Remembering Guido Westerwelle

Yesterday, Guido Westerwelle, former head of the liberal party FDP and German foreign minister in the second Merkel cabinet from 2009 to 2013, died aged only 54. Westerwelle was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2014, but was until recently believed to be recovering.

I did not necessarily agree with Mr. Westerwelle’s politics, though I always liked him as a person and did not agree with the ridicule heaped on him for his sometimes unorthodox campaigns and ideas. But there was one thing I always admired about Guido Westerwelle and that is that he was one of the first openly gay politicians in Germany and the first openly gay cabinet minister. And he wasn’t just a second and third rate cabinet minister, but our foreign secretary and Germany’s representative in the world.

A lot of people – even people I wouldn’t classify as outrightly homophobic otherwise – had issues with being represented by a gay man in the world. However, I always loved the idea that every foreign dignitary who came to visit Germany – no matter from what homophobic and backwards country they originated – would have to shake the hands of not one, but two gay men – Guido Westerwelle and former mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit (who, at least as far as I remember, was the first big name German politician to come out as gay, a few years before Guido Westerwelle). And they couldn’t even refuse, because to do so would be impolite.

I loved the idea that Guido Westerwelle took his husband Michael Mronz along for state visits just like a heterosexual male politician would take his wife and that he ignored any sly “Well, maybe you should leave him at home, cause some things are just not done” advice. It always made me smile to see Michael Mronz – sometimes together with Angela Merkel’s husband Joachim Sauer – touring touristic sights with all the political wives. Because this sent a big signal to all the bigots, both in Germany and abroad, that LGBT relatioships are normal, as normal as heterosexual couples.

Given the current political climate in Germany, it is also worth remembering that Angela Merkel’s second cabinet from 2009 to 2013 was the most diverse in German history with a woman chancellor (and several women as ministers), a wheelchair user as secretary of finance (Wolfgang Schäuble), a gay men as foreign secretary (Guido Westerwelle) and a man of colour (Philipp Rösler, who was born in Vietnam and later adopted by a German couple) first as the secretary of health and later as secretary of economics. There was also a cabinet minister who was strongly believed to be lesbian, but since she never came out publicly, we shall respect her privacy. What makes this diverse cabinet even more remarkable is that is was not the cabinet of a leftwing government, but of a conservative-liberal, i.e. center-right coalition.

Because Guido Westerwelle’s party FDP is liberal in the European sense, i.e. pro-business and pro-low-taxes, but socially liberal, i.e. closer to what Americans call “libertarian” and not “liberal” as a synonym for “left”, as many Americans tend to use it (which I’ve never gotten – honestly, folks, words have meanings and “liberal” does not mean “left”).

The fact that a conservative-liberal government just happened to have the most diverse cabinet in German history and that this was mostly no big deal except for a few grumbling bigots also shows how much the country has changed for the better. This is important to remember, especially now that a xenophobic party of rightwing bigots (the AfD and no, I’m not using cutesy euphemisms like “national-conservative”, cause bigots is what they are) is gaining voters, particularly but not limited to East Germany.

A lot of commentators blame the rise of the AfD in certain benighted demographics on Angela Merkel who has allegedly moved the conservative party CDU too far to the left and thus alienated conservatives. This always infuriates me, because IMO the great victory of Angela Merkel is that she turned the CDU into a party – and I never thought I would ever say this – that you can vote for without feeling bad about it. Angela Merkel quietly got rid of the xenophobic and racist elements in her party, the ones who hated anything that wasn’t straight, white, German and petit-bourgeois. And the conservative-liberal coalition of the second Merkel government and its diverse cabinet were a beacon in that regard, a beacon that centre-right no longer came part and parcel with ugly bigotry, but that a centre-right government could still be the most diverse in German history and have women, LGBT people, people of colour and disabled people and make absolutely no big deal of it.

The second Merkel government was a big fat signal to the jerks who now support the AfD that their straight, white, bio-German, Christian and petit-bourgeois country is a thing of the past, no matter how much they might want to cling to it. Guido Westerwelle was a big part of that and that’s reason enough to mourn him, whether you agreed with his politics or not.

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5 Responses to Remembering Guido Westerwelle

  1. Mark H. says:

    I have to admit that I had issues being represented by him. Not because he was gay, but because of his politics, and his sometimes very awkward moments (remember, when he refused to answer a question at a press conference in English?), at least at the beginning, I had much more respect for him later on (Libya). I had similar issues with Ole von Beust, the openly gay former major of Hamburg. I lived in Hamburg at that time, and I had issues with the fact that he got into office with the help of Ronald Schill’s right wing party. He fired him later, but I never really forgave him for initially accepting his help. In both cases I thought: I like the idea of openly gay persons in important political positions, but why of all people them?

