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Champion of Greek Austerity, Wolfgang Schäuble, Dies at 81

Wolfgang Schäuble
Wolfgang Schäuble became a renowned and often reviled figure in countries such as Greece during the financial crisis. Credit: Kuebi, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

The former finance minister of Germany Wolfgang Schäuble, who became a household name in Greece and Europe during the Greek financial crisis, died on Tuesday night. He was 81.

A veteran leading member of the Christian Democrats (CDU), Schäuble was born in Freiburg in 1942.

He was probably at his most prominent internationally during the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent eurozone sovereign debt difficulties, when he was Germany’s fiscally hawkish finance minister calling on southern European countries to limit their borrowing.

He became a renowned, and often reviled, figure in countries like Greece during this period.

Schäuble was Germany’s finance minister between 2009 and 2017, and he became one of the most powerful politicians in Europe in Angela Merkel’s cabinet. In 2017, he became the speaker of the Bundestag Parliament.

He was very popular in Germany for his hardline stance against debt and deficits, but he attracted rage elsewhere. Particularly memorable were his fights in 2015 with Greece’s then finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who wanted debt relief for his beleaguered country.

For a time, Schäuble seemed ready to allow Greece to crash out of the euro before making any compromises.

Wolfgang Schäuble felt vindicated from painful reforms

In 2017, after he left the finance ministry, he said he felt vindicated by the results of often painful reforms carried out in exchange for EU loans in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and Cyprus.

In an interview with the Financial Times (FT) he insisted the goal was never to impose austerity on Europe. The goal instead was “a predictable, reliable finance policy that built up trust and generated growth,” he told the British newspaper.

“I would argue with anyone; even more strongly now after eight years, that this policy generates more sustainable growth than any other,” he said.

The British paper reminded its readers that his tenure has seen him vilified in southern Europe, nowhere more so than in Greece where Schäuble is known as “Mr. Nein,” who opposed gentler solutions to the country’s economic woes.

At one point, Schäuble also appeared to be next in line to follow Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Germany’s top political job. He had served in a series of government positions including as interior minister. That was the role he held in 1990 when an assassination attempt and gunshot wound confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

He is survived by his wife Ingeborg and four children. Current Christian Democrat leader Friedrich Merz was among the first politicians to respond to the news on Wednesday online. He said the news “fills [him] with great sadness.”

“In Wolfgang Schäuble, I lose my closest friend and confidant that I ever had in politics,” Merz said on social media, signing with his initials to indicate he had authored the post. “My thoughts are with his family, in particular his wife Ingeborg.”

Current Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat who succeeded Schäuble as finance minister in 2018, said he had “shaped our country for more than half a century,” as a parliamentarian, minister, and speaker of Parliament.

“In him Germany is losing a bright thinker, passionate politician and strident democrat,” Scholz said.

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