Oskar Lafontaine

The German politician Oskar Lafontaine (born 1943) was prime minister of the West German Land of Saar and the unsuccessful Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate for chancellor in 1990.

In many ways Oskar Lafontaine was a highly unusual politician. He was a trained scientist with a Masters degree in physics from the University of Bonn, rather than a lawyer, and he built his political power base in an unlikely locale, the Saar, the smallest of the West German Länder (states).

Lafontaine reached political maturity in the era of the SPD's history that was dominated by Willy Brandt. Indeed, he was often described as Brandt's protégé and chosen successor. Lafontaine was born on September 16, 1943, in Saarlouis, a regional center in the Saar. After his university education he did not pursue a career in science, but became active in politics instead. Elected a member of the Saar state legislature in 1970, he turned quickly to communal politics and became deputy mayor of the capital city of the Saar, Saarbrücken, in 1974. Only two years later he was elected lord mayor of the city.

As mayor of Saarbrücken Lafontaine proved a charismatic leader and efficient administrator. In 1985 the Social Democrats chose him to be their candidate for the top job in state politics, the office of prime minister. At the time he was very much an underdog. The state had for many years been governed by the Christian Democrats, who were led by one of the most popular figures in Saar politics, Werner Zeyer. Beating the odds, Lafontaine led the Social Democrats to victory and quickly consolidated his party's and his own position in the Saar. Although the Saar was (and is) an area beset by severe and chronic economic problems resulting from the decline of coal mining and steel manufacturing, in the following elections, in 1989, the SPD with Lafontaine at the helm captured over 50 percent of the popular vote.

Local Popularity Brings National Recognition

Lafontaine's popularity and unexpected success in the Saar brought him to the attention of the SPD's national leaders. Increasingly he was seen as the best of the generation of the West German Social Democratic leaders who would eventually succeed Willy Brandt. In March of 1990 Lafontaine was nominated as the party's candidate for chancellor in the December 1990 federal elections. Lafontaine's political career and life were almost cut short in April 1990, when a mentally deranged woman attacked him with a knife. Fortunately, he made a full recovery and ran a vigorous although losing campaign against Helmut Kohl and the incumbent Christian Democrats.

Not the least among Lafontaine's unusual features as a political were his ideological positions. Oskar Lafontaine was always something of a maverick among the West German Social Democrats. His first political experience came during the upheavals of the 1960s, and for a long time he seemed to revel in the label "leftist" Young Turk. Much as Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt had turned the SPD toward the right after Kurt Schumacher's rigid, albeit democratic, Marxism, Lafontaine became part of the pendulum swing in the other direction. In the 1970s and early 1980s he became associated with positions that seemed to reject the conservative policies of leaders like Helmut Schmidt and Hans Apel.

Lafontaine took strong and controversial stands on three major issues: disarmament and Germany's relationship to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the question of coalition agreements between the Social Democrats and the leftist, ecology-minded Greens, and, later, the modalities and timing of German reunification.

In the mid and late 1970s, the question of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in Europe dominated discussions of the East-West conflict. Lafontaine urged a radical rethinking of the entire Western defense strategy. Later he argued that a reunited Germany should remain a member of NATO, although, like many on the Western and Eastern side, he also felt that the alliance needed to deemphasize its military role and stress its political contribution to the future of Europe. Lafontaine continued to endorse the concept of military force reductions. He advocated that under the changed circumstances of the East-West relationship the military strength of the West German Bundeswehr could be safely cut by 50 percent, and all nuclear and chemical weapons could be removed from German soil.

When the West German Greens first became politically prominent in the 1970s, many right-wing Social Democrats looked upon them as crypto-Communists or eco-fascists. As a result, the SPD advocated a policy of isolation toward the upstarts. Lafontaine always disagreed with that strategy. He insisted that not only were the Greens raising political issues which the SPD had wrongfully neglected (such as the peace movement and concern for the environment), but that at least the moderate wing of the Greens constituted a potential coalition partner for the SPD. In time Lafontaine's strategy emerged as a politically effective move.

Position on Reunification Leads to Defeat

Undoubtedly Lafontaine's most controversial position was on the question of German reunification. Disdainful of what he called the flag-waving approach to instant political union of the Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic, Lafontaine argued that reunification should come at the end of a slow and well-planned process. The approach of the Kohl government, he claimed, would only exacerbate many of the inevitable social and economic problems that would follow if the political union of the two Germanys came too soon. For this reason, Lafontaine opposed both the decision for an immediate currency union and the treaty to exchange East and West German marks on the basis of one-to-one.

While many of the SPD's leaders accepted Lafontaine's arguments on disarmament and relations to the Greens, they were unwilling to go along with his thinking on German reunification. Electoral victories in the Länder of North Rhine Westphalia and Lower Saxony gave the SPD sufficient strength to block the currency treaty, but the party's leaders rejected Lafontaine's "go slow" position. Public opinion, too, did not back the Saar leader's views. The SPD ran a campaign essentially along Lafontaine's lines in the March 1990 East German elections, but the party's showing was a severe defeat by the Christian Democrats' and Helmut Kohl's "flag waving" campaign.

In the autumn campaign for chancellor Lafontaine took personal charge of the SPD's campaign, emphasizing economic and social issues, while Helmut Kohl stressed national and emotional issues. The early road to unification on October 3, 1990, was a heady tonic for Kohl, who carried his party to a solid victory. Lafontaine and the SPD received only 33 percent of the vote, pulled down by a weak 24 percent in eastern Germany. The worst defeat for the Social Democrats since 1957 entitled them to 239 seats out of the 656 in the Bundestag (lower house of parliament). Nevertheless, Lafontaine remained unrepentant, repeating his charge that Kohl had concealed the ongoing costs of reunification.

In late 1994 Lafontaine joined forces with SPD party leader Rudolf Scharping and Gerhard Schroder, premier of Lower Saxony, to unsuccessfully challenge chancellor Helmut Kohl. In November 1995 Lafontaine was elected leader of the SPD as Scharping's popularity declined. Going into the late 1990s Germans wondered who would lead the Social Democrats in the 1998 elections against Helmut Kohl, Lafontaine or Schroeder? Even though Lafontaine had a reputation for excellent public speaking skills and motivating the people, some Germans believed only Schroeder could beat Kohl in the next election.

Further Reading on Oskar Lafontaine

There was no English-language full-scale biography of Oskar Lafontaine. Good introductions to the problems and prospects of the SPD under his leadership are William E. Paterson, "The German Social Democracy," in Paterson, editor, The Future of Social Democracy (Oxford: 1986); and Andrei Markovits and Anton Pelinka, "Social Democracy in Austria and West Germany in the 1980s: A Comparative Assessment," German Studies Review (1989). For those able to read German, Lafontaine himself published some of his speeches in Reden (Saarbrücken: 1980), and more recently his vision of the future of German and European society, Die Gesellschaft der Zukunft (Hamburg: 1988).

See also The Financial Times (October 5, 1994); The Independent (November 17, 1995); The Economist (November 18, 1995; March 23, 1996; and April 12, 1997); and The Guardian (February 26, 1997).