A German MP has denied trivialising Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party after he downplayed the horror of the Holocaust in the context of Germany's history.
Alexander Gauland, co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AFD), sparked outrage for branding the crimes of Hitler and the Nazis as “a speck of birds**t in 1,000 years of glorious German history”.
“Yes, we plead guilty to those 12 years,” the 77-year-old politician, who is one of two joint AfD leaders, said of the Nazi era at a meeting of the AfD’s youth wing called the Young Alternative.
“But we have a glorious history and one, my friends, that lasted a lot longer than those damned 12 years. Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of birds**t in over 1,000 years of glorious German history.”
Mr Gauland was criticised by Holocaust survivors’ groups and people hailing from across the political spectrum in Germany on Sunday for the remarks.
But on Monday he sought to deny that he had meant to trivialise the Nazis and their crimes – arguing his comments had been misunderstood or misinterpreted. He said he had voiced his "deepest contempt" for National Socialism in the speech he made on 2 June.
"For me, 'birds***' is and remains the lowest piece of filth - animal excrement that I compared National Socialism with," he said in a statement.
He added: "It was never my intention to trivialise or even deride the victims of this criminal system”.
The AfD, which has stirred controversy for its members’ attitudes to the Nazis, was originally founded as a Eurosceptic party in 2013. The AfD won seats in parliament for the first time in September by capitalising on a surge of discontent against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open Germany’s borders to more than a million asylum-seeking migrants.
The far-right party is now the third largest party in parliament - recasting the German political landscape and taking voters from Ms Merkel’s conservatives and the centre-left Social Democrats.
The Nazi dictatorship continues to be a massively sensitive issue in the country - with Germany forging its post-World War Two identity on the belief of keeping the memory of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis alive.
The AfD has capitalised on the fact celebrating German identity has remained taboo since the Second World War – with standing for the national anthem and waving flags often frowned upon - by embracing an unapologetically nationalist agenda.
On Monday, the German government condemned Mr Gauland’s initial comments. Steffen Seibert, spokesman for Ms Merkel, said it was shameful a member of the German national parliament had made such remarks
Mr Seibert said: "The Nazi regime and the crime of the Holocaust conceived by the Nazi regime are unique, a real crime against humanity, and immeasurable suffering was the result in many countries, including here in Germany”.
"It's only because we Germans proclaim the perpetual responsibility that comes from that - and all German governments since the first government of the Federal Republic of Germany have done that, including this one - that Germany was able to become a respected country again and good partner for other countries and peoples in the world”.
The International Auschwitz Committee, a Holocaust survivors’ organisation, branded his remarks as “undignified and unbearable”.
“For Auschwitz survivors, Gauland's coolly calculated and inflammatory statements are just repulsive,” Christoph Heubner, the group’s executive vice-president said.
"Fifty million dead in the Second World War, the Holocaust, the doctrine of ‘total war’: to call it all birds*** is a slap in the face for victims, and a relativisation of what was done in Germany’s name,” Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the chairman of Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrat party (CDU) said.
“Anyone who supports the AfD has to consider what they’re really buying into behind the bourgeois mask.”
AfD co-leader Joerg Meuthen told Zeit Online the rhetoric Mr Gauland had chosen was "inappropriate" but added it was clear from the whole speech he had not been playing down or relativising Nazi atrocities.
Mr Gauland became caught up in controversy last year when he said Germans should be proud of what their soldiers succeeded in achieving in World War One and Two.
“If Britain has the right to be proud of Churchill then we have the right to be proud of the proud of the achievements of German soldiers in two world wars,” he said.
There was also public fury after it surfaced the rarely used first verse of the German national anthem was belted out at the AfD youth wing event where Mr Gauland spoke.
The verse, which begins Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles, or “Germany, Germany, above all” is deemed offensive because it was adopted by the Nazis.
The AfD's federal board released a statement saying it was dismayed by the youth wing singing stanzas that are no longer part of the national anthem at the event.
Additional reporting by Reuters