The German Defense Ministry dismissed a respected army general Tuesday for praising a conservative politician under criminal investigation for remarks last month that were widely regarded as anti-Semitic.
Defense Minister Peter Struck fired Brig. Gen. Reinhard Guenzel over a letter the general allegedly sent to Martin Hohmann, a Christian Democrat lawmaker who in a recent speech compared Jews in the 1917 Russian Revolution to Nazis. The remarks ignited a political uproar as this nation once again confronted its Nazi past and debated questions over how sensitive today's Germans should be in criticizing Jews.
In his letter, Guenzel thanked Hohmann for "an extraordinary speech with the courage to say the truth which has become rare in our country." He added: "You can be sure that you exactly express the feelings of a majority of our people. I hope you don't let yourself be shaken by the accusations mainly from the left-wing camp."
The German government condemned the general's sentiments, saying they did not reflect the attitude of the country's military.
The hasty firing of Guenzel -- the decorated commander of German special forces -- was an attempt at damage control in an atmosphere already strained by Hohmann's comments suggesting that Jews were guilty of mass murder in Russia and that Germans remained unfairly tainted by Nazi crimes of the last century.
"I have decided to relieve him of his command and dismiss him," Struck said of Guenzel, who recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan. "With that, the case is closed for me."
Struck later told journalists that the affair embarrassed the military and revolved around "a single confused general who followed an even more confused Christian Democrat."
The general's letter became public when Hohmann -- struggling to repair his reputation -- leaked a copy to German television. Conservative lawmaker Hans Raidel said Hohmann's desire to disclose the letter damaged Guenzel, whom he called "one of our best men.... Hohmann has Guenzel on his conscience. To publish the letter was a clear break of confidence."
Prosecutors are investigating whether Hohmann's Oct. 3 comments violated the nation's strict laws against anti-Semitic speech. Under pressure from fellow Christian Democrats, Hohmann, who was stripped of some of his parliamentary duties, apologized Saturday for his speech. The comments in it veered from Hohmann's frustration that Germany still bore the burden of the Third Reich to suggestions that Jews also had a "dark side" to their history.
Hohmann said Jews could be considered culpable in the 1917 communist revolution. "With certain justification," he said, "one could ask in view of the millions killed in the first phase of the revolution about the 'guilt' of the Jews." He added: "Jews were active in large numbers in the leadership" of execution squads, and "one could with some justification describe Jews as a race of perpetrators."
Christian Democratic leader Angela Merkel called Hohmann's remarks "completely unacceptable and unbearable." Wilhelm Schmidt, a party campaign manager for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats, urged Hohmann to resign from Parliament, adding, "The language Hohmann speaks is the language of right-wing radicals."
Paul Spiegel, head of Germany's Central Council of Jews, told German TV on Tuesday: "If the Christian Democrats say that Hohmann's remarks were unbearable and inconsistent with the basic values of the Christian Democrats, then it is the logical consequence that Hohmann leaves not only the parliamentary group, but also the party."
On Monday, Merkel removed Hohmann from his position in the Parliament's Committee for Internal Affairs, which makes decisions about compensation issues and payments for slave laborers during the Nazi era.
Comments perceived as anti-Semitic have chafed Germany several times over the last 15 months. During the 2003 federal election campaign, Juergen Moellemann, a populist politician who died recently in a skydiving accident, criticized Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and a Jewish German talk show host.
Last summer, relations between Italy and Germany soured after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi compared a German politician to a guard in a Nazi concentration camp. In recent weeks, German authorities have expressed concern about right-wing extremist groups.
The revelation that one of the nation's most respected military leaders may espouse anti-Semitic attitudes troubled many. Bernhard Gertz, a member of the German Soldiers Assn., said Guenzel's letter was foolish and damaging. "For a general," Gertz said, "it is absolutely necessary that he restrain himself from political evaluations."
Retzlaff reported from Berlin and Fleishman from Warsaw.