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Politics

Berlin brands Berlusconi Nazi death camp comment 'absurd'

The German government has dismissed remarks by former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who said Germans denied the existence of concentration camps. The chancellery gave the comment short shrift.

On Monday, the office of Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a brief but withering response to Berlusconi's statement that Germans did not acknowledge that concentration camps had ever existed.

"The assertions that have been presented here are so absurd that the federal government will not comment on them," Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said during a press briefing in Berlin.

Berlusconi made the comments while campaigning Saturday on behalf of his center-right party for European elections in May. In an attack on the German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, the former premier referred to a controversial 2003 comment he had made about offering Schulz - currently at the end of his term as president of the European Parliament - a film role as an inmate-turned-Nazi guard.

"God forbid! Because, for Germans, concentration camps did not exist," Berlusconi said on Saturday. "I was joking with my usual humour, in a very ironic way," Berlusconi added. "I was being kind, I thought I could offer him a new job."

Apology to Germany urged

The latest remarks provoked an outraged response from politicians both in Germany and abroad. Among them were former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who is Schulz's main rival for the post of president of the European Commmission.

"I call on Mr. Berlusconi to withdraw his statements immediately and to apologize to the survivors of the Holocaust and to the citizens of Germany," Juncker said in a statement on Monday.

Berlusconi, who on Monday was expected to start serving a community service sentence after being convicted of tax-fraud, claimed that the comment had been taken "out of context" by the European left. One of his aides was reported by the DPA news agency as saying that an apology was out of the question.

The 77-year-old's center-right Forza Italia party is expected to court anti-European sentiment in the May elections, in particular resentment against Germany for its perceived emphasis on austerity in financially struggling Mediterranean nations. A manifesto and posters by the party calling for "More Italy, Less Germany" has also stirred debate.

Public denial of the Holocaust is a criminal offense in Germany, where there are annual memorial events for all victims. The country's schools teach history lessons that place a heavy emphasis on the crimes committed by Germans against Jews and other minorities.

rc/mkg (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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