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Why a high profile Bavarian politician is embroiled in an anti-Semitic row

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
Why a high profile Bavarian politician is embroiled in an anti-Semitic row
Free Voters' leader Hubert Aiwanger grimaces during a press conference on anti-Semitism accusations in Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

Hubert Aiwanger, the leader of Bavaria's populist Free Voters' party, has been caught up in an anti-Semitism controversy this week, sparking a storm in German media. Here's what to know about the right-wing politician and what he's accused of.

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What's going on?

It's a story that dates back 35 years, but that has nonetheless has an uncomfortable resonance for people in Germany. 

Hubert Aiwanger, a prominent Bavarian politician and leader of the Free Voters' party, is facing multiple accusations of espousing anti-Semitic views and even showing signs of sympathising with the ideologies of National Socialism during his teenage years. 

While Aiwanger has never shied away from controversy in the past, the latest scandal that has erupted is far more significant than previous media storms. 

It started with an investigation published by the liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung that linked the politician to a far-right pamphlet written back in the 1980s.

The pamphlet allegedly contained mocking references to the Holocaust and called for "a free flight through the chimney in Auschwitz" as a "prize" for "traitors to the fatherland". 

Though Hubert denied the accusations and his brother Helmut later claimed to be the real author of the pamphlet, the right-wring politician later admitted to carrying "a few" copies of the text in his school bag.

READ ALSO: Why Bavaria does politics differently to the rest of Germany

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Since then, people who went to school with Aiwanger have shared similarly damning anecdotes about him in the media. Most recently, a former classmate told Bayerische Rundfunk that the then-teenage Aiwanger had made offensive jokes about Jewish people following a school trip to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Another anonymous classmate, meanwhile, recalled Aiwanger making Hitler salutes when entering the classroom back in his school years. 

How has Aiwanger responded to the accusations?

Insufficiently - at least in the view of many of his colleagues. For several days, the Free Voters' leader simply continued to deny having authored the pamphlet and said that he could not recall having made Hitler salutes or the reason he had carried the far-right text in his schoolbag.

On Thursday, however, he did issue an apology - though he also took the opportunity to rail against what he described as a political smear campaign.

Free Voters' leader Hubert Aiwanger

Free Voters' leader Hubert Aiwanger makes a statement on the anti-Semitism allegations on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lennart Preiss

"I deeply regret if I have hurt feelings through my behaviour in relation to the pamphlet in question or further accusations against me from my youth," Aiwanger said.

"My sincere apologies go first and foremost to all the victims of the Nazi regime, their surviving relatives and all those involved and the valuable remembrance work."

I've never heard of the Free Voters - who are they? 

Anyone who doesn't live in Bavaria would be forgiven for not having heard of the Free Voters - or Freie Wähler - party. The right-wing populist party is only really relevant in the southern state, where they currently govern as the junior partner in coalition with the Christian Social Democrats (CSU).

Their politics generally align closely to that of their coalition partner, with immigrant-sceptic views and an emphasis on lower taxes and the free market. However, they also believe in stringent regulation for banks and extensive investment in education and schooling. 

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As the leader of the party, 52-year-old Aiwanger has increasingly courted controversy in recent years. He is known for adopting similar communications strategies and talking points to the far-right AfD, delivering incendiary soundbites to the media on topics like immigration, crime and the political "elites". 

After reports of violence in open-air swimming pools, for example, he railed against young men from migrant families - but later claimed his quotes were taken out of context.

READ ALSO: Why Berlin is tightening security at open-air swimming pools

However, those defending Aiwanger say his policies are far more moderate than the language he uses. 

Why is this such a sensitive issue?

Though exact numbers aren't known, an estimated 6 million Jews were murdered in concentration camps during the Holocaust, and Germany continues to grapple with the dark legacy of National Socialism to this day.

Making a Hitler salute is illegal in Germany, and has recently resulted in arrests and even prison sentences.

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Other forms of Nazi hate speech and propaganda are also strictly prohibited by the penal code. That includes disseminating Nazi propaganda either on- or offline, wearing symbols of National Socialism such as SS uniforms or swastikas and denying the events of the Holocaust. 

Since the Second World War, Germany has instigated a culture of remembrance that is all about keeping the past in full view, meditating on this period of national shame and attempting to ensure that history never repeats itself. 

READ ALSO: Four words that tell us something about Germany

What happens next? 

That remains unclear - but it certainly looks as if the right-wing politician is skating on thin ice. Markus Söder, Bavaria's state premier and leader of the CSU, has called Aiwanger's statement "overdue" and has issued a list of 25 questions in writing that the Free Voters' leader must answer.

"Whether it is all enough in the end will only be decided after the questions have been answered," he said, adding that he expected a response "today" (on Friday). 

Bavaria state premier Markus Söder

Bavaria state premier Markus Söder (CSU) makes a statement to the press on the Aiwanger scandal. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Karmann

The situation is even more pressing as Bavaria is due to head to the polls for a state election on October 8th. If Aiwanger is dismissed from his role as Bavarian economics minister, the state government would be plunged into a reshuffle just a month before the state elections.

Aiwanger is also facing political pressure from Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats (SPD). Describing the pamphlet as a "terrible, inhumane piece of work", a spokesperson for Scholz said:  "From the chancellor's point of view, all this must be cleared up comprehensively and immediately and would then have to have political consequences if necessary."

However, Free Voters' politicians have so far remained bullish in their defence of their leader - accusing the media of a politically-motivated campaign against him - and so far, Aiwanger himself seems unwilling to step down of his own accord.

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