Jewish groups, politicians and the press on Wednesday denounced a decision by the highest German appeals court that an extreme rightist's claim that the Holocaust never occurred is insufficient grounds to convict him of inciting racial hatred.
The Federal Court of Justice sent the case against Guenter Deckert, leader of the rightist National Democratic Party, back to a lower court in Mannheim on Tuesday.
Although spreading Nazi ideas is a crime in Germany, the court said it was "too much of a generalization" to assert that Deckert had incited racial hatred simply by disseminating the view that the mass murder of Jews at Auschwitz never happened.
The case against him shows "peculiarities" in its "factual and legal aspects," said Judge Guenter Gribbohm, who read the decision in court in Karlsruhe.
Printed copies of the ruling will not be available for several days.
But Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, called the decision "a new interpretation of existing anti-hate laws" in Germany and said it "set the stage for whitewashing the crimes of the Nazi era."
Cooper said German courts traditionally have linked denial of the Holocaust to racism and racist violence.
In Germany, the ruling was reported on newspaper front pages and condemned across political lines.
The leftist Greens Party said it was "dangerous and irresponsible," while the conservative Die Welt newspaper wrote that "one rubs his eyes in astonishment."
"Until now, it was regarded in this republic as common sense that injustice is condemned as injustice and that there is no leniency for Nazi apologists," Die Welt said. "He who belies Auschwitz not only attacks Jews' human dignity but also shakes the foundations of how this society sees itself."
Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger added, "We must not allow the belittling or even the denial of Nazi crimes to be accepted with a shrug."
Only the left-of-center Social Democratic Party said the ruling was positive in that the court confirmed that the Holocaust occurred and refused to be used as a forum for those who wrongly contend that it did not.
Deckert, 52, a former schoolteacher, had been convicted of inciting hatred in 1992, given a one-year suspended sentence and fined about $6,000.
He was charged after organizing a lecture by Fred Leuchter, an American neo-Nazi and designer of U.S. prison execution chambers who told the rightist party that he had visited Auschwitz and claimed to have proven that it never had gas chambers.
Leuchter asserted that no war crimes had been committed there; Deckert translated Leuchter's speech into German and marketed videotapes of it.
The fallacy that the extermination of 6 million Jews never took place has been spreading throughout the world as the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches.
There is a proliferation of books, neo-Nazi advertisements in college newspapers and even infomercials on satellite networks contending that the Holocaust did not occur.
As Germans reacted to the court decision, police tried to determine whether a fire that killed four adults and two children in a Stuttgart house occupied mainly by foreigners was deliberately set and if rightist extremists were involved.
A 27-year-old Turkish woman, her 4-year-old daughter, a Croatian couple and a 24-year-old German mother with her baby died in the blaze Wednesday morning.
Stuttgart Police Chief Michael Kuehner said it was not known whether the fire was arson.
He said there was no indication as yet that the fire was an attack by right-wing extremists.
Extreme rightists have targeted foreigners in arson and other attacks that have taken 30 lives since German reunification in 1990.
Germany's anti-foreigner sentiment and irritation with the Holocaust issue were highlighted in a poll released earlier this month in which most Germans agreed that their country "should not talk so much about the Holocaust but should rather draw a line under the past."
A third of the 1,400 German adults interviewed said the Holocaust "is not relevant today because it happened almost 50 years ago."
Twenty-two percent said they prefer not to have Jews living in their neighborhood, while 68% said they felt that way about Gypsies, 47% about Arabs, 39% about Poles and 36% about Turks.
The survey was commissioned by the American Jewish Committee.
German and European leaders have been trying to fight these sentiments.
On Wednesday, Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the French president, was in Germany promoting a German "passport" against racism--an identity card with advice about what to do when witnessing a racist incident. The document is to be distributed in schools.