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Helmut Schmidt, upbeat on arms talks, plays down 'danger of war'

A relaxed Helmut Schmidt - finally at peace with his new role out of power, it seems - is relatively optimistic about the prospects for Euromissile arms control.

In his first interview since his own Social Democratic Party emphatically repudiated him last weekend, Schmidt referred to his Monday speech in the parliamentary debate here on Euromissiles:

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''The German public knows me quite well. I have been in their kitchens and living rooms for years. Among other things, it was my task yesterday to calm my own nation . . . to take away from the public the ridiculous feeling of imminent danger of war. . . .''

The danger of war, he went on, ''has nothing to do with fewer or more rockets , but with a wrong state of mind.''

The wrong state of mind, the former chancellor suggests, can be corrected. He thinks the chances are actually quite good that the United States and the Soviet Union will eventually come to an arms control agreement on Euromissiles.

This could happen as early as next year, he thinks - if the Kremlin decides President Reagan will be reelected and therefore should be dealt with before the election, and if popular American concern about arms control simultaneously persuades Reagan that a deal would help him at the polls.

Describing himself as - and looking - ''extremely relaxed and well,'' Schmidt views his role now as that of an elder statesman speaking out on current political issues as occasion may arise but focusing mainly on long-term questions. He has visibly mellowed from the bitterness that was evident a year ago when he was dumped as West German chancellor by a shift of the Social Democratic Party's junior partner, the Liberals, into coalition with the conservatives.

Personally, he considers himself a ''moralist'' rather than either the ''idealist'' he is wary of or the ''Macher'' (''fixer'') he was always cast as by the press.

He doesn't think history will remember him particularly. But at the moment, of course, Euromissile stationing and arms control are the hottest current as well as long-term issues facing the West. And Schmidt, as a coauthor of NATO's ''two-track'' talk-and-deploy decision of 1979, has been taking an unusually active part in this discussion in the past few days.

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After almost a year of public silence, he gave a spirited defense of that decision Nov. 19 at the Social Democratic convention that shortly thereafter voted (380 to 14) against him and the NATO missile deployments due to begin a few weeks hence.

Schmidt repeated much of his reasoning on the first day of the televised Bundestag (lower house of parliament) debate Monday and Tuesday. In the interview Tuesday he said his purpose was primarily one of reassuring the worried German public. His word may no longer carry weight within his own party and, at time of writing, parliament's center-right majority in any case was expected to endorse deployment of the new NATO missiles in a late-night Tuesday vote.

But Schmidt's views do still influence the public, he believes. And, besides being relatively optimistic about a Euromissile agreement, Schmidt is convinced that such a superpower agreement on arms control would brake much of the momentum of the Social Democrats' repudiation of the new missiles and prevent their current swing from spinning into anti-American and anti-NATO feeling. He adds that it would also be helpful if American officials avoided talking casually about nuclear wars and especially about nuclear wars limited to Europe. Such loose talk has frightened Europeans, he says, and been ''the greatest catalyst'' to the growth of antinuclear feeling here.

''(US Defense Secretary Caspar) Weinberger has to discipline himself,'' Schmidt says. ''I understand that for a year or so he has been a little more careful, but not enough. And the President ought to be much more careful. He has an audience in Europe and he has to take the European audience into acount. He is their supreme commander. Europeans have a legitimate claim that the supreme commander of their nuclear umbrella in wartime should understand their interest, motivations, and anxieties.''

In a broader sense, he was asked, can democracies now make the necessary tough decisions in an era of heightened anxieties and democratization of nuclear policy?

''That's the wrong question,'' he replies, because public involvement in nuclear policy ''cannot be avoided. In a mass television democracy - which all of us nowadays have - it is impossible to take basic political decisions with long-term consequences without the public knowing it, without the public understanding at least some of it, without the public forming its judgment, heterogeneous as it may be.

''Therefore, it is unavoidable that political decisions of long-term importance have to be shared with the public. . . . You cannot go before the public of Kansas City and tell them what is at stake is school buses and segregation or integration or the fate of smokestack industries or the future of Silicon Valley. You will have to concede to the public that some of the things like defense are at stake as well.''

And can governments in this nuclear age, in Oxford Prof. Michael Howard's distinction, manage to ''reassure'' their own populations as well as ''deter'' the adversary?

They must do so, Schmidt contends. Military deterrence will never deter an adversary unless that adversary perceives that democratic publics have the will to support the deterrence.

And how would Schmidt like to be remembered in history?

''I will not be remembered in history,'' he says flatly. ''I have not been shot. I have not launched any great tragedy or victory. I have not borne any great defeat. It was a very normal - it still is a very normal - human life of a political leader.''

What sort of a leader? Are the many pundits right who deem Schmidt a ''Macher'' - a pragmatist or fixer without higher goals? Or is Henry Kissinger right in his strong impression of Schmidt as an idealist?

Schmidt doesn't mind being called a Macher, though it's not his term. But he definitely doesn't consider himself an idealist. In fact, he has just warned the Social Democrats and the peace movement - by quoting the 19th century poet Heinrich Heine - about the dangerous German predilection for impractical idealism.

He is also swift to warn Americans - whom he considers second only to the Germans in susceptibility to untempered idealism - that people and nations cannot be divided into black and white categories of ''good'' and ''evil.''

For himself, Schmidt chooses the word ''moralist,'' meaning ''somebody of very strong beliefs as well as moral values.''

''Since I came an adult - for more than 45 years - Marcus Aurelius has been my great idol,'' he says of the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher.

His kind of stoicism, the original kind, not today's quite different popularization - has guided Schmidt's political life. It entails, in Schmidt's description, fulfilling one's duties while never losing sight of moral values.

''But since you said 'Macher' - I have been trying to do my duty. Not as a dilettante. Not as an idealist. But as a practical actor with the task of bringing about changes, not only talking about them.''

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