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Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the memorial ceremony in honour of former Foreign Minister Dr Guido Westerwelle


04.04.2016 - Speech

Michael Mronz,
Members of the Westerwelle Family,
Members of the Mronz Family,
Mr President, Jean-Claude,
Christian Lindner,
Excellencies,
Fellow members of the German Bundestag,
Federal Foreign Office staff,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to the Weltsaal and to the joint memorial ceremony by the Federal Foreign Office, the Free Democratic Party and the Westerwelle Foundation. We are here today to bid farewell to Guido Westerwelle – former Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs and Deputy Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, and long-serving Chairman of the Free Democratic Party and its Parliamentary Group.

***

“They only have one life, too.” Guido Westerwelle was in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when he said this. His convoy was on its way to the airport, driving at speed past a huge pile of rubbish, where a family was looking for something they could eat. Everyone in the convoy was engrossed in their Blackberry. The Foreign Minister was the only one to notice what was happening. He nudged the person beside him and said, “They only have one life, too.”

Although Guido Westerwelle travelled all over the world as Foreign Minister, his trips never failed to make an impact on him. He was moved by what he saw – not least by the unofficial moments on the margins of his trips, the meetings with activists, apprentices, artists or entrepreneurs, and often simply by people he met on the street. He took time for these meetings. “Make time,” he would say. Protocol wasn’t always happy. And after a particularly moving meeting, more than once he said, “They only have one life, too – just like we do.” His words were meant as a call to action! If everyone only has one life, what do they need to be able to make something of this life? This was what fundamentally drove his political work – his great interest in people and their freedom.

***

In public, Guido Westerwelle seemed sharp-tongued, sometimes distant and often reserved. He was a master of the rhetorical cut and thrust. I often sat opposite him in the Bundestag, so I am speaking from experience! He was exceptionally ambitious and strong-willed. This made him a political leader at a young age – younger than anyone before him. He experienced the highs and lows of politics more dramatically than almost anyone else. We were often on opposite sides – when he was on the way up, I was on the way down, and vice versa.

But behind all this façade, he had an extraordinary feel for people and for their emotions and lives. He was sensitive and vulnerable, although he was able to hide this from almost everyone.

I believe that this feel for people was ultimately one of his greatest strengths. It helped him both during negotiations and speeches to large audiences. Yes, he was a renowned speaker – but not only because he could speak to an audience. He was also able to gauge the mood of the audience and respond to it. Even our fellow parliamentarian Gregor Gysi says, “It was so good to listen to him!” He had the same sensitivity as a manager – particularly as head of this ministry, where he was always aware of the special burdens involved in a life in the foreign service. And he showed great sensitivity as a partner, relative and loyal friend, who took time out of his busy schedule whenever he could for a phone call, meeting or stopover. After leaving politics, he was granted so little time.

His huge interest in people was his defining characteristic. To quote his great predecessor and role model, he was “a very kind-hearted person”. Now we have also lost the great Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who lived to a grand old age, dying just a few days after his 35-year-younger predecessor.

***

Guido Westerwelle was an optimist, who encouraged others to live life to the full. He retained this optimism in his last book, “a book about living”, as he described it, which has already brought hope to many cancer patients and their families.

Living life to the full was his aim in both his personal and political life. He wanted a society in which people can make something of themselves and do not have to hide. He embraced policies that give people this freedom. In a nutshell, this was his form of liberalism. And he did not only influence his party, the Free Democratic Party, with these beliefs. Liberal notions also remain important to my own party, the Social Democratic Party, and to an open society in the first place. Guido Westerwelle himself ultimately stands for this liberal impetus – his life, with all its highs and lows, stands for it. Guido Westerwelle lived a free life. He was a symbol of a liberal and open-minded Germany – and this is how we will remember him.

***

For me personally, Guido Westerwelle was both my successor and my predecessor at the Federal Foreign Office. If I am informed correctly, this is the only case of its kind in German politics.

We had two handover meetings – first when I handed over to him and then when he handed over to me. I remember both meetings well, and over the past days I have been asking myself if he actually changed during the four years between the two handovers. Or – to quote another former German Foreign Minister, “Did the job change the person or did the person change the job?”

I think both are true. He certainly didn’t have an easy term in office. The euro crisis, the Arab Spring – he immersed himself in new topics by doing what he called “binge reading”. The crises and conflicts sparked both enthusiasm for diplomacy in him and humility in view of the limitations of what could be achieved.

As Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle made important decisions, many of which were in the spirit of the guiding principles of German foreign policy.

He was primarily guided by his passion for and loyalty to Europe. Jean-Claude, you will shortly pay tribute to this. As agreed with Paris, his first official visit as Foreign Minister took him to Poland. Early on in his term in office, he was confronted with the euro crisis. In May 2010, he went against his instincts as a politician seeking re-election and came down firmly on the side of European cohesion. Resolutely following in the tradition of his liberal predecessors, he took on responsibility for Europe and kept his party unswervingly on a European path as Foreign Minister.

