Guido Westerwelle, a former German foreign minister and head of the Free Democratic Party who helped Chancellor Angela Merkel win backing for bailouts for Greece, died after a battle with leukemia. He was 54.
Westerwelle died Friday at Cologne University Hospital of complications from the treatment of his illness, the Berlin-based foundation he helped start said on its Facebook page. He had been diagnosed with the cancer in June 2014.
A native of the western Rhineland region that’s often cited as the cradle of Germany’s post-World War II “social market economy,” Westerwelle led his pro-market party to its best German election result in more than 60 years in 2009. That triumph lifted the FDP into a coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrat-led bloc as junior partner, making Westerwelle deputy chancellor. He also took the post of foreign minister.
At his first major post-election news conference, Westerwelle caused a stir by refusing to take a question in English by a British Broadcasting Corp. reporter. “Just as it’s customary in Britain that you naturally speak English, it’s customary in Germany to speak German,” Westerwelle said with a smile. A translator then put the question to Westerwelle in German.
Westerwelle was deputy chancellor between 2009 and 2011, during Merkel’s second term, and remained foreign minister until 2013. During his tenure, he prevailed over lawmakers in his party who opposed bailing out Greece during Europe’s debt crisis. He pushed for Germany to stay out of military strikes on Libya in 2011, joining Russia and China to abstain on a United Nations Security Council vote backing a no-fly zone.
“I’m deeply shocked by his death,” Merkel told reporters in Brussels after a European Union summit. She paid tribute to “a foreign minister who fought for peace and human rights with all his heart and passion” and a politician who rose to prominence “at a very young age.”
A lawyer by training, Westerwelle was party chairman when the FDP won 14.6 percent of the vote in national elections in September 2009, the most since postwar Germany was founded in 1949. The result allowed Merkel at the time to dump the Social Democrats as coalition partner and ally with the FDP, which had spent 11 years in opposition.
Westerwelle stepped down as FDP head and as vice chancellor in April 2011, saying the party needed a new start after it dropped out of two state parliaments.
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In Germany’s last federal election in 2013, the FDP’s unfulfilled promises of tax cuts led voters to flee the party and it failed to win seats in the lower house for the first time since World War II.
Westerwelle, whose Free Democrat predecessors include Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the foreign minister who helped negotiate the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, was out of a job after the loss.
He co-founded the non-profit Westerwelle Foundation for International Understanding in Berlin in 2014 “to strengthen democracy by promoting economic development worldwide.”
Born Dec. 27, 1961, in Bad Honnef, near the former West German capital of Bonn, Westerwelle attended high school in Bonn and studied law at the city’s university. He became an attorney in 1991 before earning a doctorate in law.
Westerwelle revealed publicly in 2004 that he was gay. He married his partner, Michael Mronz, in 2010.
(Updates with Merkel reaction in sixth paragraph.)
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