German Justice Minister compares U.S. President George W. Bush with Hitler

Sept 20th 2002

Friday, September 20, 2002

SCHWERIN, GERMANY -- With only three days before Germans go to the polls in a national election, a major row has broken out with Washington over alleged comments made by the German Justice Minister comparing U.S. President George W. Bush with Hitler in his pursuit of war as a political diversion.

The minister involved denied the comments but not before White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had characterized them as "outrageous and inexplicable."

Justice Minister Hertha Daeubler-Gmelin is reported to have told a newspaper interviewer that "Bush wants to divert attention from his domestic problems. It's a classic tactic. It's one that Hitler also used."

The opposition Christian Democratic Union immediately demanded her resignation but Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder defended his minister and accepted her denial of the statement.

Mr. Schroeder himself has already angered Washington by stating categorically that Germany would not back any military action by the Americans in Iraq, even if it were backed by a United Nations resolution. That statement has helped boost Mr. Schroeder's chances in Sunday's hotly contested race but caused an unprecedented chill in postwar German relations with Washington.

Adding to the transatlantic tensions was a column published yesterday by William Safire, the influential New York Times columnist, which quoted former German defence minister Rudolf Scharping as saying last month that Mr. Bush was intent on ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein simply to please "a powerful -- perhaps overly powerful -- Jewish lobby."

Mr. Schroeder's challenger, Edmund Stoiber, last night accused the Chancellor of using the threat of war in a desperate effort to gain votes and divert attention from his Social Democratic government's failure to deal with a sluggish economy and high unemployment.

"I accuse Schroeder of exploiting the people's fear of war for his own purposes in this campaign," Mr. Stoiber told supporters in this eastern German city. "And that is irresponsible behaviour."

He accused Mr. Schroeder of isolationism and of standing on the sidelines by not taking up the traditional German role of backing the UN. Yet despite his attack on Mr. Schroeder, the Christian Democratic leader was careful to keep his distance from any talk of war, aware that most Germans are deeply allergic to suggestions that their army might take part in military action.

"We Germans, who have lived through two wars, we know what war means," he said. "Germans have the fear of war in their minds."

He added that German troops aren't trained or equipped for aggressive military campaigns.

Germany didn't participate in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, preferring to provide billions of dollars in financial backing for the effort. It sent a small corps of special forces to join U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

On the campaign trail, the talk of war has become one of the most contentious issues, with even many of Mr. Schroeder's opponents unhappy with the idea of an international force invading Iraq.

"If this is the U.S. looking for allies so they can behave like the world's policeman, it's not the Germans' role," said Joachim Luhmann, a 42-year-old teacher who said he will vote Christian Democrat on Sunday.

"Germany's army is not an army of aggression," he continued. "It's an army of peacekeeping. Because of our history, we have to be very careful about any direct [military] intervention."

Berthold Geist, a 51-year-old electrical worker, said that Mr. Schroeder was simply trying to scare voters into believing that if they elected Mr. Stoiber and the Christian Democrats, German soldiers would be sent to war. He conceded that Mr. Schroeder's position had resulted in a rift with the Americans but believed it could still be repaired. "He went too far," Mr. Geist said.

Mr. Stoiber also vowed that if elected he would expel 4,000 suspected Islamic militants living in Germany. Without giving the source of his information, he said they were ready for violence and suspected of working for international terrorist organizations.