Helmut SchmidtWhile in Germany the other day I picked up a copy of Helmut Schmidt‘s latest (and probably last) book, Ausser Dienst: Eine Bilanz. Basically, it is a collection of ruminations 25 years after leaving office as Bundeskanzler in the Federal Republic of Germany. Schmidt was Bundeskanzler from 1974-1982 and was, to my mind at least, one of the greatest politicians of the post-war years. As well as being probably one of the most intelligent politicians of his generation, he was also a generous and always interesting man. He also managed to keep Margaret Thatcher in check.

In the introduction to his book of reminiscences the chain-smoking 91 year-old (whom I managed to miss when he did a long session at the Kirchentag in Bremen last May – many went to see if he could manage to last a whole two hours in a hall where smoking was banned) says:

Now approaching the end of my life, I simply wanted to put in writing what I believe I have learned politically in the course of the decades I have served.

He left public office in 1987 after three decades as (what we would call in Britain) an MP. So, his reflections and reminiscences bring with them an authority and wisdom that need to be taken seriously. It seems to me that every politician should be forced to read this book … and Denis Healey’s wonderful The Time of my Life.

Here Schmidt discusses the need for politicians to learn the art of compromise and tolerance, observing that the responsibility of a politician is not abstract, but has to be worked out in very real and complex situations. He makes comments about the need for all politicians to do two things before taking public office: (a) travel widely and (b) learn at least two foreign languages. Can you imagine any British or American politician taking that seriously? Yet he is absolutely spot on.

To learn a language is to enter beneath the surface of a people, their history and their culture. It is necessary to learn a language in order to understand how relatively limited is your own culture and understanding of the world. Schmidt handled the British media and people like Margaret Thatcher with consummate ease, speaking English with a rare skill for semantic nuance and shaming the linguistically-challenged British by his unshowy facility to understand the British mindset – even when he clearly thought he was dealing with rather limited intellects.

Whenever I am abroad I feel rather ashamed at my weakness in languages. Compared to what it should be, my German is now not very good. But, I cannot forget the experience of learning French from an early age (but never practicing it) and, later, Russian as an adult and professional linguist. As you learn the language and explore the history and culture of a people, you begin to understand why they think the way they do. You begin to loook through their eyes and comprehend why the world looks as it does from their perspective.

So, why, I ask, are languages relegated to the second division of the English school curriculum? Why are we so stupid as to allow children to drop all foreign languages at the age of 14? Do we not realise that not only do they lose the opportunity I have just described of entering into the soul of another people and, therefore, finding a new way of reflecting on their own identity, but they also put themselves at a massive disadvantage when it comes to making their way in the world of work and business? If young children in some of my Croydon schools can have an easy facility with several languages – of which English might be their third – why can’t English children surmount their island mentality and manage at least one foreign language to some degree of articulacy?

Schmidt says this (in my translation):

My many travels have confirmed for me just how important it is to observe your own country from the outside and to compare its institutions and laws with those of another state.

Reading that on the flight back from Berlin last night, I reflected that the same is true of the Church. When I listen to some Christians extolling the virtues of the Reformers in Europe (usually very selectively), I smile to think how they would react if they saw what that reformed tradition actually looks like in reality. We all need to see through the eyes of others and be willing to see our own certainties differently as a result.

But, as Schmidt suggests in his wonderful, wise and very personal book, to see through the eyes of others is dangerous: you might end up being more generous to them and more critical of your own.

And that would never do – would it?