rest of her life and was unable to forgive until her death in 2008, aged 92, having suffered a life sentence of 31 years of widowhood.  Some of the RAF terrorists were pardoned after much shorter sentences.


Remembering those who have fallen in the wars is about remembrance as well as forgiveness.  The terrorist group RAF (Rote Armee Fraktion) waged a veritable war against the German state at the time, and we should remember and honour the casualties of this era and many similar ones around the world as well. The current acts of terrorism in Paris show us that this type of war still exists in many parts of the world. 


And in the week of Remembrance Day, we should also remember the nameless victims:  the driver and the three bodyguards of Schleyer, all of whom were killed by the abductors, or the courageous pilot of the German Lufthansa plane “Landshut”, Jürgen Schumann, who was executed, in front of his 86 passengers and crew, by the terrorists who had hijacked his plane.  The fact that the passengers survived was in no small part due to another courageous politician, one of Schmidt’s ministers, Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski, who followed the course of the ill-fated plane on its odyssey through five countries, negotiating with all their leaders and in the end succeeding in persuading the Somalian government to allow the special military force GSG 9 to storm the plane and liberate the hostages – a daring enterprise that so easily could have ended in an even bigger tragedy, but for which he nonetheless took full responsibility. 


We easily forget what terrible burden our political leaders sometimes have to carry when they are faced with life-or-death decisions of such magnitude, and instilling respect for the work they do and for the responsibility they bear should be an important part of educating the students in our care.  It certainly puts the trials and tribulations of school leaders into a sobering perspective.


bottom of page