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Bavaria: Aiwanger stays on despite alleged Holocaust jokes

Published September 1, 2023last updated September 3, 2023

Bavarian Deputy State Premier Hubert Aiwanger has, for now, survived an antisemitism row and will keep his job. The decision has triggered widespread condemnation.

Hubert Aiwanger on the podium in a beer tent, speaking into a microphone
Germany's main Jewish organizations have been unequivocal in their condemnation of right-wing populist Hubert AiwangerImage: Tobias C. Köhler/dpa/picture alliance

The scandal around Hubert Aiwanger over an antisemitic leaflet from the 1980s has grown more toxic by the day since it first broke a week ago.

More and more details have been unearthed, and several of the politician's former schoolmates in the southern state of Bavaria have come forward to tell their stories about the state's deputy state premier and economy minister. State Premier Markus Söder has resisted pressure to fire his deputy, telling a press conference on Sunday, "I know not everyone will like my decision, and others will have residual doubts. But I stress again, this result is the outcome of a fair and orderly process." 

Both Aiwanger's critics and defenders agree that the leaflet itself is indefensible. Conceived as a mock competition for "the biggest traitor to the country," the one-page text from 1987 offers "prizes" such as "a free flight through a chimney in Auschwitz."

But opinions have been divided over how Aiwanger should react and whether a pamphlet written as a teenager should disqualify someone from political office.

Denying the Holocaust is illegal in Germany, as is trivializing the crimes committed underNazi rule. This is why any such allegations can be seen to put Germany's reputation and its claims of having learned from the past at stake, said Nina Haase, DW's chief political reporter.

Aiwanger's response to accusations criticized

The Süddeutsche Zeitung, the daily newspaper that published the original story after it received the pamphlet from Aiwanger's former teacher, said the minister had been approached several times for comment before publication.

Only after the revelations were made public did Aiwanger's brother, Helmut, come forward to claim that he had written the leaflet — apparently in a fit of rage at the school for dropping him down a year. Hubert Aiwanger admitted that several copies of the leaflet had been found in his schoolbag, for which the school had disciplined him at the time.

Hubert Aiwanger read out an apology in a press conference on Thursday, but his initial response was to blame his accusers of conducting a smear campaign.

The scandal deepened during the week as old classmates came forward to attest they could remember Aiwanger giving Hitler salutes, imitating speeches by the former Nazi leader and making antisemitic jokes.

In a brief TV interview on Wednesday, Aiwanger told reporters, "I'm neither an antisemite nor an extremist, I'm a democrat, I'm a friend of humanity, not an enemy of humanity […] What's being discussed here about my youth surprises me a little, but it's certainly the case that things that happen in your youth can be interpreted one way or another. But I can certainly say that, since I've been an adult in the last few decades, I have not been an antisemite or an extremist."

Hubert Aiwanger and Markus Söder
Aiwanger (left) is the deputy of Bavarian State Premier Markus SöderImage: Frank Hoermann/SvenSimon/picture alliance

The German government's antisemitism commissioner, Felix Klein, condemned Aiwanger's response, saying it had "torpedoed" efforts by schools and memorial institutions to educate people about the Holocaust.

"A responsible way to deal with the legacy of the worst crime ever committed by Germans would be to proactively and fully clarify one's role in the creation and distribution of this antisemitic pamphlet," Klein told the Funke media group on Friday.

That was echoed by historian Wolfgang Benz, director of the Center for Antisemitism Research at Berlin's Technical University for over two decades.

"The problem isn't what a stupid boy had in his schoolbag 35 years ago, but the way it was dealt with by the now grown-up man, which shows that he hasn't understood anything," he told DW.

"The right reaction would have been: 'Yes, I took part in the distribution of this pamphlet. I'm ashamed of it. I've long since recognized that it was a mistake.' Then he would've been a man of honor, and one would have had to forgive him."

'We have to make clear that this isn't a one-off'

Germany's main Jewish organizations have been unequivocal in their condemnation. "The flyer must also not simply be dismissed as a youthful sin, as it downright tramples on the confrontation with National Socialism that is so important for our country," Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, wrote in a statement.

Younger German Jewish people have expressed outrage at the ensuing public debate. The Jewish Student Union of Germany (JSUD) launched a petition demanding that Bavarian State Premier Markus Söder, of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), immediately suspend Aiwanger from public office until all the accusations have been investigated.

"We have to make clear that this isn't a one-off," JSUD President Hanna Veiler told DW. "This clearly has something to do with Germany's flawed confrontation with Nazi history and the continuity of far-right attitudes in Germany. These attitudes are part of German society and our cultural heritage, and it's our common duty to confront this past […] If all we ever do is point at other people and say, 'This has nothing to do with me. It's not my fault,' then that will never happen. Then it will always be the other people who are antisemites."

Murky myths behind antisemitism

But Aiwanger also found some defenders among the German Jewish community. The German newspaper Bild published a guest commentary by Michael Wolffsohn, a history professor at the Bundeswehr University and son of Holocaust survivors, which accused those condemning Aiwanger of double standards. It also pointed out that other German politicians have been forgiven for antisemitic remarks and other past missteps.

Ahead of Bavarian election, Aiwanger keeps his job

Many of Aiwanger's supporters have described the criticism as a politicized smear campaign from a left-leaning liberal media outlet. The Süddeutsche Zeitung was indeed criticized for the style of its article, which some said reveled in the political consequences for Aiwanger ahead of the Bavarian state election in October.

But the fact that Bavaria is about to face an election has heightened the debate's political stakes. Söder's CSU is currently the leading party in a coalition with Aiwanger's slightly more populist right-wing Free Voters (FW), which makes Aiwanger both an ally and an opponent for the state premier.

Faced with this unenviable balancing act, Söder initially sent Aiwanger a list of 25 questions to be urgently answered. However, at a press conference on September 3, the state premier said he had analyzed the allegations carefully and come to the conclusion that Aiwanger apparently made serious errors in his youth but had distanced himself from them and demonstrated regret. 

"I know not everyone will like my decision, and others will have residual doubts. But I stress again, this result is the outcome of a fair and orderly process," Söder said, adding that there was no proof that Aiwanger either authored or distributed the leaflet, and said that "the whole thing is indeed 35 years in the past. Hardly any of us is today as they were at 16."

"It is highly problematic if Aiwanger doesn't distance himself. Then I do have to say that he's no longer supportable as part of the Bavarian government," said Ursula Münch, director of the Tutzing Academy for Political Education in Bavaria.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

Correction, September 1, 2023: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Michael Wolffsohn. DW apologizes for the error.

This article was updated on September 3, 2023, after Markus Söder announced that Hubert Aiwanger would remain in office. 

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Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight