Governor Markus Soeder, a leading figure in Germany’s centre-right opposition, said he concluded it would be “disproportionate” to fire Hubert Aiwanger, his deputy and coalition partner over anti-Semitism allegations, but that Aiwanger needs to rebuild trust with the Jewish community and others.
State elections will take place in Bavaria in just over a month. Soeder’s decision has drawn sharp criticism from political opponents and a cautious response from a Jewish leader.
In August, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reported that, when Aiwanger was a teenager, he had been suspected of having produced a typewritten flyer inviting entries in a contest titled: “Who is the greatest traitor to the fatherland?”
Among other things, it listed the “1st prize: a free flight through the chimney of Auschwitz”.
The 52-year-old said last weekend that one or more copies of the flyer were found in his school bag, but he denied having written it himself. His older brother came forward claiming to have written it himself.
Aiwanger admitted to making unspecified mistakes in his youth and apologized, but also described himself as the victim of a “witch hunt”. He maintained that tone on Sunday, saying in an election appearance that his opponents had failed with a “smear campaign” intended to undermine his Conservative party.
The deputy governor’s handling of the crisis has aroused numerous criticisms, including from Soeder himself.
Last week, the governor asked Aiwanger to answer a detailed questionnaire that was filled out by his deputy on Friday.
Soeder confirmed that he had a long conversation with Aiwanger following the presentation of the document.
Over the past week, there has been a steady stream 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 backpack. school.
Aiwanger described the latter as “nonsense”, said he did not remember ever giving the Hitler salute and did not rehearse Hitler’s speeches in front of a mirror.
Aiwanger said on Thursday: “I deeply regret if I have hurt my feelings by my behavior in relation to the brochure in question or by further allegations against me since my youth. My sincerest 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 Aiwanger’s responses to his questions “were not all satisfactory,” but that he again distanced himself from the flyer and repeatedly assured that he had not written it.
“In the overall assessment – that there is no evidence, that the matter dates back 35 years and that nothing comparable has happened since then – a firing would be disproportionate, in my view,” Soeder said.
But leaders of the Bavarian coalition government agree that “it is important that Hubert Aiwanger works to regain lost trust” and should hold talks with Jewish community leaders, Soeder added. This was discussed on Sunday, he said, with Bavarian and German Jewish leaders.
One of them, the leader of Munich’s Jewish community Charlotte Knobloch, said in a statement that Aiwanger “must restore trust and make clear that his actions are democratically and legally firm”.
The allegations put Soeder, who is believed to have ambitions to challenge centre-left chancellor Olaf Scholz in the 2025 national election, in an awkward position.
Aiwanger leads the Free Electors, a party that is a conservative force in Bavaria but has no seats in Germany’s national parliament. He has been deputy governor and economics minister of the state of Bavaria since 2018, when his party became the junior partner in regional government under the long-dominant centre-right Christian Social Union.
CSU leader Soeder reiterated on Sunday that he wants to continue the coalition with the more or less like-minded Free Voters after the state elections in October. He rejected the idea of moving to a coalition with green environmentalists.
German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser accused Soeder of putting political tactics first.
“Mr Aiwanger has neither apologized convincingly nor been able to dispel the allegations convincingly,” she told news group RND. Instead, she said, you defined yourself as a victim “and you don’t think for a second of those who still suffer massively from anti-Semitism.”
“Mr. Soeder’s allowing this damages our country’s reputation,” Faeser added.