Odd Man Out

The Heart Beats on the Left

by Oskar Lafontaine, translated from the Germanby Ronald Taylor
London: Polity Press, 219 pp., $59.95; $24.95 (paper)(distributed in the US by Blackwell)

Oskar Lafontaine
Oskar Lafontaine; drawing by David Levine

On March 11, 1999, Oskar Lafontaine, one of the most powerful figures in the recently formed government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder—some even whispered, the most powerful of all, the power behind the throne, the socialist Richelieu of German politics, described by the British tabloid The Sun as “the most dangerous man in Europe”—dictated a letter to his secretary. It read: “Dear Chancellor, I hereby resign from the office of Federal Finance Minister. Yours sincerely, Oskar Lafontaine.” He simultaneously resigned his position as leader of the Social Democratic Party and his parliamentary seat. Germany was stunned, and the business community generally delighted. The German stock exchange index, the DAX, gained 6 percent in fifteen minutes, and the euro rose two cents against the dollar. “Red Oskar” was gone.

Half a year later he published a book that attempted to explain why. This is the English translation of that book. I say “attempted to explain” because after reading it closely I cannot escape the feeling that Oskar Lafontaine himself still does not really know why he did it. He is a little like one of those characters in a story by Heinrich von Kleist who suddenly does some wild, apparently inexplicable thing. So The Heart Beats on the Left is a political and psychological puzzlebook. It is also, as its title suggests, an invita-tion to reflect on what it might mean to be on the European left at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Both words, “European” and “left,” are important, and more especially their interconnection.

To start with the puzzle: Why did he throw in the towel just when he’d finally reached the top? Lafontaine offers, or hints at, a number of explanations. The most interesting in human terms is that this was a delayed effect of the assassination attempt that had nearly cost him his life nine years before. At a rally in April 1990 he was stabbed in the neck by a deranged woman, and suffered a serious loss of blood. During the days that followed, he writes, the whole business of politics seemed trivial: “I felt like a wanderer who had reached the coast and saw nothing in front of him but the endless ocean and the unbroken blue sky. I had become aware how insignificant things like power, fame and political success were.”

So why did he submit himself again to the “endless round of speeches, meetings, press conferences and interviews”? And why did he agree to become the Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellor in the election later that year, standing against—and in the end, losing disastrously to—Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose campaign was somewhat helped by the fact that he had just united Germany? Lafontaine’s answer is a small masterpiece of humbug or self-deception: “It was entirely due to the strength of my political commitment that I was prepared to accept the many sacrifices that are demanded of a…

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