'Do You Want Total War?' German Politician in Trouble for Using Goebbels Phrase

Borrowing historically loaded phrases from the Nazi era is a big no-no in Germany. The latest perpetrator is veteran politician Heiner Geissler, who posed the rhetorical question, "Do you want total war?". The term was used by Joseph Goebbels in a famous 1943 speech.

In hot water: German politician Heiner Geissler.
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In hot water: German politician Heiner Geissler.

A veteran German politician has got himself into hot water by repeating a phrase attributed to Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels -- "Do you want total war?"

Heiner Geissler, 81, the mediator in a bitter dispute over the reconstruction of the main railway station for the city of Stuttgart, uttered the words last Friday during an arbitration meeting between supporters and opponents of the project.

He said he was trying to emphasize the need for a settlement. But media commentators have heaped criticism on him for using a phrase that sums up the fanaticism of Nazi Germany. The controversy shows how sensitive references to the war remain in German politics.

"Even if Geissler is an old man, even if he enjoys being in the limelight -- borrowing phrases from Goebbels isn't acceptable," Frank Wahlig, a correspondent for influential public broadcaster ARD, said in a commentary. "He is of no use any more as a mediator for anything -- he should be enjoying his retirement and long walks. Far away from spotlights and any microphone."

Geissler, a former cabinet minister under Helmut Kohl and general secretary of the conservative Christian Democrat Union party for 12 years until 1989, is notoriously outspoken and has acquired the reputation of a maverick within the conservative party, joining anti-globalization group attac and at times espousing decidedly left-wing views. He has acted as arbitrator in various industrial pay disputes in recent years.

He didn't help matters when he gave a radio interview on Tuesday in which he seemed to deny knowing that Goebbels had made the remark.

Goebbels put the question on Feb. 18, 1943 to an audience of Nazi faithful in Berlin's Sportpalast hall after the German army's defeat at Stalingrad, widely seen as the turning point of the war. It was an attempt to exhort the nation to even greater sacrifices. The answer from the audience was a frenetic "Ja!"

Shrugging Off the Criticism

On Wednesday, Geissler shrugged off the criticism by calling it absurd. "If I'm close to Goebbels, then Playboy is the official publication of the Vatican," Geissler told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper in an interview published on Wednesday. "Every time one even just mentions something from the Nazi era, some people get nervous and go crazy."

Geissler said he had carefully chosen the sentence to stress the need for a peaceful resolution to the conflict over the Stuttgart 21 project, which has sparked violent demonstrations and even led to one protestor being seriously injured by a water jet from a police water canon.

He added that Goebbels didn't invent the term "total war" and that Winston Churchill had used it before him.

There is a long list of German politicians and celebrities who have got in trouble by using terms coined in the Nazi era. The faux-pas invariably spark outrage even if the phrase was used inadvertently, as was the case with German sports commentator Katrin Müller-Hohenstein during the football World Cup in 2010.

She said a goal scored by German striker Miroslav Klose must have been like an "inner Reichs party rally" for him -- an archaic phrase from the 1930s that was used to convey rapturous joy of the sort experienced by the audience at the famous Nuremberg rallies.

The remark drew widespread criticism and public broadcaster ZDF apologized for it.


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