In an escalating row over tax havens, Germany on Wednesday defended a Wild West analogy made by Steinbrück that caused an uproar in the Alpine nation.
Never one to mince words, Steinbrück had said Saturday that the threat of Switzerland being placed on an international tax haven blacklist was a deterrent comparable to the US cavalry scaring the "Indians."
"The cavalry in Fort Yuma doesn't always have to ride out. Sometimes it is sufficient just for the Indians to know that they are there," Steinbrück said at a meeting of Group of 20 finance ministers in Britain.
The remarks outraged the Swiss, who summoned the German ambassador to express indignation at the "insulting" and "indefensible" comments.
One Swiss tabloid – Blick am Abend – described Steinbrück as "one of the most hated men in Switzerland" under the headline: "The Ugly German"
A Swiss conservative politician went even further and compared Steinbrück to the Nazis.
"He reminds me of that generation of Germans that walked the streets in leather overcoats, boots and armbands 60 years ago," Thomas Müller from the Christian Democratic People's Party said in a speech to the Swiss parliament on Wednesday.
But the minister's spokesman, Torsten Albig, insisted at a regular news briefing Wednesday Steinbrück had "not been in any way disrespectful" to Switzerland or its citizens. His cowboys-and-Indians analogy was an "anodyne image" that is "very common" in Germany, Albig insisted.
"We note that you are very sensitive to even anodyne symbols," Albig added in response to a question by a Swiss reporter before calling for Switzerland to "take a step in our direction" on tax havens.
If Switzerland were not outside the laws of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), it would not be so sensitive, he said.
Late last week, Switzerland caved in to international pressure and said it would swap information with foreign authorities to stamp out tax cheats. But Germany on Monday expressed doubt that this showed a real willingness to move towards unrestricted cooperation on tax matters.
The backlash in the Swiss media has been severe, with a Zurich newspaper alleging Tuesday that some German banks are helping clients hide assets from Swiss tax authorities.
The Tagesanzeiger sent an undercover journalist to ask various banks about depositing one million Swiss francs (€650,000), including 300,000 francs of untaxed inheritance.
The paper said branches of Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank in a German town near the Swiss border offered to open an official account with statements sent to Switzerland, as well as an unofficial account for which statements would be kept in the bank.
Albig said "if it is true, we find that as shocking as you. It is totally unacceptable."