BERLIN, Dec. 18 (JTA) â€” A prominent German journalist has compared Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Hitler, drawing a sharp rebuke from Israelï¿½s ambassador. The comments, which appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of the weekly magazine Der Spiegel, are not unexpected given the current anti-Israel tendency in the German media, observers here say.
In a commentary entitled “Arafat Knows Tunis Well,” Der Spiegel Publisher Rudolf Augstein said that, by attempting to isolate and delegitimize Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, Sharon could be compared with Hitler.
Hitler “made his devilï¿½s pact with Stalin” and “awaited with great impatience the fall of the government of” British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain before World War II, wrote Augstein, who was a German soldier in the war. The Nazi “Foreign Ministry had great trouble trying to convince him that an even worse enemy, Winston Churchill, would take his place.”
Israelï¿½s ambassador to Germany, Shimon Stein, responded immediately with an open letter to Augstein. He called “the insinuation, historical analogy or apparent comparison between the prime minister of the Jewish state and the non-person who wanted to destroy this people” an insult “to every Holocaust survivor and to the entire Jewish people.”
Der Spiegel was quick to deflect criticism.
“I can tell you that Mr. Augstein never intended to compare Sharon with Hitler,” magazine spokesperson Hans-Ulrich Stoldt said, adding that Augstein would not comment on Steinï¿½s letter. It was too soon, he said a day after the article appeared, to gauge the response of readers.
Augstein is considered one of Germanyï¿½s foremost journalists, said Richard Chaim Schneider, a German-Jewish documentary filmmaker. Since the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, many liberal Germans, like Augstein, have become more nationalistic, Schneider said.
“They wanted to feel a new German national pride,” he said.
“Its difficult to assess public opinion on an issue like this,” said Deidre Berger, director of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, whose new survey on German news reporting on Israel is due out early in 2002. “But certainly we at the AJC office in Berlin have observed a growing openness of anti-Semitic sentiment in Germany in the last two or three years. It is not a coincidence” when articles such as Augsteinï¿½s appear, she said.
Augstein has raised concerns with previous columns, in which he has used veiled and overt reference to Jews and their alleged power. In an article entitled “We Are All Vulnerable,” that ran in Der Spiegel on Nov. 30, 1998, Augstein said New York media and lawyers â€” code words for Jews â€” were guilty of forcing Germany to pay Holocaust reparations.
“World Jewry,” he said, was forcing Germany to build a Holocaust memorial and was mounting a campaign of anti-German discrimination.
Lars Rensmann, a political scientist with the Free University in Berlin, called the 1998 column the most overtly anti-Semitic article in Germanyï¿½s mainstream press since World War II.
The latest column, Rensmann said, was “another statement in the tradition of downplaying the Holocaust,” according to which “you associate any alleged crime or the policy of any world leader with Hitler.”
Rensmann, who focuses on anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and right-wing extremism, said such linkage has become increasingly common since German reunification.
The trend does not endanger Germanyï¿½s long-standing support for Israel, observers of the political scene say. Germany is Israelï¿½s second most important economic partner and political supporter, after the United States.
But public discourse has become less restricted since 1982, when Israel invaded southern Lebanon in response to PLO terror, said Schneider, who in the summer of 2001 organized a panel discussion in Munich on German media and Israel.
Schneider said there is a clear “development in Germany to compare the atrocities of the Israeli Defense Force with the deeds of the Nazis, as a way to be liberated from guilt,” Schneider said. “For most Germans, Sharon is an ideal lightning rod, because most of them consider him a war criminal, like Hitler, but he is free. So now they place all their hate on Sharon.”