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Germany

Alleged Bush-Hitler Comparison Casts Shadow Over Elections

Outrage over statements attributed to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s justice minister allegedly comparing the methods of US President George W. Bush with those of Hitler continued to overshadow German elections on Sunday.

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Pressure is growing for Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin

As she cast her own vote on Sunday, German Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin denied a report in the mass-circulation “Bild” newspaper that she would offer her resignation after the polls close Sunday. “No, of course not,” she told the Associated Press, "Those are just malicious rumors meant to create uncertainty among voters."

But AP and other news agencies quoted unidentified government sources saying Schröder would not grant Däubler-Gmelin a ministry post in the next government if he is reelected. Among the names being bandied about as a possible replacement are Ute Vogt, a Social Democratic member of parliament who chairs the Bundestag’s Domestic Affairs Committee, and Brigitte Zypries, an undersecretary of the Interior Ministry.

On Friday, Schröder wrote to U.S. President George W. Bush to apologize for the "supposed remarks" made by his justice minister, Herta Däubler-Gmelin, who is said to have compared Bush’s political dealings over the issue of Iraq with those of Hitler.

Bush administration: "Poisoned atmosphere"

But Bush administration officials remained unconvinced by Schröder and Däubler-Gmelin’s accounts of the statements. The remarks have further riled a U.S. administration already upset about Chancellor Schröder’s vocal – and very popular – opposition to American plans for a war against Iraq.

U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice strongly criticized the alleged comments. In an interview published Saturday in the Financial Times Deutschland, Rice said, "How can one mention Hitler and the U.S. president in the same sentence? And above all, how can such a comment come from the mouth of a German when one considers the sacrifices made by the United States when it acted to liberate the Germans from Hitler."

According to Rice, Germany had created a "poisoned atmosphere" between the two countries. "I would say that just now is not a happy time for our relations with Germany. There have been things said which are totally unacceptable."

In a symbol of how deep the damage may be, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told CNN on Saturday, in uncharacteristically frosty manner for a close ally, that he had no plans to meet with German Defense Minister Peter Struck at a NATO summit in Warsaw this Wednesday.

“The German government recently released its defense minister,” he said, answering a reporter’s question. “Whether or not the replacement for that person will be in Warsaw, I have no idea. I certainly have no plans to meet with that person when I'm there.”

Throughout the United States, the media has focused on the story of the German justice minister’s comments and have questioned the future of German-American relations. President Bush has said he was "deeply troubled" by recent events in Germany, including a staunch governmental opposition to a US-led war on Iraq.

The justice minister, a well-respected member Schröder’s ruling Social Democrats, has repeatedly denied that she had made such a comparison, as presented in a local German newspaper earlier in the week. Däubler-Gmelin claims she only said that some of President Bush’s critics believe he is trying to distract from domestic problems by focusing on Iraq, a tactic she said Germany experienced directly under Hitler. Any reference to a direct comparison between Bush and Hitler is a misquoting of her statements, she said.

Chancellor Schröder has accepted his justice minister’s explanation that she was misquoted in the newspaper reports.

"The minister has assured me that she did not make the remarks attributed to her," Schröder wrote in a personal letter to President Bush on Friday. "I would like to make it clear to you how much I regret that through the supposed remarks of the German justice minister an impression was left that could deeply injure your feelings."

"Let me assure you that there is no place at my cabinet table for anyone who makes a connection between the American president and such a criminal," Schröder said, according to a German text provided by the chancellor’s office.

What exactly did she say?

In a press conference Friday evening, Däubler-Gmelin denied likening Bush to Hitler. She insisted that the report published in the Schwäbisches Tagblatt after an election meeting with metalworkers misrepresented her actual statements and that it was "an evil election maneuver" by the conservative opposition.

The local paper quoted the justice minister as saying, "Bush wants to divert attention from domestic political problems. That’s a popular method. Even Hitler used it."

During the press conference, the minister attempted to set the record straight, but instead appeared to jumble her denial by admitting she had indeed talked about the way Bush’s foreign policy could divert attention from domestic problems. She then added, "the discussion went back and forth and I said, that’s something we know from our own history since Adolf Nazi."

Clearly a reference to Hitler, many present at the press conference believe the minister’s statements confirm the comparison originally reported.

But Däubler-Gmelin rejected that view, "It is absurd and slanderous to connect me to a comparison between a democratically elected politician and Nazi leaders. I deeply regret that this has thrown shadows on German-American relations, and I am here to clear that up."

The conservative opposition of Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union have rejected the justice minister’s explanation and have called for her immediate dismissal.

Chancellor candidate Edmund Stoiber of the CSU also voiced his criticism, saying that the SPD was harming Germany’s reputation abroad. "Every day, every hour that unspeakable woman keeps her post and represents Germany damages Germany greatly."