BERLIN (AP) — The governor of the German state of Bavaria said Sunday that he will let his deputy stay in office despite a furor that started with allegations he was responsible for an antisemitic flyer when he was a high school student 35 years ago.
Governor Markus Soeder, a leading figure in Germany's center-right opposition, said he had concluded that it would be “disproportionate” to fire Hubert Aiwanger, his deputy and coalition partner, but Aiwanger needs to rebuild confidence with the Jewish community and others.
Bavaria is holding a state election in just over a month. Soeder's decision drew sharp criticism from political opponents and a cautious response from a Jewish leader.
On Aug. 25, the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported that, when Aiwanger was a teenager, he was suspected of producing a typewritten flyer calling for entries to a competition titled “Who is the biggest traitor to the fatherland?”
It listed, among other things, a “1st prize: A free flight through the chimney at Auschwitz.”
Aiwanger, 52, said last weekend that one or more copies of the flyer were found in his school bag but denied that he wrote it. His older brother came forward to claim that he had written it.
Aiwanger has acknowledged making unspecified mistakes in his youth and offered an apology but also portrayed himself as the victim of a “witch hunt.” He stuck to that tone on Sunday, saying at a campaign appearance that his opponents had failed with a “smear campaign” meant to weaken his conservative party.
The deputy governor's crisis management has drawn widespread criticism, including from Soeder.
On Tuesday, Soeder demanded that Aiwanger answer a detailed questionnaire, and his deputy delivered the answers Friday. Soeder said he had a long conversation with Aiwanger on Saturday evening.
Over the past week, there was a steady drip of further allegations about Aiwanger's behavior in his youth, including claims that he gave the Hitler salute, imitated the Nazi dictator and had Hitler's “Mein Kampf” in his school bag. Aiwanger described the latter as “nonsense,” said he didn't remember ever giving the Hitler salute and did not rehearse Hitler’s speeches in front of the mirror.
On Thursday, Aiwanger said: “I deeply regret if I have hurt feelings by my behavior in relation to the pamphlet in question or further accusations against me from my youth. My sincere apologies go first and foremost to all the victims of the (Nazi) regime.”
Soeder told reporters in Munich that the apology was “overdue, but it was right and necessary.” He said that Aiwanger's answers to his questions “weren't all satisfactory,” but that he had distanced himself again from the flyer and given repeated assurances he didn't write it.
“In the overall assessment — that there is no proof, that the matter is 35 years ago, and that nothing comparable has happened since — a dismissal would be disproportionate, from my point of view,” Soeder said.
But leaders of Bavaria's governing coalition agreed “it is important that Hubert Aiwanger work on winning back lost trust,” and should hold talks with Jewish community leaders, Soeder added. He said that was discussed Sunday with Bavarian and German Jewish leaders.
One of them, Munich Jewish community leader Charlotte Knobloch, said in a statement that Aiwanger “must restore trust and make clear that his actions are democratically and legally steadfast.” She said recent days had been “an enormous strain.”
The allegations put Soeder, who is widely considered a potential candidate to challenge center-left Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the 2025 national election, although he has denied such ambitions, in an awkward position.
Aiwanger leads the Free Voters, a party that is a conservative force in Bavaria but has no seats in Germany’s national parliament. He has been the state’s deputy governor and economy minister since 2018, when his party became the junior partner in a regional government under Bavaria’s long-dominant center-right Christian Social Union.
Soeder, the CSU leader, made clear again Sunday that he wants to continue the coalition with the Free Voters, a more or less like-minded party, after the Oct. 8 state election. He dismissed the idea of switching to a coalition with the environmentalist Greens.
German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser accused Soeder of putting political tactics first.
“Mr. Aiwanger has neither apologized convincingly nor been able to dispel the accusations convincingly,” she told the RND newspaper group. Instead, she said, he has styled himself as a victim “and doesn't think for a second of those who still suffer massively from antisemitism."
“That Mr. Soeder allows this damages the reputation of our country," she added.