Do You Remember Herta Däubler-Gmelin?

By John Rosenthal, on , Briefing

A German interior ministry proposal to grant Iraqi Christians asylum in Germany as a persecuted minority drew criticism last week from the chair of the Bundestag's Human Rights Committee, who insisted that the program should be open to other Iraqis as well. "We should also accept Christians, because they are under particular pressure," Herta Däubler-Gmelin said in remarks reported in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, "but not only Christians." "An appropriately large number of Iraqis should be taken in," she added, "commensurate to Germany's capacity and economic power."

Herta Däubler-Gmelin? If the name sounds familiar, that is because this is the same Herta Däubler-Gmelin who in September 2002, as Minister of Justice in the government of then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, famously compared George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler. According to the original report of her remarks in the German daily the Schwäbische Tagblatt, Däubler-Gmelin likewise said that the American president should be in jail and dismissed the American justice system as "lousy." This, it should be underscored, was a half year before the invasion of Iraq: at a time when such rhetoric was all but unknown in the United States and when virtually all the putative "causes" for it normally cited by American opponents of the president had not even yet occurred.

In Germany, however, the spring and summer months of 2002 would mark the return of a virulent anti-Americanism into the mainstream of German political discourse, as Schröder made a novel sort of "preemptive" opposition to military intervention in Iraq into the centerpiece of his re-election campaign. Däubler-Gmelin made her remarks at a campaign event only days before the elections and the -- at the time merely hypothetical -- prospect of a war against Iraq was again the theme. Bush wanted to use a war "to divert attention from domestic problems," Däubler-Gmelin suggested, just as "Adolf Nazi" had once done.

The chancellor would offer his American counterpart an ambiguous "apology" for his minister's comparison. Significantly, however, he rejected calls for her resignation. Indeed, on the very day of the elections, government spokesman Uwe-Karsten Heye went to the trouble of dismissing reports of her impending resignation as "pure speculation" (ddp, Sept. 22, 2002). The election results would secure victory for Schröder by a razor-thin margin. Shortly after their announcement, Däubler-Gmelin brought the controversy to a close by informing the chancellor that she was not available to form part of the new government.

And as far as most Americans and other English-speakers are concerned, that will be the last they heard of her. (For more on the 2002 episode and its context, see my "The Legend of the Squandered Sympathy.") But Däubler-Gmelin's remarks by no means spelled the end of her political career. Indeed, in those same 2002 elections, she was re-elected to the Bundestag as a member of Schröder's Social Democratic party. From 2002-2005, she served as chair of the Bundestag's Committee on Consumer Protection. In 2005, she was elected again to the Bundestag. Then she was chosen to head the more prominent Human Rights Committee. In addition, Däubler-Gmelin is a member of the German delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. There too she is hardly inconspicuous. She is presently chairwoman of the Parliamentary Assembly's Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights.

In the meanwhile, information has emerged about Däubler-Gmelin's family history that casts her 2002 remarks in a revealing new light. The fact that she was born in 1943 in what her official Bundestag biography calls "Preßburg" could already have given one cause to pause. "Preßburg" is the traditional German name for the Slovakian capital of Bratislava. In 1943, Slovakia was a satellite state of Nazi Germany. In 1939, it had been accorded formal independence, while the remainder of Czechoslovakia was occupied by German troops and transformed into a protectorate. The Czech "Sudetenland" had been directly annexed to the German Reich months before.

The real power in Slovakia was vested in the German envoy Hanns Ludin. After the War, Ludin would be found guilty of war crimes and executed. Ludin's principal deputy was one Hans Gmelin. A Nazi party member and squadron-leader or "Standartenführer" in the paramilitary SA, Gmelin was a jurist by training. He was one of the many jurists that the Nazis dispatched to the occupied territories and German satellite states in order to implement their "new European order." He was also the father of the future German minister of justice, Herta Däubler-Gmelin.

Documentary evidence discussed in an April 25, 2005 article in the Schwäbische Tagblatt indicates that Hans Gmelin was directly involved in the deportation of Slovakian Jews to the Nazi death camps. As author Hans-Joachim Lang notes:

Whether Eichmann was announcing his arrival [in Bratislava] or railway officials came by to discuss "questions relating to the shipment of Jews" or the Reich Central Security Office was welcoming the Slovak government's "making available of railway equipment," initials on the documents always confirmed who had been informed: for example, "Gm" for Gmelin.

