BERLIN - Just as some Jewish leaders feared, a neo-Nazi appears to have exploited a billboard trying to raise funds for a new Holocaust memorial under the provocative heading "The Holocaust never happened."
German prosecutors are investigating convicted neo-Nazi Manfred Roeder, 72, for inciting racial hatred after German television showed him holding a banner stating "Crimes by the Wehrmacht didn't happen either" beneath a fund-raising billboard near the Brandenburg Gate.
"In the context, you could think Mr. Roeder means that the Holocaust never happened, prosecutor spokesman Sascha Daue said Wednesday. He appears to be adopting the slogan on the billboard," Daue said.
The organizers of the campaign have already said they will take down a billboard overlooking the memorial site near the Brandenburg Gate by the end of the week, after some Jewish leaders expressed concern that the slogan could be seized by right-wing extremists.
The campaign had the backing of the head of Berlin's Jewish community, and organizers said they deliberately sought a provocative image to stimulate discussion and drum up individual contributions for the planned memorial.
The billboard, posters, postcards and newspaper advertisements for the campaign carry smaller text urging people to fight Holocaust denial by helping pay for a documentation center to lie beneath the planned memorial, 2,700 large concrete slabs spread over a plot the size of two football fields.
While federal and state funding has been guaranteed to meet the 50 million mark ($22 million) cost of the memorial itself, a citizens' group said it launched the fund-raising campaign as a way to make ordinary Germans feel connected with the memorial. Construction is to begin later this summer and be completed by January 27, 2004, the 59th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Prosecutors also are investigating separately whether the slogan itself could incite racial hatred after receiving several complaints, including one from a Holocaust survivor. Denying the Holocaust is a criminal offense under strict German laws against inciting racial hatred.
Roeder was convicted of inciting racial hatred for extremist statements made at a 1998 convention of an extreme-right political party that the government is trying to ban, and has served time in prison for incitement to murder and other charges related to arson attacks that killed two foreigners.
In April, a court reduced an earlier two-year sentence handed to Roeder for calling the Holocaust humbug and released him on parole. Jewish leaders protested the decision at the time. German far-right groups also deny the involvement of Hitler's regular troops, the Wehrmacht, in World War II atrocities - a position disputed by some historians.