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 leading politician. The desire to make my contribution to the peace movement, to the preservation of the environment, to equality of opportunity and to the establishment of social justice was what drove me on.”

However, he suggests that the deeper doubts remained. He reveals that in the turbulent days of the formation of Germany’s Red-Green coalition government, during which the might-have-been-Chancellor Lafontaine clashed several times with the about-to-be-Chancellor Schröder, he suddenly started having dreams about the knife attack.

Another of his own suggested explanations is the conflict between family life and the life of a politician. He writes well about the near impossibility of combining the two, and ironically evokes an embarrassing anniversary party where the politician’s wife is thanked and presented with a bouquet of flowers, while among the guests is to be found “the ‘second wife’ of this devoted public servant—his affectionate secretary—who ministers in one way or another to his emotional needs during his absences from home.” (If only Lafontaine’s sharp sense of irony would extend to himself.) He was determined to avoid this trap, and the birth of a son to his third wife in 1997 sharpened the tension: “It was always a wrench to leave the house when the tearful little Carl Maurice used to stretch out his arms and beg me not to go.” The last photograph in the book shows him, two days after his resignation, smiling in an open-necked cardigan as he carries little Carl Maurice on his shoulders.

Then there was what most political observers saw: his growing conflict with Gerhard Schröder, and the way in which Schröder’s people were briefing, and leaking, against him. One chapter in this book is entitled “My Friendship with Gerhard Schröder.” It is just four pages long, of which two are devoted to the end of that beautiful “friendship.” In fact, Lafontaine gives an unintentionally devastating portrait of the troika of personalities who dominated the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in the 1990s: Schröder, Rudolf Scharping, and himself. The troika has something of a tradition in the SPD: from the 1960s to the early 1980s, party politics were dominated by three men, Willy Brandt, Herbert Wehner, and Helmut Schmidt. These three were complicated, ambitious, vain, and tangled, even tortured, in their relations with one another; they also had strategic visions and deep convictions, forged in the mid-twentieth-century crucible of war and exile.


In their successors, one can plainly discern all the former traits; the latter have yet to be discovered. One has the impression of men utterly shaped by the game of la politique politicienne as it is played in our time. All from humble backgrounds—Lafontaine’s father was a baker—they clearly enjoy to the full the material perks and privileges of a successful politician’s life. When Schröder became chancellor, Lafontaine presented him with a box of cigars, decorated with a red rose. Scharping, who had to content himself with the position of defense minister in the Schröder government, has recently been in trouble for using an official jet to fly back to spend a night with his new partner, Countess Kristina Pilati von Thassul zu Daxberg-Borggreve. Lafontaine himself is famous for his love of good food and wine, and in 1993 had to pay back some DM 228,000 (approximately $134,000) which he had wrongly continued to receive as a pension from his earlier job as mayor of Saarbrucken, in his native Saarland. A “technical mistake,” said Lafontaine.

The Heart Beats on the Left has some high-minded reflections on the dangers of “media democracy,” in which political agendas are dominated by considerations of what will play best in the newspapers and on television. The fact that Lafontaine himself played the game expertly for many years does not necessarily discredit his critique. Reading his description of how Schröder’s then right-hand man, Bodo Hombach (now one of the many international pooh-bahs trying to put the Balkans to rights), used press briefings and leaks to attack him, I was immediately reminded of another European center-left administration, that of Tony Blair. Indeed, at exactly the same time that Chancellor Schröder’s people were briefing and leaking against Finance Minister Lafontaine, Tony Blair’s people were briefing and leaking against his finance minister, Gordon Brown—and vice versa. The ordinary voter might well say: Don’t our leaders have anything better to do with their time? Indeed, ordinary European voters do say just that in growing numbers, manifesting what in German is called Politikverdrossenheit (which roughly translates as “being fed up to the back teeth with the bloody politicians”), and simply not bothering to turn out to vote.

The immediate, precipitant cause of Lafontaine’s resignation was his reading in Bild-Zeitung, Germany’s leading tabloid, a sensational report that Chancellor Schröder had threatened to resign if his finance minister continued to pursue a policy directed against the business community, and then discovering that the chancellor was not prepared to deny this report personally. That was the last straw. In the first interview Lafontaine gave to explain his Kleistian act, he cited a lack of “team spirit” as the main reason for his departure.

Two other possible contributing causes occurred to me as I read his account. The first is, quite simply, that he had failed. If we assume that, beside his profound and selfless commitment to the peace movement, protecting the environment, etc., the reason he came back into the political race in 1990 was a driving ambition to reach the very top of the pole—the one common denominator of most leading politicians—then he had been overtaken. As the constitutional and institutional power of the chancellor’s office more and more asserted itself in government—and the Federal Republic has been called a Kanzlerdemokratie, a chancellor-democracy—it became clear that Richelieu he would never be. Schröder was the boss.

