A place in social history
By Roon Lewald
Proving how perilously close success is to failure in politics, the swift rise of Guido Westerwelle to power as Germany’s first openly gay vice-chancellor, foreign minister and party leader has ended just as quickly. As reported in “Coming Strongly” late last year, Westerwelle’s marriage last September to Gerhard Mronz, a prominent sport events manager who had been his publicly acknowledged lover for several years, was a notable step forward for gay social normalization. The low-key public reaction to a wedding that would have been legally meaningless and both socially and politically suicidal only a few years ago also burnished the country’s international image by showing that liberal democratic values are here to stay in Germany.
Two years earlier, Westerwelle had led his small Free Democratic party out of its earlier fringe status to an unprecedented 15% of the national vote in 2009 federal elections. The sensational victory, which opponents accused him of winning on the strength of tax-reduction promises he was later forced to abandon, allowed the Free Democrat liberals to shore up Chancellor Angela Merkel’s greatly weakened Christian Democrat conservatives as the kingmaker partner in the ruling coalition.
Low-key public reaction showed that voters are largely prepared to tolerate gay pride as a new factor in the country’s highest echelons of power. But initially enthusiastic followers were swiftly disillusioned by his occasionally abrasive, arrogant manner and his crassly neo-liberal stance at a time of high unemployment and global economic crisis. He was soon at loggerheads with Merkel’s Christian Democrats. They accused him of paralyzing the coalition by demanding unrealistic tax breaks for hoteliers and other small-business political clients at a time when Merkel was desperately trying to stabilize economic recovery and create more jobs without further expanding Germany’s increasing public deficits.
Within months, polled support for his Free Democrats plummeted from 15% to an existentially threatening low of 5%. Discontent with the erstwhile miracle man’s party leadership steadily weakened Westerwelle’s previously unchallenged grip on the Free Democrats. By the end of May 2011, the party had voted him out of the chairman’s seat to make way for Economics and Technology Minister Philipp Rösler, a Vietnam-born half-German with little of the charisma that once propelled Westerwelle to high office. As the party’s new Number One, Rösler also ousted Westerwelle as the vice-chancellor at Merkel’s side, leaving his former boss stripped of all power except the post of Foreign Minister.
But even though Westerwelle can never recover fully from his political abasement, he has earned an honorable mention in the history book of Germany’s post-war moral recovery. His open profession of homosexuality while running for election and the public marriage of the Number Two in German politics to the man he described as “the great love of my life” remain major contributions to gay social normalization. As such, he deserves to be remembered for his moral courage in a country where persecuted gays in striped concentration camp pyjamas bearing the letter “H” (for “homosexuell”) on pink breast patches were slave-worked or gassed to death little over half a century ago.