Wolfgang Schäuble, German Politician Who Helped Forge European Unity, Dies at 81

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Wolfgang Schäuble, who was among the most influential and combative political figures in postwar West Germany, and who played central roles in his country’s reunification with the Communist east and in its subsequent projection of economic might, died on Tuesday. He was 81.

His death was announced by Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. The announcement did not say where he died or cite a cause.

Mr. Schäuble’s uncompromising financial rigor was revered by debt-averse Germans. But it was reviled by citizens of poorer, more profligate countries in Southern Europe, where he deployed Berlin’s huge economic muscle to impose unpopular austerity measures to protect the single euro currency.

For several years before and after Germany’s reunification in October 1990, Mr. Schäuble was viewed widely as the heir apparent to Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Even after a would-be assassin opened fire on him just days after reunification, wounding him in the face and chest and causing spinal damage that consigned him to a life in a wheelchair, he nurtured ambitions to succeed Mr. Kohl. In the late 1990s he even publicly raised the issue of whether Germans might elect a politician who uses a wheelchair as chancellor. The shooter, Dieter Kaufmann, was later declared by judges to be mentally ill.

After Mr. Kohl lost the 1998 national election, Mr. Schäuble (pronounced SHOY-bleh) succeeded him as leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, or C.D.U. But a year later, the party became embroiled in a scandal relating to illicit political donations.

The fallout damaged Mr. Kohl most of all, but Mr. Schäuble was forced to resign in 2000 after admitting that he received a cash donation of 100,000 deutsche marks, or $52,000, in 1994 from Karlheinz Schreiber, an arms dealer and lobbyist.

Mr. Schäuble denied that he had concealed the money unlawfully, but his departure, along with Mr. Kohl’s fall from grace, decapitated the C.D.U.’s old guard, providing an opportunity for Angela Merkel to take over as party leader. She was elected Germany’s first female chancellor in 2005 and held the job until 2021.

The scandal drew a bitter line under the once close relationship between Mr. Kohl and Mr. Schäuble, and the two men rarely spoke to each other again. It was a token of Mr. Schäuble’s perceived importance at the core of German and European decision-making that Ms. Merkel rehabilitated him in the run-up to the 2005 elections and later appointed him interior minister — a position he had held under Mr. Kohl.

In the years after the attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, when European and German officials feared a potential onslaught on their own soil, Mr. Schäuble acquired a reputation as a hard-liner on terrorism. He advocated laws that would empower German security forces to shoot down hijacked planes and to assassinate foreign terrorist suspects.

Adversaries who supported Germany’s postwar defense of individual rights accused him of rekindling the kind of oppression that had marked Germans’ historical experience of both Nazism and Communism.

It was as finance minister from 2009 to 2017, however, that Mr. Schäuble achieved his greatest notoriety in European circles as an unbending enforcer of the strict fiscal regime underpinning the single currency.

In Greece, in particular, his insistence on austerity, cost cutting and privatization of state industries in return for financial bailouts drew widespread condemnation from aggrieved citizens. On the streets of Athens, posters likened him to Adolf Hitler.

Playing bad cop to Ms. Merkel’s relatively more amenable fiscal persona, Mr. Schäuble sponsored a proposal in 2015 under which Greece might temporarily withdraw from the zone of countries using the euro as their single currency. The idea, anathema to supporters of European integration, became known as Grexit. It was never enacted.

Mr. Schäuble’s proposal alarmed Greece’s European allies, notably France and Italy. But the measures he advocated had lasting effects. By 2023, Greece had become one of Europe’s fastest-growing economies.

In the end, the threat to European Union cohesion came from a different source: Britain, which voted narrowly in a 2016 referendum to leave the bloc in what was called Brexit. Before that ballot, and with characteristic bluntness, Mr. Schäuble seemed to warn Britons that if they left the European Union there could be no compromise on the outcome.

“In is in, out is out,” he told the magazine Der Spiegel.

Wolfgang Schäuble was born on Sept. 18, 1942, in Freiburg im Breisgau, a city in southern Germany. He was one of a dwindling cohort of German politicians with direct experience of Germany’s postwar division and West Germany’s struggle to emerge from the ruin of World War II. The ensuing economic resurgence, which came to be known as the Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle, was aided by the Marshall Plan, under which the United States provided billions of dollars in aid for Europe’s financial recovery.

He was the second of three brothers born to Karl and Gertrud Schäuble. His father was a financial and tax adviser. In 1969, before he qualified fully as a lawyer, he married Ingeborg Hensle, an economist and teacher. She survives him, as do three daughters, Anna, Juliane and Christine; and a son, Hans-Jörg.

As a budding politician, Mr. Schäuble joined the youth movement of the C.D.U. in 1961. In 1972, when he was 30, he was elected to the Bundestag.

His mentor, Chancellor Kohl, appointed Mr. Schäuble a minister of special affairs and elevated him in 1989 to interior minister. In that role, he helped negotiate the German Unification Treaty. That agreement came into force on Oct. 3, 1990, permitting West Germany to effectively absorb the formerly Communist German Democratic Republic.

One emotive issue was the location of the capital of the unified state. In 1991, Mr. Schäuble favored moving the capital from Bonn on the banks of the River Rhine to Berlin, where the wall dividing the city since 1961 had been torn down in 1989. With the gradual transfer of ministries and public offices from Bonn, Berlin regained its status as capital of united Germany, which had fallen away with the Nazi defeat in 1945.

A fervently pro-American politician, Mr. Schäuble was also widely known as a supporter of a two-speed European Union, in which richer and more powerful countries would spearhead political and economic integration — an outcome favored by many of Mr. Schäuble’s generation, who saw European unity as a bulwark against the wars and rivalries of the continent’s past.

He took a radical view on the emergence of a politically unified Europe, functioning as a single country,; that would happen, he suggested, only as the product of upheaval. “We can only achieve a political union if we have a crisis,” he said in an interview in 2011.

Such was Mr. Schäuble’s popularity that Mr. Kohl hinted that he viewed him as his successor. But Mr. Kohl’s C.D.U. lost in national elections in 1998 and returned to power only in 2005, under Ms. Merkel, when Mr. Schäuble became first interior minister and then, from 2009 to 2017, finance minister.

His departure from the Finance Ministry in 2017 to become the speaker of parliament, ostensibly to check electoral advances by the far-right and populist Alternative for Germany party, stunned many in the European elite and seemed to spell the end of an era.

In 2014, after Russia annexed the Crimea Peninsula in Ukraine, Mr. Schäuble likened President Vladimir V. Putin’s behavior to the expansionism of Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi forces annexed the Sudetenland region of prewar Czechoslovakia in 1938, ostensibly to protect ethnic Germans there.

He said then, with some prescience, that Mr. Putin might well make similar arguments about the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine and argue that “now we have to protect them, and that is our reason for invading.”

Mr. Putin did just that in 2022.

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Wolfgang Schäuble, German Politician Who Helped Forge European Unity, Dies at 81

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