BERLIN – With an oblique but damaging comparison between George Bush and Adolf Hitler hanging over the final hours of his re-election campaign, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder sought Friday to defuse tensions in a conciliatory letter to the U.S. president.
The letter was sent shortly before a defiant Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin again denied remarks attributed to her by a German newspaper. It had quoted her as saying Bush, like Hitler, was threatening war to distract attention from domestic problems. She claimed she was misquoted and libeled.
"The minister has assured me that she never made the remarks attributed to her," Schroeder said in the letter to Bush. "She has said this publicly, as well."
"I would like to assure you that no one has a place at my Cabinet table who makes a connection between the American president and a criminal," he wrote.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said he wasn't convinced by Daeubler-Gmelin's denials. "The statements made by the justice minister were outrageous and inexplicable," he said. "The president continues to view this as a troubling event."
The opposition conservatives, hoping to oust Schroeder from power in Sunday's election, called for Daeubler-Gmelin's resignation.
"Every day, every hour that this unbearable woman remains in office and represents Germany is damaging to Germany, very damaging," Schroeder's conservative challenger, Edmund Stoiber, told thousands of supporters at his closing campaign rally Friday night in Berlin.
The ruckus with Washington, and the reference to Germany's dark past, has tainted an election already characterized by unusually harsh rhetoric about the Bush administration. The United States helped rebuild Germany after World War II and has been one of its staunchest allies.
Stoiber has accused Schroeder of damaging U.S.-German relations with his emphatic opposition to American military action to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Tensions spiked after the Schwaebisches Tagblatt regional newspaper reported Thursday that Daeubler-Gmelin told a labor union meeting: "Bush wants to distract attention from his domestic problems. That's a popular method. Even Hitler did that."
At a news conference Friday, Daeubler-Gmelin gave a different version. She said during the course of a chaotic discussion that touched on Iraq, she had referred to diversionary tactics and had used the words "we know that from our history, since Adolf Nazi." But she denied saying the name Hitler.
German analysts suggest it is Schroeder's rhetoric that has created the combative atmosphere in which others feel free to launch more general attacks on the United States.
"I think that his position certainly wasn't intended as anti-American. But there has been perhaps some unintended consequences that people are feeling freer to challenge the United States," said Deidre Berger of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin.
With the focus on the Middle East and the war on terrorism, some comments have broken taboos that German politicians have for two generations been careful to obey.
The campaign has revealed "tones of anti-Americanism, tones of anti-Semitism and tones of anti-Zionism," Berger said.
For example, the liberal Free Democrats isolated their deputy leader and threatened to walk out of a rally in Bonn on Thursday if he didn't leave. They were protesting his continued attacks on prominent German Jewish leader Michel Friedman. They vowed to seek his ouster.
A leading member of Schroeder's party, former Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping, was quoted by New York Times columnist William Safire this week as saying Bush wanted to overthrow Saddam to please "a powerful -- perhaps overly powerful -- Jewish lobby."
In protest, the World Jewish Congress sent letters to Schroeder, Stoiber and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer warning "that the hour may be too late" to undo damage already done.
"Some of the ugly remarks of the past few days require immediate attention," World Jewish Congress leader Israel Singer said in a letter to Fischer. "I know the hour is late. However, we need to remedy the situation which has resulted from gross insensitive and ugly behavior."
Even before her remarks were published, Daeubler-Gmelin denied them to the newspapers' editors. She said she wasn't comparing Bush and Hitler, but rather their methods. The newspaper claimed it had cleared the quote with her before it was published, as is the custom in German journalism. She denied that.
On Friday, Daeubler-Gmelin showed no inclination to step down.
"I don't have to answer for the reporting ... but I believe that relations between our countries are good, despite the unbelievably emotion-charged discussion over the Iraq conflict," she told reporters.
She said it was "absurd and libelous to attribute to me a comparison between a democratically elected politician and a leading Nazi."
While Schroeder has had his own diplomatic rift with Washington over his Iraq position, the stand has resonated with Germans, most of whom oppose a new Middle East war, according to polls.
After trailing Stoiber for months in the polls over the weak economy, Schroeder pulled slightly ahead. The election stands to be one of the closest since World War II.