COLOGNE, Germany - A reported remark by a German minister comparing President Bush's tactics over Iraq to those of Hitler envenomed a close-fought German election yesterday and demonstrated how anti-Americanism had moved to the center of political debate here.
The regional newspaper Schwaebisches Tagblatt said today that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's justice minister, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, had said: "Bush wants to divert attention from his domestic problems. It's a classic tactic. It's one that Hitler also used."
Her remarks were reportedly made on Sunday during a conversation with representatives of the trade union IG Metall.
In a statement to the newspaper, Daeubler-Gmelin, 59 and a member of the chancellor's Social Democratic Party, denied comparing the two men, but did not deny comparing their tactics. "I didn't compare the persons Bush and Hitler, but their methods," she said.
Later last night, she told ZDF television, "I just did not say that; it is as simple as that."
Schroeder said last night that he believed Daeubler-Gmelin when she said she had not compared the two men. He added that anyone who compared Bush to a criminal would have no seat in his Cabinet. He did not elaborate.
Germany's conservatives, who are challenging Schroeder in national elections on Sunday, immediately called for her resignation.
Friedbert Pflueger, a Christian Democrat, called Daeubler-Gmelin's statements outrageous and said: "This is what happens when the government allows the moral coordinates to deteriorate so far."
He was referring to Schroeder's decision to distance Germany from U.S. policy on Iraq, a course that has proved politically rewarding even as it has opened a rift with Washington.
Schroeder has said Germany would not take part in any attack on Iraq, whatever the United Nations decides. His stand has appealed to broad stretches of a postwar German population bred to abhor war, but it has also brought charges of "German unilateralism."
With voting on Sunday in a tight election, the debate over how much damage Schroeder may have done to Germany's relations with its partners, in particular with the United States, has become more passionate and shrill.
The chancellor has clawed back to a slight lead over his conservative rival, Edmund Stoiber, in large part by running against the Bush administration and its plans for war and "regime change" in Iraq.
Schroeder says that under him, Germany will neither help in any war against Iraq nor help pay for one. Pollsters now say Iraq - not the weak German economy - has become the most important issue for those deciding how they will vote.
Pflueger, a lifelong devotee of close German-American ties, is beside himself.
"This is a disaster," he said. "In a matter of weeks, Schroeder was able to deprive Germany of its reputation of dependability which was developed over many years, from Willy Brandt to Helmut Kohl."
There are signs that Schroeder is already trying to patch things up with Washington. His foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, met briefly with Bush at the United Nations, and Germany quickly ceded jurisdiction over the captured Yemeni Ramzi Binalshibh to the United States.
But in such a close election, even Stoiber has been loath to praise Bush's plans for Iraq and sound like a warmonger. He said yesterday that he would deny Washington the use of German bases for a unilateral attack on Iraq.