Former German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle dead at 54

Country’s first openly gay minister was one of most gifted political orators of generation

Former German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, the country's first openly gay cabinet member, has died, aged 54, after a long battle with cancer.

Mr Westerwelle joined Chancellor Angela Merkel's second cabinet in 2009 but withdrew from politics after his liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) crashed out of the Bundestag in 2013.

One of the most gifted political orators of his generation, Mr Westerwelle was a divisive character in German politics. His unapologetic liberal politics won him fans, though he his tone often struck a nerve, such as a 2010 claim that life-long welfare bred “late Roman decadence”.

Mr Westerwelle was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2014 and underwent chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. Last year he made a final return to the spotlight to talk of his illness, but began to suffer complications from November.


News of his death was broken by his political foundation in Berlin over Twitter in a joint message with his long-time partner Michael Mronz.

“We fought. We had the goal in front of our eyes. We’re grateful for the unbelievably wonderful time we shared. Love remains. Guido Westerwelle and Michael Mronz.”

After years of speculation about his sexuality, Mr Westerwelle and Mr Mronz first appeared in public together at Angela Merkel’s 50th birthday party in 2004, upstaging the birthday girl.

Born in North Rhine-Westphalia in 1961, he studied law and joined the FDP's Young Liberals in 1980, heading the organisation for five years until 1988. He served as party secretary from 1994, rewriting the party's programme to sharpen its liberal profile, and toppled party leader Wolfgang Gerhardt in 2001 to take the top job.

He was no stranger to political stunts for attention, but they were a double-edged sword, earning as much mockery as column inches.

Before the 1998 federal election, he painted his dream election result – 18 per cent – on the soles of his shoes. That and other stunts earned him the “political lightweight” label that he struggled to shake off.

Mr Westerwelle biggest political success came with the 2009 election, with a surge in FDP support to 14.6 per cent. Though Ms Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) lost support, it allowed her swap her grand coalition for a second term with her party's traditional partner.

During coalition talks Mr Westerwelle surprised observers, who expected him to take a finance or economics portfolio. Instead he demanded – and got – the foreign portfolio, held by previous FDP leaders, including Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Klaus Kinkel.

In office, however, the pro-business party soon came under fire for alleged clientelist politics: securing tax cuts for Germany’s hotel industry, a big FDP campaign supporter.

Mr Westerwelle’s time in the foreign office was a difficult one, with officials complaining of a capricious and thin-skinned boss, while German diplomats abroad were unsure how to read the signals from Berlin.

As the euro crisis grew, and doubts in Germany grew towards EU bailouts, Mr Westerwelle remained a pro-EU voice, urging member states to channel the turbulence into greater European integration.

Mr Westerwelle's struggles as foreign minister reached a peak in 2011 with his decision to abstain from a UN vote on military action against Libya. This reflected popular support in Germany but, by siding with China and Russia, Berlin was ridiculed by its western allies.

Promoting a memoir last year, Mr Westerwelle stood by the decision to stay out of military involvement, a decision he said had been proven correct in hindsight.

Amid growing party unrest with his leadership, and a series of state election defeats, Mr Westerwelle stood down as FDP leader in 2011. His successor Philip Rösler was unable to reverse the party’s fading fortunes. The slide gathered momentum and, in the 2013 federal election, the FDP suffered a humiliating exit from the Bundestag and Mr Westerwelle from public life.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin