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Germany

German-American Relations at All-Time Low

Comments made by the German Justice Minister likening President Bush to Hitler have upset leaders in Washington. Despite an apology from Chancellor Schröder, relations between the two countries remain tense.

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There were better days for US-German friendship

With just two days before German national elections and a race too close to call, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has written 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 methods over Iraq to those of Hitler.

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."

Pressekonferenz von Herta Däubler-Gmelin

German Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin surrounded by photographers at a press conference in Berlin on Sept. 20.

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."

Strained German-American relations

The remarks attributed to the justice minister have angered 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 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."

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.

Foreign policy in German elections

The alleged Hitler remarks have prompted charges from Washington that Schröder is exploiting anti-American sentiment to boost his campaign for re-election.

In the recent run-up to Sunday’s national elections, the Social Democrats and their coalition partner the Greens have been very vocal in their objection to a US-led war against Iraq. Schröder’s refusal to back the United States in the event of a military operation is widely credited as helping push his party ahead of that of his conservative rival, Edmund Stoiber, who supports the United States.

Foreign policy issues normally do not play a significant role in German elections, but this year Germany’s position on Iraq has risen to the forefront. Both the SPD and the opposition bloc of CDU/CSU have been quick to voice their opinion on Germany’s responsibility in the war on terror and the role in Iraq.

The SPD has taken an active non-military approach, refusing to join a possible US-led strike on Iraq even with a UN mandate. By doing so, the party (which in the past voted to send troops to Afghanistan and Kosovo), has drawn on a significant number of pacifist voters.

The conservatives have been more adamantly in favor of supporting an international military coalition led by the U.S., and have criticized the Schröder government for risking German-American relations for the sake of gaining a few more votes.

Meanwhile U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz criticized Schröder for jeopardizing the international coalition against Iraq. In an interview on Cologne-based Deutschlandfunk Radio, Wolfowitz said, "If UN diplomacy is to succeed, it seems to me it’s very important that the Iraqi regime sees itself confronted with a unified world. I think the demonstrations of disunity are harmful to achieving a kind of political outcome that I believe everybody would like to achieve."

When asked whether he hoped Schröder would change his position if he is elected to a second term, Wolfowitz replied, "I certainly hope so."

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