Helmut Schmidt, the chancellor who guided West Germany through economic turbulence and Cold War tensions, stood firm against a wave of homegrown terrorism, and became a respected elder statesman, died Tuesday at age 96. Schmidt, a center-left Social Democrat, led West Germany from 1974 to 1982. He was elected chancellor by lawmakers in May 1974 after the resignation of fellow Social Democrat Willy Brandt, triggered when a top aide to Brandt was unmasked as an East German agent. The new leader brought a sometimes abrasive self-confidence and his experience as West Germany's defense, finance, and economy ministers to the job, which he took during the economic downturn that followed the 1973 oil crisis.
Schmidt's chancellorship coincided with a tense period in the Cold War, including the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. He went along the following year with the US-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics, though he later said that it "brought nothing." Born Dec. 23, 1918, the son of a half-Jewish schoolteacher in Hamburg, Schmidt joined the Hitler Youth when his rowing team was included in the Nazi youth organization, but he was suspended at age 17—"probably because my griping got on their nerves." Drafted as a soldier during World War II, Schmidt's unit was deployed in the Soviet Union in 1941. He was sent to the Western Front at the end of the war and taken prisoner by British forces in April 1945; he was released that August. Schmidt later said that, as a young soldier, he had recognized the Nazi regime's lunacy but not its criminal nature at first.