When it came to other decisions, he broke new ground. He reached out to the world’s new powerhouses in ways ranging from the opening of new consulates-general, such as in Shenyang in northern China, to his visit to Viet Nam in 2011, which left a lasting impression on him.

He took risks for these new courses of action. The greatest risk was the visit he undertook to Iran in February 2011 to secure the release of two German journalists from prison. This was a secret operation, organised with great discretion. Going against the advice of many people and at the last minute before the aeroplane had to leave, he managed to free the two Germans by literally taking them by the hand and escorting them to the aircraft. Once again, this showed his great interest in two people and their freedom – two people who are grateful to him to this day for his help.

***

In all this, he left his mark on the Federal Foreign Office – just as the Federal Foreign Office left its mark on him. I felt this most keenly just over two years ago, when we did our handover here in this room. The farewell from Guido Westerwelle was just as warm and friendly as the way he had previously welcomed me back. Speaking without notes, he gave a very personal farewell speech to staff – a thoughtful and warm speech full of gratitude – here in the Weltsaal.

A great deal had happened. I was a known quantity when I started my second term of office here at the Federal Foreign Office – and I benefited from people knowing and trusting me. But Guido Westerwelle didn’t have this vote of confidence when he took up office. Mostly, this had less to do with politics. This was why personal and unfair criticism hit him very hard. Guido Westerwelle had to fight to win trust and respect as Foreign Minister – and he succeeded in doing so.

For all of us here at the Federal Foreign Office, his death is a time of mourning and a time for reflection. Perhaps it is also a time to think about ourselves in a rapidly changing world. Guido Westerwelle always had an optimistic view of Germany, which he saw as a country that needed to change, but also as a country that is capable of change.

***

Later on during the day of our handover, we were both upstairs in his old and my new office on the second floor when he said, “Look, Mr Steinmeier – it’s still the same place!” And indeed, the office still had the same desk, shelves and so on as in my first term. But then we noticed the many pieces of contemporary art from his personal collection, of which he was rightfully proud. And he said, “I’ll take all this art stuff with me to make room for your Willy Brandt statue.”

After Willy Brandt, Guido Westerwelle is the first German Foreign Minister we have to mourn. And in this long line, we can discern a leitmotif stretching from Willy Brandt to Guido Westerwelle and beyond, namely that German foreign policy is a policy for peace. This was his guiding principle from the start – and it will remain our guiding principle! Our aim is to persevere in seeking peaceful solutions. Political and diplomatic solutions are the priority. Military action can only be the last resort. This was also shown in Guido Westerwelle’s scepticism about the air strikes in Libya in 2011 – a scepticism that was well-founded back then and not only now in the light of the ongoing instability in the country.

***

I want to go back briefly to our handover in the office upstairs. My eye was caught by something that took pride of place on my predecessor’s desk and stood out among the Immendorf paintings and the art magazines – a small, bright yellow Mickey Mouse clock made of plastic.

It came from the Gaza Strip, where he went on one of his first trips as Foreign Minister. After holding difficult political talks, he paid a short visit to a girls’ school. But he didn’t just have his picture taken and then leave. He got into a lively discussion with the seven and eight-year-old girls, who were beautifully turned out in the middle of a war zone. After a while, the girls gathered up their courage, took out a plastic bag and gave him the present they had bought with their own money – the Mickey Mouse clock.

During the security check later on at the airport, the Israeli soldiers asked if the delegation had brought anything from the Gaza Strip. Guido Westerwelle answered honestly. “Yes,” he said. “They gave us a ticking clock.” After the Mickey Mouse clock had been thoroughly inspected several times, he was finally allowed to take it on board – but only and expressly at his own risk.

Guido Westerwelle liked to tell this story. His eyes would shine when he remembered it, as he had really enjoyed meeting the young girls. Once again, his great interest in people sparked something in him. And this spark certainly also played a role in the vision of education and opportunities in the foundation he later set up.

***

“They only have one life, too.” This sentence also applies to Guido Westerwelle himself. His last book was called “Between Two Lives”. But he was not granted a second life after his political career. In the book, he wrote: “I don’t want to lose Michael and my friends. I want to go back to our house in Majorca and to stick my head into the rosemary bush at the wall beside the gate.”

He was not granted this.

He died far too young.

That is sad. It is unfair. And for many of us, it still seems unbelievable. But those of us who are still alive will honour the memory of his life, which was cut off far too soon.

Also on behalf of the staff of the Federal Foreign Office, thank you, Guido Westerwelle, and farewell!

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