    In retrospect I think I was too hard on Westerwelle. While I didn’t share a lot of his political views, I think he had a lot of personality, and he had a clear stance on things. Something that I’m kind of missing to politics today. I also remember, and was a bit surprised (positively surprised), by some of his last appearances last year. I remember this TV talk show where he was a guest alongside another cancer survivor, a woman who was not a celebrity, just somebody who had an interesting story to tell, and I really liked how he didn’t play the celebrity card and steal the show. It was a very personal discussion with two equal people who shared something.

    By the way, there is this obituary by Gregor Gysi on spiegel.de, which I really liked. I have issues about his views as well, and Gysi’s and Westerwelle’s political views couldn’t be more different, but I loved this obituary anyway.

    And regarding Merkel and the CDU. I guess I’m in similar position as you. I have never even considered voting for the CDU, but now I would, in theory, but I can’t. I just moved to Munich, outside CDU territory (oh, the irony), and I absolutely hate, hate the political leadership in Bavaria. I know that a lot of people disagree with my theory, but I think the main problem of the CDU are not the refugees, but the lack of a unitary position on the situation: Seehofer thinks that he has the solution, but I think he is the actual problem. In the recent local elections people won who were not part of the CDU, but who clearly shared Merkel’s views on the refugee situation. Sure, a lot of people will always vote for the AfD (or whatever right-wing party is just trendy at a given time), but I think considerably more people would vote a united Merkel-led CDU/CSU.

    Sorry for the rant, ever since Rostock-Lichtenhagen I’m disgusted by allegedly democratic politicians, who think that they need to adopt positions of the far right, just because they somehow interpret things like burning asylum seeker’s shelters like constructive criticism of the people…

    • Cora says:

      I remember Westerwelle’s refusal to answer a question in English. Of course, he might have been afraid of pulling an Oettinger, but I still wonder why people with a lacking grasp of English and other foreign languages wind up in such posts in the first place. But in spite of some early missteps, Guido Westerwelle redeemed himself later on.

      I also remember Ole von Beust’s coalition with the noxious Roland Schill and his equally noxious party. But again, von Beust did turn into a semi-decent politician later on, after he fired Schill.

      But I get what you’re saying. The problem with a lot of politicians of any political or sexual orientation is that they will make a deal or form a coalition with horrible people just to get into power and that they will also pander to horrible people on the right, because they express the true will of the people. Whereas non-horrible people somehow never express the true will of the people, even if they were part of mass movements. I am also disgusted by how the so-called “Asylkompromiss” of the 1990s is now held up as a great victory to satisfy the will of the people and keep them from supporting Neo-Nazis, even though there were also a million signatures supporting open borders and better immigration laws. But somehow, these people are swept under the rug and don’t count, while a few hundred Neo-Nazis in Rostock-Lichtenhagen or Hoyerswerda do.

      I agree with you that the problem in the CDU/CSU is not Angela Merkel, but Horst Seehofer and his constant swipes and attacks. Because the majority across party lines actually supports Angela Merkel’s policies – it’s just that Seehofer would rather chase the 15 to 20% of jerks who vote AfD than the 80 to 85% who don’t. Sorry for having to live in Seehofer country, though there are also a lot of Bavarians who are lovely people. But for some reason, ruling Bavaria turns everybody into a massive jerk, even Seehofer who was sort of okay, for a CSU guy, when he was secretary of health.

      I’m also disgusted with how various pundits are claiming that we have to listen to “the people”, at least the 15 to 20% who voted AfD, rather than to the people who don’t. We don’t invite creationists or flat-earthers to represent their opinions in science programs, we don’t invite anti-vaxxers to health debates and we don’t ask self-styled Jedi knights and adherents of the flying spaghetti monster about their views on religion. So why the hell does it matter what AfD voters think? Fringe opinions don’t have a right to be represented, just because they exist.

      I haven’t read Gregor Gysi’s obituary for Guido Westerwelle yet, but I will. Cause those are two people it is hard to imagine agreeing on anything.

  2. Daniela says:

    It’s really weird. I wasn’t surprised when Guido Westerwelle “oficially” came out as gay. Somehow I was suprised that people suddenly talked about it. I think before that it was an “open” secret, with people knowing that he was gay yet he’d never openly admitted it.

    I liked the fact that the vice-chancellor was an openly gay man in a cabinet led by the first female chancellor. That was such a nice kick in the face of many other countries (including the US).

    • Cora says:

      I wasn’t surprised when Westerwelle officially came out as gay either, since it was something of an open secret. Ditto for Ole von Beust in Hamburg, he didn’t confirm it for a long time, but people knew.

      And yes, seeing visiting officials having to shake the hands of and be polite to a woman and two gay men (Guido Westerwelle and Klaus Wowereit, since all state visitors came to Berlin), even though they’d rather cut off their own hand, always amused me, too. It was a lovely kick in the face of homophobes everywhere, including some US politicians. Though by the time, Guido Westerwelle came along, George W. Bush was already out of office. He did have to shake Wowereit’s hand, though.

      • Daniela says:

        I think for some Wowereit must have been worse because he’s such an open and in-your-face gay man whereas Westerwelle was a bit more laid back.

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