In 1998, The Times of London dubbed Oskar Lafontaine "the most dangerous man in Europe." At the time, Lafontaine was Germany's left-wing finance minister and locked in battle with the Western world's top financial institutions. Today, the 67-year-old firebrand is still battling the forces of global capital, but not as leader of Germany's storied Social Democrats. Lafontaine incensed his colleagues of decades by suddenly jumping ship--abandoning the party of Willy Brandt in favor of the Left Party, a hodgepodge of western radicals and former East German communists. He may no longer be, by any account, Europe's most dangerous man, but in this election year he is the flagging Social Democrats' worst nightmare come true.
Oskar Lafontaine wouldn't be dangerous at all if it weren't for his counterpart, the East German-born and bred lawyer Gregor Gysi. This unlikely tandem is the one-two punch of the republic's newest party, the Left Party, which has fundamentally altered Germany's political landscape, and by extension that of Europe. Both are short, compact men with famously oversized egos. Yet they come from utterly different worlds: Gysi stems from one of East Germany's most prominent Jewish families. Although a card-carrying communist, the young attorney made his reputation defending anticommunist dissidents put on trial by the state. Today, the always dapper, silver-tongued, talk-show star has the status of a folk hero in eastern Germany, where he draws crowds of thousands in cities like Schwerin, Cottbus, and Frankfurt am Oder. In places like these, former East German market towns, the Left Party rules the roost. The two men's adversaries--and they are many--label them demagogues, spoilers, and rabble-rousers. And they insist that Gysi worked for the East German secret police, the Stasi, something he emphatically denies.
Twenty years after the Berlin Wall came crashing down, Lafontaine, Gysi, and the Left Party are an obstinate legacy of Germany's deeply flawed unification process--and the Social Democrats' abandonment of their own core ideals. Back in 1990, few imagined that the thoroughly disgraced communist party would be around in any form once democracy gelled. Even its stalwarts didn't dream it would attract a following in western Germany.
Yet the Left Party has upended Germany's electoral calculus by fragmenting the left wing of the German electorate. Ironically, the leftist party has dashed the hopes of any left-of-center alliance coming to power, even though there is a leftist majority in Germany. Although the party thrives in economically hard-hit regions in the east, where there is fertile ground for illiberal protest politics, it has entered legislatures across the west now, too. Moreover, the Left Party has closed ranks with similar forces elsewhere in Europe, such as the Greek communists and Sinn Fein, to help block the European Union constitution. Its staying power is attributable to the acumen of Oskar Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi, arguably the two most talented politicos in the country--and certainly the most divisive.
Turn Left at the Divide
The Left Party is the in-your-face product of the failures of western Germany's political elite to connect with the people of eastern Germany. A bit of history is required to understand how the party's genealogy is integral to the ill will it provokes today. The dominant strain of the party's parentage is the East German communist party, known as the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Created at the Kremlin's behest in occupied Germany's Soviet-run zone, it was the result of the forced merger of the Communist and Social Democratic parties, Germany's two great, left-wing parties before World War II. During the early years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the party tightened its grip on power and purged all opposition. For the next 40 years, the ruling party in East Germany remained strictly Leninist in style, secure in power under the political patronage of Moscow and the terror of its own secret police.
Unlike some of the more reform-minded communist leaders of Central Europe during the 1980s, East Germany's geriatric hardliners, such as Erich Honecker, held out stubbornly against all pressure from below--and even from above, including Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Yet to its credit, when mass demonstrations broke out in the autumn of 1989, the regime didn't clamp down with all its might, as did the Chinese government that same year in Tiananmen Square. On November 9, 1989, the hapless East Germans opened the borders and the "peaceful revolution" swept across the country.
As the regime dissolved, the SED hemorrhaged the lion's share of its members. New parties sprang up in liberated East Germany, including a genuine social democratic party, greens, and conservative and liberal parties. After 40 long years in power, unloved and ideologically bankrupt, the SED seemed to be limping off history's stage. And indeed, this is what probably would have happened had unification taken a different course.
One pivotal moment was the Social Democrats' quandary as to how to handle the 2.3 million former communist loyalists in East Germany. The Social Democrats' western leaders saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvigorate their party with perhaps several hundred thousand new members. With a 140-year history, the German Social Democrats (SPD) are the great-grandfather of all social democratic parties across the world, the liberal-minded standard bearers of social solidarity, the welfare state, and workers' rights. But (West) German Social Democrats had fallen on hard times, as the party's traditional working-class base shriveled and New Age pretenders like the Green Party emerged. By opening its arms to the eastern Germans, many observers assumed that the party, behind its leader Oskar Lafontaine, could catapult itself to the front of the republic.
Red Oskar of the Saarland
The 46-year-old Lafontaine was the Social Democrats' shooting star who, before the East bloc regimes began to teeter, was picked to lead the party to victory in the 1990 national elections. He had been christened as one of "Willy Brandt's grandchildren," an elite group of postwar Social Democrats considered the great statesman's heirs. Oskar Lafontaine was born in 1943 in the industrial Saarland along the French border (hence his fabled last name) into a poor, working class family. He never knew his father who perished on the eastern front. Oskar studied physics and joined the party in 1966, the same year the Social Democrats, under Brandt, entered the post-war West German government for the first time.
The bass-voiced populist with the pointy nose brimmed with self-confidence. Unlike so many of the party's bland technocrats, he excelled as an orator. Watching him at a campaign rally, though often the shortest one on stage, he became larger-than-life. With a red tie and rolled up sleeves, his fiery style recalled an era when left-wing politicians didn't shy from shaking clenched fists and revving up halls of trade unionists. Today, in mid-harangue...