An estimated 70,000 Slovakian Jews, representing over three-fourths of the pre-War Jewish population, died in the Nazi camps.


Hans Gmelin (second from right) in Slovakia with Hanns Ludin (center).
(Photo from the film "2 or 3 Things I Know about Him"-- Journeyman Pictures)


After the War, Gmelin would be kept prisoner for three years by the Allies. In 1954, he was elected mayor of Tübingen: a post that he would hold for the next 20 years. On the subject of her father, the biography on Herta Däubler-Gmelin's personal homepage notes simply: "Her father Hans Gmelin (†1991), a jurist and municipal politician without party affiliation, was mayor of Tübingen from 1954 to 1974." (Not all the children of Nazi notables are so lacking in candor, incidentally. For example, Malte Ludin, the son of Hans Gmelin's former superior at the German Embassy in Slovakia, has directed a documentary about his father's Nazi past. It is titled "2 or 3 Things I Know about Him." An extract with English subtitles is viewable here.)

Next Page: The political significance of the Iraqi refugees . . .


The involvement of the likes of Herta Däubler-Gmelin suggests the broad potential in the German context for the refugee issue to be hijacked by political agendas that have more to do with "anti-War" activism and/or deep-seated historical grudges against the United States than humanitarian concern. The fact that the so-called Society for Endangered Peoples (GfbV) is playing a central role in publicizing the issue makes this potential all the more obvious. An influential NGO that often works with the German government, the GfbV has a long history of relativizing German war crimes and proffering accusations of "commensurate" crimes specifically against the United States and American officials. (See here and here and here.)

The very generosity of the proposed policy toward Iraqi refugees is further evidence of the special political significance attached to the issue. For in the aftermath of a 1993 revision of German asylum law, standard German practice toward asylum-seekers is in fact highly restrictive. According to Interior Ministry statistics, Germany accepted less than 20,000 applications for asylum in 2007. The large majority of such applications are turned down. Indeed, in recent years Germany has been known to deport asylum-seekers to countries in which it is well known that their lives will be in danger. In 2005, for example, Germany began deporting hundreds of Roma and other ethnic minorities to Kosovo, despite the widely documented persecutions that Roma and other minorities have suffered in the Albanian-dominated territory since the end of the 1999 Kosovo War. It is not difficult to find an explanation for this glaring difference in treatment: Whereas Germany was the principal opponent of the Iraq War, it was also -- though this is less well known -- the principal proponent of the Kosovo War. Even as NATO jetfighters, including German Tornado jets, were pounding Serbia in April 1999, Gerhard Schröder would describe the operation (German link) rhapsodically as the "founding act" of a new Europe.

The proposal currently being mooted by the German government would extend refugee status to Iraqis on a group or "contingent" basis, thus circumventing the restrictions of German asylum law. "Contingent refugees" in Germany, moreover, enjoy all sorts of privileges that ordinary asylum-seekers do not: including an unlimited residency permit, the right to work and social benefits. Independently of the direness of their situations in Iraq, the proposed policy would thus in fact create positive incentives for Iraqis to leave their country. The point has not been lost on Iraqi Christian leaders. Thus the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung quotes Pastor Emanuel Youkhana of the Christian Aid Program in Iraq. Referring to the German initiative, Pastor Youkhana comments: "On the first day, ten families will come; on the next, hundreds; and soon it will be thousands. Indirectly, Germany is thus contributing to the disappearance of Christians from Iraq. That is exactly what the terrorists want."

As the expression implies, the cases of "contingent refugees" are not subject to the individual scrutiny that the applications of ordinary asylum-seekers receive. The "contingent" approach would thus entail yet another obvious political risk when applied to Iraq. If limited to members of Iraq's Christian minorities, as the Interior Ministry has proposed, this risk could be minimized. But especially if it were to be extended to all Iraqis, as Däubler-Gmelin appears to want, it would practically guarantee that former Baathists and members of the Iraqi "insurgency" will be able to profit from the program to establish residency in Germany and start a new life. Or, of course, they could return to Iraq to fight another day, when the conditions are more favorable.

John Rosenthal, a World Politics Review contributing editor, writes on European politics and transatlantic relations.