On the death of Thomas Oppermann: For him the voter was more important than party politics

Thomas Oppermann walked quickly upstairs in Ray-Ban glasses and a black trekking jacket. He preferred to give interviews while running, on the steepest passages. He said he couldn’t say how many times he’d climbed the 1,141-foot-high Brocken.

Seeing a photo of Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) paying tribute to the Brockenwirt landlord’s 70th birthday, the SPD politician said he wanted to see Sigmar Gabriel hanging there too. He was still the head of the SPD at the time. After all, this is also the homeland of the man from Goslar. “I’ll bring you a picture of Gabriel,” he said to the host.

Oppermann was chairman of the SPD group for a few months. The 2014 episode shows the many facets of this humorous instinctual politician. One skill was that he could always come up with a message, on any topic – and on top of the piece as well.

For Oppermann, politics has always been a game of interpretive sovereignty, precise analysis, posting, as well as proximity to the citizen and directness were trademarks of Lower Saxony. And he was an avid walker.

The Chancellor recognizes him as an honest partner

He carefully planned the mountain tours with his hiking friends around the Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, Stephan Weil. Fellow hikers reported that he usually carried the lightest backpack and then happily complained that he had to carry the greatest load.

At the age of 66, Oppermann always seemed in top form, led plenary sessions with humor and rigor as Vice President of the Bundestag, always looked like someone who could be ten years younger.

The news on Monday that Thomas Oppermann died in a hospital in Göttingen is all the more shocking for political Berlin. He collapsed on Sunday while filming the ZDF program “Berlin Direct” – according to the broadcaster, shortly before he was to be shown live on the show.

“I have valued him for years as a reliable and fair Social Democratic partner in grand coalitions,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel. As Vice-President of the Bundestag, Oppermann “has rendered excellent services to our Parliament in turbulent times”.

Humor was also one of his trademarks: Thomas Oppermann, who passed away unexpectedly on Sunday. Photo: REUTERS

As vice president, Lower Saxony had fought to the end to get the Bundestag to reform the electoral law in order to permanently reduce the number of seats. He made no secret that he was disappointed that the great reform was canceled.

In addition to attending numerous coalition summits, he and Merkel had a very special experience: he accompanied her to the 2014 World Cup final in Rio, enjoyed the view of the Sugar Loaf from the residence of the German Consul General before moving to the Maracana and Germany left. magical July evening with the 1-0 victory over Argentina.

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Leading up to the season, he was wrong when he thought Brazil would become world champions. Oppermann was also an avid football player on the FC Bundestag team for many years.

He had won his Göttingen constituency four times in a row. And early on he took up positions that were sometimes over the party line. For example, as Lower Saxony’s Minister of Science headed by Prime Minister Gerhard Schröder, he was responsible for tuition fees, but later thought its abolition was okay.

He was politicized in the US

By the way, the son of a milkman was the first representative of his family to study – and became a lawyer. The conscientious objector had come to politics in the United States before. In the late 1970s he worked there as a volunteer for the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace and helped in the field and at the union for labor migrants UFW / AFL-CIO. Bashing the US was therefore strange to Oppermann: he had remained inwardly connected with the country all his life.

But Lower Saxony could not fulfill his big dream in federal politics: he had worked for years to take over the position of Federal Minister of the Interior. Generosity and order, he wanted to stand up for these values ​​and create an immigration law on the Canadian model. The SPD politician also belonged to the shadow cabinet of chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück.

Mediator: Thomas Oppermann with Volker Kauder, Angela Merkel (both CDU) and Gerda Hasselfeldt (CSU) in the Bundestag Photo: REUTERS

However, after the federal elections of 2013, the SPD did not lay claim to the office in negotiations with the Union; instead, the SPD got the economic department, which Gabriel himself occupied, and the judiciary, which Heiko Maas took over. It took a lot of discussions before Oppermann could be convinced that he could serve his party more in the position of group chairman.

As the 14th SPD Group Chairman since 1949, he and Union Group Chairman Volker Kauder (CDU) held the coalition shop in the Bundestag together, even though Kauder did not have the same friendly partnership as with Peter Struck.

Especially because a little later the Edathy affair put Oppermann under heavy pressure and the Union demanded his resignation. He had disclosed the information chain about who had known what and when about the child pornography investigation against SPD politician Sebastian Edathy.

CSU Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich had to resign. At the time, there was resentment in the Union. It is all the more remarkable that many representatives of the CDU and CSU now rate Oppermann’s work and person with great emotion in their obituaries.

He had little interest in the pure teaching of the SPD

However, Oppermann continued to confidently describe himself as the “coalition stability anchor”. During his time as group chairman, he was viewed with suspicion by the left in his party – many of them regarded him as an adjuster, for whom his own appearance was more important than purely social democratic doctrine.

A certain vanity was not alien to Lower Saxony, some in the parliamentary group accused him of adorning himself with the work of other members of parliament rather than leaving the stage to lesser-known comrades.

Oppermann was proud of Göttingen – and also of what he had meant for the city and the university Photo: imago images / Hubert Jelinek

He was a frequent guest on talk shows and often presented his arguments with an almost voluptuous joy. What looked easy was actually hard work: Oppermann always meticulously prepared for interviews, performances and disputes.

The lawyer always felt that his party would not stray too far from the reality of the lives of its constituents. He argued with the strong forces in the SPD official party, who were mainly concerned with themselves, found compromise unreasonable and therefore constantly distanced himself from their own government work.

The SPD’s public image also “has to do with lost self-confidence,” he told Tagesspiegel in June 2019: “The SPD shows a strong tendency to auto-aggression.” In everything she does, she sees “the glass is always half empty, never half full”. Therefore, the Social Democrats had to “attribute much to themselves” for the unjust distribution of praise and blame in the grand coalition.

Proud of your own successes

Oppermann himself was strange about his distance from the voters. And when you were out with him in Göttingen, he didn’t hold back from his successes. Whenever he stood in front of a model of ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft, he pointed out that as Science Minister he had made a decisive contribution to the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.

Lately it has been a bit quieter around the father of four children. A few weeks ago he had declared that he no longer wanted to flee from the Bundestag.

“After 30 years as a member of the Lower Saxony state parliament and the German Bundestag, now is the right time for me to do something different and undertake new projects,” he said. His sudden death broke that plan.

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