The Oettinger Affair: A litmus test for contemporary Germany

by Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

Chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Manfred Gerstenfeld is an international business strategist who has been a consultant to governments, international agencies, and boards of some of the world’s largest corporations. Among the eleven books he has published are ‘Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism’ (JCPA, Yad Vashem, World Jewish Congress, 2003) and ‘European-Israeli Relations: Between Confusion and Change?’ (JCPA, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2006).

  1. Despite going through a process of rehabilitation of its Nazi past, in Germany a continued struggle is going on between the supporters of the truth and those of the distortion of history.
  2. In the latest example, Günther Oettinger, the Christian Democrat Prime Minister of the state of Baden Württemberg, eulogised one of his predecessors, Hans Filbinger. Filbinger had a known Nazi past involving murder which Oettinger tried to downplay dishonestly.
  3. His being forced to apologise and resign through political pressure was a defeat for the revisionists.
  4. Although the authorities tend to be staunch in their opposition of revisionist history, there have been worrying lapses in the past that have been occurring with increased regularity.
  5. The battle to create a new memory of the Nazi past is likely to last for decades, and given the upsurge in revisionist thought, it is far from clear who will win.

A few months ago, it became clear once again that the claim of many Germans that their country is like any other European one will remain wishful thinking, given the evidence that sections of the German political establishment remain infused with sympathy for its Nazi past.

On April 11, 2007, Günther Oettinger, the Christian Democrat Prime Minister of the state of Baden Württemberg eulogised one of his predecessors Hans Filbinger. The latter had been Prime Minister of the state from 1966-1978. Filbinger was forced to resign as it had then become known that as a judge in the German marine, Filbinger had condemned a deserter to death after the war had already ended. He had also been a pre-war member of the National Socialist Party, NSDAP.

Despite his ignominious history, Filbinger remained honorary chairman of the Christian Democrats in Baden Württemberg till the end of his life.

Oettinger said: “Contrary to what one could read in some eulogies, Filbinger was not a Nazi. He was an opponent of the National Socialist regime. Like millions of others, he could not escape from the pressures of the regime. When we, who were born later, judge the soldiers of that time, we should never forget that people then lived under a brutal and terrible dictatorship.” He dishonestly added, “there is no judgment of Filbinger as a result of which somebody lost his life.”[1]

Multiple Criticisms

The sister of a deserter condemned to death by Filbinger told the German Bild paper: “Filbinger was present at the execution of my brother. He himself read him the judgment and cynically took away his citizen’s rights. The words of Oettinger were a bold lie.”[2]
Stephan Kramer, General Secretary to the Central Council of the Jewish community, said that Oettinger was trying to attract extreme rightists and had “perverted the German resistance.”[3]

The writer Ralph Giordano demanded that Oettinger resign.[4] The sharpest words came from the writer, Rolf Hochhuth, well-known for his play The Deputy about the behavior of Pope Pius XII in the Second World War. It was Hochhuth who had at the time made the information public which forced Filbinger to resign. He called Filbinger “a sadistic Nazi.”[5]
Among the CDU’s political opponents, the Greens asked for Oettinger’s resignation and the Liberal party, FDP condemned Oettinger’s words. A representative of the Socialist Party, national coalition partners of the Christian Democrats, also criticized Oettinger.

Oettinger Backtracks

Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly distanced herself to some extent from Oettinger’s words by saying that she wished that he had not only honoured Filbinger’s great life work, but also had posed critical questions about the Nazi era.[6]

Oettinger incrementally backtracked from his statements. Initially, despite not apologising, he wrote an open letter to his critics in which he said that he regretted that the impression was given in the eulogy that he sought to relativise the crimes of the Nazis. This led to increasing criticism in his own party. On the other hand key figures in the Baden Württemberg’s Christian Democrat party supported Oettinger’s words about Filbinger.[7]

After increasing pressure from Merkel, Oettinger finally apologised and distanced himself from his words that Filbinger had been an opposer of the Nazis.[8] The next day it became known that Filbinger’s signed application to join the NSDAP as early as 1937, had been found in the National Archives in Berlin.[9]

A week later Oettinger apologised again in the state parliament of Baden Württemberg saying “I do not maintain my text [of the eulogy] and distance myself from it. That will remain so in future.” Ute Vogt, the head of the SPD faction said in the debate: “You have broken the oath you have sworn [as Prime minister]. You have damaged the state of Baden Württemberg.” She criticised Oettinger for having waited five days before taking back his words under massive pressure from Angela Merkel. She also criticised the fact that not a single prominent CDU politician from Baden Württemberg had distanced himself from the eulogy before Oettinger did so himself.[10]

