Oskar Lafontaine turns 80. His entire political life was one big ups and downs. A look back at his ups and downs.
It’s all coming back up. The spectacular triumphs, the bitter, no less spectacular defeats. The whole political life, which was all ups and downs, and yes: a big, actually film-worthy spectacle.
All of this will now be honored with a look back at the work of a man who many contemporaries see as one of the last political dinosaurs in Germany: Oskar Lafontaine. He turns 80 this Saturday (September 16th).
The trajectory of his life has steep climbs and a desolate decline. The Saarlander, born in Saarlouis, became a member of the state parliament for the SPD at 27, mayor at 31 and mayor of Saarbrücken at 33, SPD chairman of Saarland at 34 and prime minister at 41.
A left-wing bearer of hope
In the 1980s, the qualified physicist was considered one of the SPD’s left-wing hopes, the “grandson” of the party icon Willy Brandt (1913-1992), a brilliant speaker and rhetorician with a razor-sharp mind and a polemic that was popular with enemies and… Friend is equally feared. He passionately represents left-wing positions that are just as controversial among many party members as among his political opponents.
“Lafontaine captivates his audience, makes them laugh, groan, applaud. Anyone who has heard him speak knows: he can talk his way from zero to a hundred in no time,” . He invokes “social justice, he attacks financial capitalism, invokes the longing for peace, he speaks sense and nonsense.”
This fearless angularity with which the connoisseur and bon vivant surrounds himself like a trademark gives him the image of a charismatic who one either loves or fears or both at the same time. Former Federal President Roman Herzog (1934-2017) stated in 2008 that Oskar from Saarland was the only German politician “whom I would describe as charismatic.” Before him, only Willy Brandt and Franz Josef Strauss (1915-1988) had this stirring political charisma.
As with these two pillar saints of their parties, Lafontaine’s career also shows extreme breaks. After the fall of the Wall, he recognized a “national drunkenness.” He advocates a confederation of the two German states as part of a pan-European unification process and warns against reunification, predicting an economic collapse in the East and millions of people unemployed, which ultimately leads to a break with his role model Willy Brandt. With this concept, which was not supported by some of the SPD celebrities, the party nevertheless presented him as a candidate for chancellor in the 1990 federal election.
At an election campaign meeting in Cologne, the mentally ill doctor’s assistant Adelheid S. manages to get to the podium. She stabs Lafontaine in the neck with a 30 cm long kitchen knife, critically injuring him. During his medical treatment and recovery, the SPD parliamentary group moved away from their candidate’s political position. The result: Lafontaine lost the election in December 1990 against the incumbent Chancellor Helmut Kohl (CDU, 1930-2017) and withdrew from federal politics. 20 years later he says: “I underestimated the euphoria of unity and simply overestimated the rational argument. The truth is not always popular.”
Before the 1994 federal election, he returned and formed a leadership troika with the SPD chancellor candidate Rudolf Scharping (75) and the Prime Minister of Lower Saxony Gerhard Schröder (79), but it was characterized by mutual rivalry: everyone wanted to be first, especially Oskar Lafontaine.
The opportunity presented itself at the SPD party conference in 1995. The awkward-looking Scharping had gained 2.9% to 36.6% in the 1994 federal election, but still lost and is running for re-election as party chairman without an expected opponent. Nothing comes of this, because Lafontaine gives a brilliant speech and takes the delegates by storm, who elect him as the new SPD leader.
The next crash
This sets the stage for the next triumph – and the next crash. He wants to conquer Germany with the new SPD star Gerhard Schröder: Schröder as chancellor, himself as party leader. In fact, with this team, the SPD was able to get 40.9% in the 1998 elections and form a coalition with the Greens. Schröder becomes chancellor, Lafontaine becomes finance minister.
To the outside world, both embody the ideal power team like inseparable friends. This impression is extremely misleading. In reality, a fight is taking place between two people who – – “are similar in many ways: both are upwardly mobile, power-conscious, ambitious, suspicious, vulnerable to offense.”
In practice it looks like this: Schröder sets how high the eco-tax will be – Lafontaine finds out about it from the newspaper. Lafontaine wants to regulate the international financial markets and does not receive any support from Schröder. This dispute escalates: Lafontaine sees himself as an accomplice of a policy that he considers to be wrong. Schröder still praises him publicly, “but the bridges are being burned internally,” according to the “taz”.
Break with Schröder
Lafontaine gives up, gets into his company car and has himself driven from Bonn to Saarbrücken, not without leaving a letter of resignation behind. At the same time, he resigns from his party leadership and his Bundestag mandate.
: “So Lafontaine assumed that Schröder, when he was in first place, would let him, Oskar, have his way. Oskar, the puppeteer, with the Chancellor’s hand puppet Gerd: That’s how it should have been. He forgives the fact that it didn’t happen that way neither Schröder nor himself.”
It is striking how seemingly easy it is for Lafontaine to separate himself from people close to him. In this context, critics point to his three divorces. Oskar Lafontaine’s first marriage was to Ingrid Bachert (1967-1982). The second marriage to the artist Margret Müller (one son, born 1982) ended in divorce in 1988. In 1988 he had a nine-month relationship with the songwriter Bettina Wegner (“Are such little hands”). And he was married to the politician Christa Müller from 1993 to 2013 (one son, born 1997).
that he was suffering from prostate cancer and was therefore withdrawing from federal politics completely. “Despite all rumors to the contrary, Lafontaine insists that cancer was the decisive reason for his decision not to run again as Left Party leader,” writes “Stern.” After leaving the SPD, Lafontaine united the West German electoral alternative Work and Social Justice (WASG) with the East German PDS to form the Left Party.
He describes the “Spiegel’s” claim that Lafontaine was forced to come home by his then wife Christa Müller because he had an affair with party colleague Sahra Wagenknecht (54) as an “example of low-level journalism – with alleged affairs and “Berlin backstairs gossip”.
But as life happens – a year later it is clear: Oskar and Sahra are a couple. After his third divorce, the two married at the end of 2014. A political power couple has found each other. His wife, who is inspired by the same spirit of political unrest, is said to be founding a new party. The political pensioner Lafontaine says: “Of course I support a party that advocates for social justice and peace.”
Signs point to approach
There are now signs of mild age. According to the SZ, Lafontaine “doesn’t give the impression that he’s struggling with himself, with his fate and with what he hasn’t achieved.” He did not become chancellor, “even though he had what it took like only a few others.” He became grateful towards life.
Even the hostility towards Gerd Schröder is no longer what it used to be. There are signs of rapprochement and now even reconciliation: Gerd and his fourth wife So-yeon (55) visited Oskar and his fourth wife Sahra in Saarland. They even cooked together.
And the ex-chancellor congratulated him on his 80th birthday in the “Stern”: “Turning 80 is certainly a reason to let old frictions become history.”
In the end, Oskar Lafontaine becomes what he has never been before: a conciliator.
I am an author and journalist who has worked in the entertainment industry for over a decade. I currently work as a news editor at a major news website, and my focus is on covering the latest trends in entertainment. I also write occasional pieces for other outlets, and have authored two books about the entertainment industry.