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Germany: Political Tensions Rise After Comment Seen As Diminishing Suffering Of Jews

Political tensions in Germany have risen after an off-the-cuff remark by a leading politician was perceived as diminishing the suffering of Jews under the Nazis.

Munich, 13 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The comment in question came from one of Germany's most prominent politicians during an angry debate over proposals for introducing a tax on the assets of the wealthy.

Roland Koch, who is a member of the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU), is premier of the state of Hesse and is standing for re-election in February. He strongly opposes the proposed wealth tax and has frequently attacked its supporters, which include the trade union VerDi.

In the state parliament this week, Koch criticized trade-union leader Frank Bsirske for mentioning in a television interview the names of two of the wealthiest families in Germany as examples of those who should pay a wealth tax. In a heated moment, Koch said identifying individual families this way could be likened to the way Jews were forced to wear a yellow star by the Nazis to identify their religion. "Stop this. Stop putting individuals on Bsirske did on television when he began mentioning names. It is a new form of wearing a star on the breast."

In the uproar that followed, the opposition walked out of parliament and demanded that Koch apologize. Several called on him to resign.

Koch later apologized, saying he had been "carried away" in the heat of debate. German newspapers noted that he apologized to Bsirske but not to Jews. He also wrote a letter of apology to Bsirske but did not contact the chairman of the Central Council of German Jews, Paul Spiegel.

Spiegel told reporters he is astounded that a German politician could equate representatives of German democratic politics with the Nazis. "This is an insult to the victims of the Holocaust. To equate democratic representatives from politics and the trade unions with the Nazis is from every viewpoint unbelievable and unacceptable."

Spiegel's deputy, Michel Friedman, said politicians should be wary of comments that could lead to what he called the "banalization of the inhuman events which took place in the Third Reich."

Koch's fellow leaders in the CDU, including party leader Angela Merkel, have not commented publicly on the incident.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the leader of the Social Democrats, also has not publicly commented on Koch's outburst, but some leading members of his party have, including Sigmar Gabriel, premier of the state of Lower Saxony. He said this is not the first time that Koch had "behaved shamefully" with his Jewish fellow citizens.

Gabriel said he was referring to Koch's connection to a scandal in 2000. At that time, investigators found a large sum of money in the accounts of the CDU in Hesse. A prominent member of the CDU claimed the money had come as a legacy from German Jews who had died abroad. Koch supported this version and signed a financial report.

Investigators later discovered that Koch knew that the story was a lie and was aware that the money had really come from secret funds held in a Swiss bank -- an offense under laws governing the finances of German political parties.

Despite his involvement in the scandal, Koch has regained his role as a leading politician and is considered by many to be a possible Christian Democrat candidate for chancellor in the next federal election in 2006.

German commentators say the incident comes at a time when politics both at the federal and state levels is in a state of tension. Political analyst Herman Roth said today that "everybody has raw nerves. Things are being said by politicians which would never be uttered in normal times."

The tension comes largely from the perception that the coalition government led by Schroeder has failed to address the nation's problems since narrowly winning re-election in September. Many commentators believe this will affect the chances of the Social Democrats defeating Koch in the state elections in Hesse in February.

There are also elections at the same time in Lower Saxony, which is Schroeder's home state and governed by the Social Democrats. A loss there would be considered a personal defeat for Schroeder.

Opinions polls show the approval rating for the governing Social Democrats has fallen from 38.5 percent in September to under 30 percent today. Meanwhile, the popularity of the opposition Christian Democrats has climbed to around 50 percent.

The opposition has launched a campaign for men to send their shirts to Schroeder as a symbol that his latest tax policies are taking the shirts off their backs. The government acknowledges receiving about 13,000 shirts. The opposition says the true figure is closer to 30,000, with more arriving each day.

The proposed tax on the assets of the wealthy, which led to the uproar in Hesse, is also a source of discontent within Schroeder's Social Democrats. It is opposed by Schroeder but supported by some Social Democratic state governments.

The internal divisions became public this week in reports of a rowdy party meeting where Schroeder asked if anyone thought they could lead the party better than he could. The opposition interpreted this as a threat to resign, but the government said it was nothing more than a rhetorical question.

Like other political analysts, Roth believes that Schroeder and his party will seize on incidents like the comments by Koch in an effort to try to rebuild support before the February elections.