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Saturday, 21 September, 2002, 05:49 GMT 06:49 UK
Schroeder apologises for Hitler row
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder
Gerhard Schroeder stood by his minister's explanation
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has written to the US president to apologise after reports that one of his ministers had compared George W Bush with Adolf Hitler.

There is no place at my cabinet table for anyone who makes a connection between the American president and such a criminal

Gerhard Schroeder's letter to George W Bush
But Mr Schroeder said he believed Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin's denial of newspaper reports of her comments.

She said she had been misquoted and had made no link between Mr Bush and the Nazi leader.

The reported comments had already caused a diplomatic stir.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president was "very angered", while Mr Bush's National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice spoke of a "poisoned atmosphere" in relations between the two countries.

"I would say that just now is not a happy time for our relations with Germany... The comments by the justice minister, even if she only said half of what is alleged, are unacceptable," she said.

Mr Schroeder's apology came as he entered the final days of campaigning before Germany's nail biting general election.

Opposition candidate Edmund Stoiber used his final election rally to attack Mr Schroeder and his government for wrecking Germany's close relations with the US.

Close finish

Mr Schroeder's Social Democrats were marginally ahead of Mr Stoiber's Christian Democrats in opinion polls before Sunday's election, but the result was far from certain.

Edmund Stoiber
Edmund Stoiber is hoping to overturn a slight poll lead for Mr Schroeder
Correspondents said last-minute campaigning on Friday was overshadowed by the Hitler row.

Mrs Daeubler-Gmelin became an election issue after a German newspaper, the Schwaebisches Tagblatt, reported that she told metalworkers: "Bush wants to divert attention from domestic political problems" and onto Iraq.

The daily quoted her as saying: "It's a method that is sometimes favoured. Hitler also did that."

Minister's denials

On Friday, the minister held a packed press conference - which one report said was ordered by Mr Schroeder - and agreed there had been discussion of politicians using foreign policy measures to distract from domestic issues at the meeting.

Herta Daeubler-Gmelin
Herta Daeubler-Gmelin apologised to the US ambassador
"I then said that we have known this debate since 'Adolf Nazi'," she said, adding that she had immediately clarified that she did not mean there should be a comparison between Hitler and President Bush.

Mrs Daeubler-Gmelin - who said she would not resign over the matter - called US Ambassador Dan Coats to make it clear that she had not made the reported comparison.

But Mr Schroeder decided to send a letter to Mr Bush himself.

"I want to let you know how much I regret the fact that alleged comments by the German justice minister have given an impression that has offended you," he wrote,

But he said he accepted Mrs Daeubler-Gmelin's explanation.

"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."

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Mr Schroeder angered the US earlier in the election campaign when he said he would not lead Germany into an "adventure" against Iraq.

Shifting scene

Mr Stoiber's conservative forces had been ahead in opinion polls until last month, when a flood disaster and fears of war in Iraq enabled Chancellor Schroeder to catch him up.

Graphic showing make-up of outgoing Bundestag
SPD Social Democratic Party
CDU/CSU Christian Democratic Party / Christian Social Union
FDP Free Democratic Party (Liberals)
Greens Green Party
PDS Party of Democratic Socialism

But in Berlin on Friday night, Mr Stoiber was happy to keep foreign policy and Mrs Daeubler-Gmelin on the agenda, telling thousands of supporters: "Every day, every hour that this unbearable woman remains in office and represents Germany is damaging to Germany, very damaging."

In his final election rally, Mr Schroeder called on voters to re-elect his government to help to create "a Europe of tolerance and social partnership and enlightenment".

Both Mr Stoiber and Mr Schroeder have been predicting victory, but who gets the chance to form the next government also depends on the results for smaller parties - the Greens and the Liberals (the FDP).

Janet Barrie reports from Berlin
"Barely half a percentage point separates the front runners"
Gerhard Schroeder

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See also:

21 Sep 02 | Media reports
19 Sep 02 | Europe
13 Sep 02 | Europe
20 Sep 02 | Media reports
20 Sep 02 | Business
08 Sep 02 | Europe
20 Aug 02 | Country profiles
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