Karl Schiller was one of the key figures in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) from 1948 to the 1980s, especially in the field of economic policy.
He helped to shift the SPD from its quasi-Marxist economic policies of 1946 to market-orientated policies of the 1950s and beyond, and in 1953 presented the party with the slogan "As much competition as possible, as much planning as necessary". In terms of economic theory he sought to combine Keynesian theories with those of the neo-Liberal Walter Euken. However, economic Liberals often believed he remained the statist he had become in the Third Reich.
Born in Breslau, the son of a professional engineer, Schiller grew up in Kiel, and studied economics and sociology. Although he had been a member of the Socialist Students' League, he joined the Nazi party and, after 1933, the League of National Socialist University Lecturers. He gained a doctorate at the University of Heidelberg in 1935 for a dissertation on "Work creation and financial regulation in Germany" and was appointed head of a research group at the Kiel Institute for World Economics.
He was deemed unfit for military service but volunteered for the army in 1941. He served in the intelligence corps on the Eastern front, rising to first lieutenant. In 1944 he was offered a chair in economics at Rostock University but remained in the armed forces.
Schiller found no difficulty in taking up an academic career in 1945, when he was appointed visiting professor of economics at Kiel University. A year later he was appointed professor at Hamburg University but he put his academic career on hold between 1948 and 1953 when he served as senator for economic affairs and traffic in the Hamburg city administration. He had joined the SPD in 1946 and was an SPD member of the city parliament from 1949 to 1953, when he returned to the university, serving as Rector in 1956-58.
In 196l Willy Brandt invited Schiller to become senator for economic affairs in West Berlin and he is credited with having done much to revive the city's economy after the isolation inflicted by the building of the Berlin Wall. His further advance was rapid. He was elected to the SPD executive committee in November 1964, delegated from West Berlin to the federal parliament (Bundestag) in 1965 and joined the CDU/CSU- SPD grand coalition government as minister for economic affairs in 1966.
At the time West Germany was suffering from a mini-recession which helped to promote a surge of the far-right NPD. Schiller faced opposition within the government from the finance minister, Franz Josef Strauss, who opposed Schiller's proposal to revalue the German mark. Once again Schiller triumphed and so did his party, in the 1969 election, after which it formed a small coalition with the Liberal FDP.
In the government of Willy Brandt Schiller continued as minister of economics. When the finance minister resigned in 1971 Schiller took on finance as well. But he was soon at odds with his colleagues when he called for measures to produce massive savings. He was out of step with the SPD and resigned in July 1972. In the election of that year he supported the opposition Christian Democrats.
Most thought Schiller's political career was over and indeed he took up several positions in the private sector. He was appointed President of the Economic Development Corporation for Equatorial and Southern Africa, headed the economic department of the conservative Axel Springer publishing conglomerate, and advised the governments of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Remarkably, the SPD forgave him, and in the 1980s he played a high-profile role as one of their economic advisers. In 1987 he supported the party's (unsuccessful) candidate for chancellor, Johannes Rau.
On his 80th birthday in April 1991 Schiller was described by the Suddeutsche Zeitung as being second only to Ludwig Erhard in terms of success and popularity among Federal Germany's economic ministers.
Schiller was an elegant man who long retained his youthful appearance. He liked women and was liked by them. His own parents separated and he followed their example, and was married four times.