Underrated: Guido Westerwelle

A groundbreaking German politician whose death has been ignored by the mainstream British press

Underrated

Guido Westerwelle, 1961-2016 (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister from 2009-13 and in addition Vice-Chancellor — i.e. deputy to Chancellor Angela Merkel — until 2011, died of leukaemia aged 54 in March. One would have thought that his death merited full obituaries in the British newspapers. The passing of a previous foreign minister, the long-serving Hans-Dietrich Genscher, later that month resulted in full-page obituaries the very next day. Yet at the time of writing, no obituaries of Westerwelle have appeared in the British press. His death was only noted in a few short news reports.

What is more surprising about this is that Westerwelle was probably the most senior openly gay politician we have so far seen anywhere. There have been openly gay heads of government, but surely a German foreign minister trumps a Belgian or Icelandic prime minister?

Westerwelle was leader of the Free Democrats (FDP), Germany’s small but once highly influential free-market liberal party. With that country’s electoral system it was the FDP which was the pivot, from the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 until the Greens entered government in 1998, that decided whether the centre-right Christian Democrats or the centre-left Social Democrats would lead the administration. Westerwelle became the FDP’s general secretary in 1994, aged 32, and took over as party leader in 2001. 

What he brought to the FDP was a brash campaigning style which was wholly new to the staid world of German politics. It would have been unthinkable, for instance, for any other party leader to do what Westerwelle did and appear on the German version of Celebrity Big Brother.

For the 2002 German federal elections he set the party a target of 18 per cent of the vote, an ambitious aim since the FDP had achieved only just over 6 per cent four years earlier. It was a target he was so proud of that he had it written on the soles of his shoes as he toured Germany in a campervan, the so-called Guidomobile.

But the election brought disappointment to the party: it achieved only 7.4 per cent of the vote. Without seeking the central party’s approval, five days before the election the FDP leader in the state of North Rhine Westphalia and former federal vice-chancellor, Jürgen Möllemann, had — at a cost of 830,000 euros — eight million anti-Zionist, borderline anti-Semitic leaflets distributed. The leaflet was widely blamed for the FDP’s poor showing — and was Westerwelle’s first big test. Even though he had been something of a mentor to Westerwelle, Möllemann was ruthlessly kicked out of the party, and the mysterious funding of the leaflet became a criminal matter. Möllemann died in 2003 while sky-diving; it has still not been established if it was an accident or suicide.

The 2009 election brought Westerwelle the success he was hoping for — 14.6 per cent of the vote. This was much the highest vote that the FDP had ever achieved — and it was done on an unapologetically pro-market, low-tax platform. The election brought the FDP back into government as the Christian Democrats’ junior partner, and Westerwelle achieved his ambition of serving as foreign minister like his predecessors as FDP leader Genscher and Klaus Kinkel.

During Westerwelle’s tenure, the German foreign office gave its imprimatur to a study that for the first time fully acknowledged responsibility for the Holocaust and the crimes of the Nazis. For too long German diplomats had hidden behind the myth that their predecessors had not fully succumbed to the Nazis and that the institution had served as a sanctuary for “Good Germans” during the war. 

On more contemporary concerns, Westerwelle’s record was mixed. He held to Germany’s passionately Europhile orthodoxy but was willing to oppose his European partners when he felt they were wrong. Most notably, he opposed military intervention in Libya, foreseeing disastrous consequences for a post-Gaddafi vacuum. He attacked the rule of Alexander Lukashenko, dictator of Belarus, prompting the self-defeating riposte from Lukashenko that it was better to be a dictator than gay.

The FDP fared less well. Its pro-market message was not in tune with Germany’s mood in straitened economic times. The party disappointed those who did keep the faith by failing to deliver on its tax-cutting promises. The 2013 election was the FDP’s worst-ever defeat, with the party  failing even to clear the 5 per cent threshold to enter the Bundestag. Six months after leaving office, Westerwelle was diagnosed with leukaemia. 

It has been said that all political careers end in failure, and this is certainly true of Westerwelle. But his achievements should not be underestimated: bringing an innovative style to German politics, keeping up the case for pro-market policies in Germany, and taking the plunge to come out as gay — by taking his partner to Merkel’s 50th birthday party in 2004 — while remaining a top-tier politician.