Secondly, he emerges here as remarkably thin-skinned. He complains about the damage done to his “self-esteem” by sarcastic press commentary on his attempts at disco dancing “with my grey hair and my undisguisable paunch.” He says he was “offended” by Helmut Kohl’s failure to acknowledge how favorable were the circumstances for his trouncing of Lafontaine in 1990. What a thing to expect of that grand old pachyderm! Harry Truman famously said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Ultimately, one feels, Oskar Lafontaine couldn’t stand the heat—so he went back to his kitchen.

There were also, to be sure, major, substantive political differences with Schröder. In Germany, Lafontaine wanted neo-Keynesian, demand-side measures, such as lower interest rates, to bring down unemployment, active government intervention, and certainly not the lower taxes for the corporate sector that Schröder had promised. In Europe, he wanted finance ministers like himself to have a say in setting interest rates for the newly launched euro, rather than leaving this entirely to the independent European Central Bank. He also advocated so-called “tax harmonization” across the European Union—which is what prompted Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun, appalled at the prospect of British tax rates being set by the French or Germans, to call him “the most dangerous man in Europe.” (A German politician with a French name was the perfect bogeyman.) Even in a post–cold war politics where left and right seemed to have lost much of their meaning, this was a recognizably left-wing agenda, and the other half of Lafontaine’s book is devoted to ruminating on what it means for a European heart to “beat on the left” at the turn of a new century.


He was, of course, fully part of the flexible, pragmatic, even chameleon-like politics of the 1990s, led hither and yon by television, focus groups, and opinion polls. He tries to justify the SPD’s 1998 election slogan “The New Center” by saying that Willy Brandt (whom he still considers a father figure, although the feeling was not reciprocated in the last two years of Brandt’s life) first used the term in 1972. The effect is rather spoiled by his admission that they had started with a different and even vaguer slogan, “The New Force”—until they realized that one had been nabbed by the Siemens electric company. Very much of our time, this: a political party and a big corporation competing for the best advertising slogan. Now, in principled retirement, he is withering about the Blair-Schröder-Clinton slogan “The Third Way.” Blair and Schröder’s joint manifesto, entitled The Third Way and “prepared by Bodo Hombach at Schröder’s behest behind my back,” was, he writes, “a hodge-podge of platitudes, together with a re-hash of principles enunciated by Anthony Giddens which had been common knowledge in Europe for a long time.” Which, indeed, it was. Just like “The New Center.”

But what, then, remains of the left? “What’s left?” as the British political theorist Steven Lukes memorably asked after the end of communism. In Lafontaine’s version, there is some sentimental residue of the old left, including the old New Left. He makes, for example, an elliptical but favorable reference to the virtues of state ownership. He clearly regrets the decline of the old-fashioned, social democratic industrial worker, quoting with approval a curious passage from a German newspaper: “There is a type of German male that one comes across ever more rarely—the gaunt, sinewy worker, born into the world of machines and the working practices they impose, thus committed to their service and the rationality of their organization but at the same time determined in his acts of rebellion.”

And there are some echoes of the old softness toward communism. Early in the book he quotes with approval François Mitterrand’s assessment of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the author of martial law in Poland, as a “hero.” The records of his own conversations with the former East German Communist leader Erich Honecker in the 1980s, which I have read, are among the most sycophantic of any West German politician—which is saying a lot.

The gravamen of his argument, however, is that to be on the European left today means to be a defender of the European model of a welfare state against the American-led global capitalist internationale, and its triumphant ideology of neoliberalism. “My book,” he writes in a preface to the English edition, “is an earnest plea for a model of a European welfare state without which there can be no stable democratic order.” So much for the future of democracy in America.

He endorses the Socialist French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s call for a “market economy” but not a “market society”—by which he means an (imagined) American neoliberal society where each person has to fend for him or herself, and the devil take the hindmost, rather than an (idealized) European society with numerous networks of social solidarity and a strong welfare state. He contrasts the world of “human values and solidarity” with the tyranny of “shareholder values.” He suggests that so-called “modernizers” such as Schröder and Blair are merely neoliberal supply-sider wolves in social democratic sheep’s clothing. He pleads for fiscal and monetary expansion; an active industrial policy, by which the state would actively support some industries and not others; a large welfare state; and redistribution of wealth in order to benefit workers, the unemployed, and pensioners. The German “social market economy” is in peril, he says, “The neoliberals of all countries have joined forces and are preparing to attack. Those who do not join in dismantling the welfare state will suffer at the hands of the financial markets…. In this age of shareholder value, the worker has become a mere cost factor.” He writes scathingly about “the social reality in the more liberal Anglo-Saxon democracies.” And Britain is, of course, a dangerous bridgehead of American neoliberalism in Europe.

