Guido Westerwelle: Small-Minded?

By now you’ve heard about the election results from last Sunday in Germany: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU gained seats while her “Grand Coalition” partner the SPD lost them, but the significant new development was that the right-wing, business-friendly party the FDP itself also gained enough seats in the Bundestag to make possible a rupture of that “Grand Coalition” in favor of a right-of-center CDU/CSU-FDP coalition government. Traditionally the head of the junior party in a German governing coalition is given the Foreign Minister’s portfolio; in this case that is FDP head Guido Westerwelle.

We’ve been hearing quite a lot about Westerwelle in the press – and that’s even before he and Merkel have formally entered into negotiations as to how they will form their coalition government, which just goes to show what a foregone and “traditional” conclusion it is that he will become Foreign Minister. He’s a J.D. (Juris Doctor, i.e. “doctor of laws” or lawyer), and he’s openly gay. Remarkably, the German electorate seems not particularly bothered by either fact.

Already a minor flap has arisen in his connection, though. You can see it on video here: at his first post-election press conference he refused to take a question in English which a correspondent from the BBC wished to pose to him. So it’s apparent that he doesn’t feel very comfortable with his English. You might find that a rather unfortunate quality in a foreign minister – and you would likely be right. But Mariam Lau of Die Welt believes it reveals something rather deeper: The smallness-of-spirit of Foreign Minister Westerwelle.

Go back, if you will, to the tape, and if you can understand German you might well agree that Westerwelle’s putting off the question with a brisk “we’re here in Germany [now]” is a bit too huffy. Westerwelle is also rather huffy at higher levels, though. The way politics works in Germany no one party can ever look forward to gaining a majority within the Bundestag, so that after each election an elaborate political mating-dance goes on to see who can link up with whom to form the next government and get into power. Lau reminds us, however, that Westerwelle has long rejected joining the SPD or the Greens in any such coalition government – and, while such refusals are usually just insincere and tactical, his have always been taken seriously. One can also go on from there to assume with great certainty that he would also reject taking his FDP into any coalition with Die Linke, or “The Left” party, the political successor to the Communists who used to rule in East Germany. In this respect, then, he is quite fortunate indeed with Sunday’s electoral results: those paved the way for the only coalition arrangement (that is, with the CDU/CSU) that he will ever allow the FDP to accept (and, again, it is unrealistic to expect his or any other party to be able to govern alone).

Why is Westerwelle like this? Lau claims that “is easy to figure out”: It has to do with “1968,” which in the German political context means the student radicalism that burst forth in that year on a then-staid German political scene, and from which followed (among other things) the Red Army Faction but also the present-day Green Party. Now, Westerwelle himself was only six years old in 1968, but that does not invalidate Lau’s thesis per se since, again, “1968” continued on through the 1970s and 80s as a fundamental German political divide. And Westerwelle put himself from the very beginning on the law-and-order side of “1968” which, among other things, means an attitude of “I don’t have to apologize anymore for being German” – or for insisting on being addressed only in German.

It also means that cooperation with anyone on the other, leftist side is out of the question Рno matter that in fact, as Lau points out, free market reforms of the type the FDP favors were most recently carried out by a SPD government (that of Chancellor Gerhard Schr̦der ). Oh, and that it was the leftist, even hippie-like influence on Germany that started with 1968 that has produced a situation over time in which a German political party-head can live with a same-sex partner and nobody in the country really cares.

This is the sort of personality foreigners will soon be confronted with in the German foreign minister? I think I agree with Miriam Lau’s implicit point: Such a tale cannot end well.

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