Germans got an unwanted reminder of their nightmare past this month with Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Nazi slur and as they tried to put the episode behind them as fast as possible they wondered -- Why does everyone hate us?
Berlusconi compared a little-known German politician to a Nazi prison guard during a heated debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week, triggering a furore that cast a shadow over Berlusconi and German-Italian relations.
Berlusconi's insult, telling Martin Schulz he would be a perfect candidate for a Nazi character in a film, drew rebukes across Europe. But in Germany the outburst caused more shock and sorrow than anger or indignation.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder first demanded an apology and then after a hastily arranged telephone call said he gladly accepted Berlusconi's regrets.
Sensing Germans have no stomach for Nazi stories or reminders of their grandfathers' crimes, Schroeder welcomed what he labelled an apology as a chance to close the chapter.
Berlusconi later insisted he had not apologized, saying he had only expressed his sadness for being badly interpreted.
"I did not make an apology," Berlusconi said. He defended himself, saying he had in mind a clumsy German soldier named "Schultz" in the 1960s US television series Hogan's Heroes.
Schroeder had no further comment.
"The wider political dimensions were cleared up and the chancellor considers the case closed," said Schroeder's spokesman Bela Anda on Friday.
But Schulz, the little-known member of the European Parliament who angered Berlusconi, said on Sunday the Italian leader had only confirmed the worst fears of his detractors with the outburst.
"Berlusconi is cooking up a new version of events every day but it doesn't change his nature of the insult," said Schulz, 47. "He should apologize to the European Parliament as fast as possible and make it clear that his lapse won't happen again."
For 63 million Germans born after World War II -- some 75 percent of the population -- Berlusconi's astonishing insult tore open old wounds.
"Won't these unseemly Nazi comparisons ever end?" wrote columnist Rolf Kleine in Das Bild, Germany's top-selling newspaper.
"Whether outside Germany or from within, it's always tempting when there are no other arguments to bash Germans with the Nazi battering ram. The darkest chapter in our history is often used as a killer argument. Just stop it now!" Kleine wrote.
Six decades after the war Germans are sensitive about their Nazi past and Nazi references are often political dynamite.
Schroeder dropped his justice minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin last year after she stirred a row with the US by comparing President George W. Bush's policies towards Iraq to those of Adolf Hitler.
"Nazi analogies are total nonsense," said Dietmar Herz, political science professor at Erfurt University. "They have nothing to do with Germany today. Abroad, they're being artificially kept alive by the press in countries like England."
When overseas, Germans are often bewildered to still be confronted by the past -- called Krauts or greeted by the stiff-armed Hitler salute. But they are still unable to completely shrug off the burden of guilt from that era -- and would rather not be reminded of it.
"Germans are always having to fight old cliches abroad," Herz said.
Student Anna Mueller-Busch said Berlusconi was out of line.
"Berlusconi's remarks only perpetuate the image abroad of Germans as Nazis," said Mueller-Busch, 27. "The Germans he attacked had nothing to do with the Nazis."
Gerhard Haendeler, a Wuppertal tax adviser, said Berlusconi had insulted generations of Germans born after the war.
"Italy isn't short on fascists itself," said Haendeler, 53. "Our generation had nothing to do with what went on back then. It's especially ironic given the amount of power he wields."
While Germans may be admired for their powerful economy, they just aren't liked in many places, opinion polls in foreign countries consistently show.
In spite of huge efforts to improve their standing and put behind them the image of dangerous belligerents whose armies trampled across Europe in the 20th century, Germans regularly encounter resentment abroad.
A recent survey of 1,000 British young people between the age of 16 and 24 by the Goethe Institute showed a majority had negative views of Germans.
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