Two closely linked features distinguish this vision of the European left: its Europeanism and its anti-Americanism. Lafontaine is a passionate believer in further integration of the European Union. He even goes so far as to envisage the peoples of Europe combining “to create a European nation” (“so etwas wie eine ‘Nation Europa’,” in the German original). This is language one rarely hears these days, although it was common enough in West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s. (Even Germany’s Green foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, does not go as far as this: his vision is of a federation of nation-states.) Like generations of West German politicians, but with a special emphasis deriving from his background in the Saarland, he believes that only France and Germany can make it happen. He quotes François Mitterrand:

Germany and France have been chosen by fate to lead the way in the creation of a new Europe. Once they have become aware of having preserved what I have no hesitation in calling an instinct for grandeur, they will realize that a united Europe is a project of which they are fully worthy.

The irony here is that the only European nation besides France which really has preserved its “instinct for grandeur” is Britain, as we have recently seen in the British response to the September 11 attacks on the United States, as well as in the British willingness to send forces to troublespots around the world. But Lafontaine is dismissive of Schröder’s attempt to suggest that Britain might join the Franco-German dance. As for Germany, much to the dismay of some German conservatives, it still has not recovered that instinct for grandeur. And a good thing too, many outsiders will say. The buildings in Berlin are grand, but the spirit of the bungalow largely prevails. Lafontaine himself exemplifies that spirit, not least in the grudging way he writes about the truly grand adventure of German unification. The unification of Germany features barely at all in his book, and when it does, it appears mainly as a source of economic, financial, or social problems.

He gives one interesting illustration of how far he was prepared to go in advancing Franco-German cooperation in order to build a nation called Europe. When they were discussing the formation of the Schröder government, he writes, he seriously considered proposing the French culture minister Jack Lang to be German culture minister. An extrovert, cosmopolitan, populist, representative of French Zivilisation as the guardian of German Kultur! Now that would have been fun.

But what is all this bold European integration for? Answer: to defend and perfect a model of the European welfare state, a “social Europe” with a social market economy, where workers are not reduced to mere “cost factors” and the state helps the unemployed to get back to work. Against whom must it be defended? Against “neoliberals of all countries,” to be sure. But above all: against America. The anti-Americanism, not surprising in someone of his generation on the German left, and music to the ears of his French counterparts, keeps peeping through in other contexts, too. His prize example of the debasement of democracy in the media age is, inevitably, Ronald Reagan. Lafontaine’s first major public speech after his resignation was a furious denunciation of the Kosovo war. “It was unforgivable,” he writes of Germany’s Green foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, “to follow the Americans and push the United Nations to one side.” And he quotes with apparent approval the wild assertion of the writer Peter Handke that in bombing Serbia “NATO has created a new Auschwitz of its own.”

So in this vision, the left is inseparable from Europe, and their combined meaning is: the Not-America. Of course this view of the world is by no means shared across the European center-left. It is not shared by Blair and Gordon Brown, who are fascinated by American solutions, or by Schröder and Fischer, or by the Spanish socialist Javier Solana. But it remains the most distinctive and characteristic European answer to the question “What’s left?'”

The reader may by this stage have concluded that I do not share this vision. The reader would not be wrong. After the events of September 11, Lafontaine’s conception of Europe as a rival to the United States seems to me even more undesirable and unrealistic than it was already before September 11. But because I disagree with many of his answers, and doubt whether he fully understands his own motives, this does not mean that I think his questions are bad ones. On the contrary, I think his central questions, both about contemporary politics and about contemporary economics, are very pertinent. There are serious reasons why millions of people in Europe are not bothering to vote, and many tens of thousands have instead been turning out to protest at every prominent meeting of “global capitalism,” whether in Seattle, Nice, Davos, Melbourne, or Genoa. We need provocative critics to remind us that all is not right with the familiar triumphant “Western model,” combining elements of free-market economy, liberal individualism, television democracy, and consumer society.

There is one brilliant passage in this book:

Let me imagine the various ways in which despotism could manifest itself. I envisage a host of people, all more or less alike and in similar situations, who move round and round in a circle without pause in search of trivial, everyday pleasures which fill their lives. Each stands alone, isolated, heedless of the fate of all the others. As far as he is concerned, the human race consists simply of his family and those around him. He stands side by side with his fellow men but he does not see them. He touches them but he does not feel them. He exists solely in and for himself.

However, it was not Oskar Lafontaine who wrote that; it was Alexis de Tocqueville.

This Issue

November 1, 2001