It took a further month for Oettinger to announce that he was giving up his membership of the controversial Christian Democrat conservative study center Weikersheim, which had been founded by Filbinger. Oettinger had come under criticism for his membership of this institution, after his eulogy. This criticism was strongly fueled by Weikersheim planning a lecture by the former CDU national parliamentarian Martin Hohmann. Hohmann had been expelled from the CDU party due to his anti-Semitic remarks.
Another lecture planned by Weikersheim was by the former General Reinhard Günzel, who had been fired from the German army because of his support for Hohmann’s statements. The deputy chairman of Weikersheim is Jörg Schonbohm, the CDU Minister of the Interior of the State of Brandenburg, who had supported Oettinger’s eulogy for Filbinger.[11]

Some Earlier and Recent Manipulations

The Oettinger statements are far from the first manipulation of the Nazi past by a leading German politician. One of the worst examples occurred in 1985. The then German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, convinced U.S. President Ronald Reagan into visiting the war cemetery at Bitburg where members of the Waffen SS were also buried.
Oettinger’s statements have come at a time when taboos concerning the Nazi past are increasingly being broken. Another current scandal concerns a video of a German army instructor – who was recently fired due to his ordering of a soldier to envision himself in New York City, facing hostile blacks while firing his machine gun. Several other army instructors who abused recruits in 2004 are also on trial. In 2006, German soldiers posed with skulls in Afghanistan.[12] The historian, Jörg Friedrich, has written books where he uses classical Nazi terminology for the Allies armies’ actions during the Second World War.[13] These books have become best-sellers.

In this cultural milieu which is once again rearing its ugly head, Anti-Semitism, often showing up as anti-Israelism is rife. The German Catholic bishops visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in March this year created a diplomatic incident when one of them compared the Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians to that of the Nazis toward the Jews.[14] In this light of the resurgence of Anti-Semitism and denial of Germany’s past, the Oettinger affair became a kind of litmus test of how far one can go in today’s Germany.
The Oettinger affair is the most recent test case of Germany’s contemporary identity. This time the struggle between the truth and the distortion of history ended with the defeat of the distorters. However the battle to create a new memory of the Nazi past is likely to go on for decades and it is far from clear who will win.

©2007 The Henry Jackson Society; reproduced with permission.


[1] Pressemitteilung, “Ansprache des baden-württembergischen Ministerpräsidenten Günther H. Oettinger anlässlich des Staatsakts zum Tod von Ministerpräsident a. D. Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Hans Filbinger im Freiburger Münster,” Baden-Württemberg Staatsministerium, 12 April 2007. [German]
[2] Quoted in: “Hinterbliebene fordert Oettingers Rücktritt,” Welt, 14 April 2007. [German]
[3] “Günther Oettinger entschuldigt sich,” Welt, 16 April 2007. [German]
[4] “Empörung über Oettinger,” Die Zeit Online, 15 April 2007. [German]
[5] “Oettinger muss sich Inkompetenz vorhalten lassen,” Handelsblatt, 12 April 2007. [German]
[6] Judy Dempsey, “Merkel faces revolt over premier’s praise for Nazi-era judge,” International Herald Tribune, 15 April 2007.
[7] “Aerger über Oettinger’s Rechtfertigung,” Spiegel Online, 14 April 2007.
[8] “Oettinger: “Ich halte meine Formulierung nicht aufrecht,”, 16 April 2007. [German]
[9] NSDAP-Mitgliedsantrag von Filbinger aufgetaucht, Die Welt, 17 April 2007. [German]
[10] “Sie haben dem Land Schaden zugefugt.” Die Welt, 25 April 2007. [German]
[11] “Oettinger tritt aus Studienzentrum Weikersheim aus.” 22 May 2007. [German]
[12] Kirsten Grieshaber, German Ministry Criticizes Racist Video, Guardian 16 April 2007.
[13] Susanne Urban, “Anti-Semitism in Germany Today: Its Roots and Tendencies,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 16, Nos. 3-4 (Fall 2004): 124.
[14] Eli Ashkenazi, “German bishop compares Ramallah to Warsaw Ghetto,” Haaretz, 7 March 2007.


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