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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.

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