Oskar Lafontaine, the most powerful figure in the new German government, has the chance to be my hero againby David Goodhart / November 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Oskar Lafontaine was my hero. It was the late 1980s; I was a young reporter working in Bonn for the Financial Times. A Red-Green coalition in Germany seemed an exciting possibility and Oskar was the coming man of the European left.
He had interesting ideas and wrote books about them. (Green taxes are old hat now; but then, especially to British ears, they sounded pretty hot.) He had a smell of danger about him-unlike most postwar German politicians-and was happy to take on both the right-wing patriarchs of his own party such as Helmut Schmidt, and the left in the trade unions. He was also rather glamorous: Ute Lemper sang at his rallies; he lived with a spikey-haired film director; and, as a leading member of the “Tuscany faction,” he was unashamed of his enjoyment of the good life. Even his name sounded romantic.
I devoured everything he wrote and spoke to a British publisher about writing a biography of him as the emblem of a more relaxed and self-confident modern Germany. Then I made the mistake of actually meeting my hero, or at least seeing him at close quarters.
It was Germany’s 1990 unification election. Oskar was the Social Democrat’s Chancellor candidate. It was a political gamble. He was the man for West Germany’s new generation-Red-Green and post-national. Then the Berlin wall fell and the gamble proved a disastrous one. Oskar could not connect to the mood of national euphoria; instead, he made Cassandra-like speeches about the economics of unification. His economics was good, but his politics was bad. To make matters worse, a madman stuck a knife in his neck at a rally in April 1990, eight months before the election. He recovered from the physical wounds quickly, but the attack left him depressed and haunted by a martyr complex which disconnected him further from the average voter.
I met him for the first time on his election train, touring the country in the last few days of the December 1990 campaign. In Germany, political reporters on the big newspapers tend to follow just one of the main parties, and are usually supporters too (even members). Thus, Oskar was to be found on his train holding court to a troupe of sycophantic hacks. It was a depressing sight. There was a sceptical electorate out there waiting to be convinced and here was my hero, showing off to his cronies and cracking jokes about the backward, reactionary east Germans. I could scarcely believe my ears. He had some reason to resent the east Germans: they had stolen a winnable election from him, but this was gauche and unpleasant.
Oskar tumbled off the pedestal on which I had placed him, taking with him part of my political innocence. Suddenly, instead of a man of ideas, I saw an insecure, posturing intellectual in politics, more concerned with being right than solving problems. (A friend who saw him at Harvard before an audience of American grandees a few months earlier said he was awful-provincial and immature). His speeches, which had once struck me as witty knock-about leftism, started to sound like mean-spirited demagoguery. His books seemed insubstantial (pace Gunter Hofmann’s warm review of his latest book on the next page, they seem so to this day). And I came to see the Tuscany faction as frivolous, reflecting the wider failure of the 1960s generation.
After the SPD’s disastrous defeat in 1990 Oskar went off to sulk in the Saarland, the small state which he runs in south-western Germany. I forgot about him, particularly as the modernisation of the left had a new torch bearer in the shape of Labour’s shadow employment spokesman, Tony Blair. When I returned to Germany to cover the 1994 election, Oskar seemed, by contrast, a tax-and-spend dinosaur.
But he was obviously recovering some of his vigour. After the SPD’s defeat in the 1994 election he moved swiftly to push out Rudolf Scharping, the failed Chancellor candidate, from the leadership of the party. And three years later, in 1998, Oskar had the sense-humility even-to make way for Gerhard Schr?der as Chancellor candidate, despite remaining the most popular figure among the SPD rank and file.
Perhaps Oskar has matured. Let us hope so. As finance minister in Germany’s new Red-Green government, he will be the most powerful politician in Europe. Along with France’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn he will form half of a Keynesian axis at the heart of European economic policy making. This axis, however, will be hugely constrained by the neo-monetarist framework of the stability pact and the European Central Bank. The politicians may find themselves in serious conflict with the institutions of Emu sooner than they had expected.
If this is the case, let us also hope that Oskar has not abandoned all his radicalism. With the rest of the world in a deflationary spiral, we need Keynesians pressing up against the new European institutions, at least for now. Faster growth will also make it easier to implement the tricky microeconomic reforms that Germany needs. Oskar has started in robust fashion, criticising the Bundesbank for behaving as if the world crisis did not exist. A senior member of a German government has not said that for a long time. Perhaps Oskar will become my hero again.