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…