BERLIN Russia's moves against Ukraine were reminiscent of Adolf Hitler's aggression in 1938 that led to the annexation of German-speaking regions of Czechoslovakia, Germany's conservative finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said on Monday.
But Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly distanced herself from the comments from Schaeuble, a respected elder statesman in her right-left coalition with 16 years of cabinet experience.
Schaeuble's spokesman later denied that he had compared Russia to Hitler's Germany, or Third Reich.
"We know all about that from history," Schaeuble told a group of 50 students, referring to the arguments that Russian president Vladimir Putin has used to annex Crimea.
"Those are the methods that Hitler used to take over the Sudetenland," he said.
Putin justified sending forces into Crimea by saying he wanted to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Even though German leaders rarely made comparisons with the Nazi era, Schaeuble said that it all reminded him of Hitler's vows to protect ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia.
Merkel, asked at a news conference if she believed the annexation of Crimea could be compared with Sudetenland, said: "I regard the case of the annexation of Crimea as a standalone case" and a violation of international law.
Schaeuble's spokesman then issued a statement saying: "Minister Schaeuble made clear in an event with students that Russia's actions in Ukraine violate international laws and he warned of the consequences of a breakdown in state order. He clearly rejected any comparison at all between Russia and the Third Reich."
Schaeuble's comments nevertheless echoed remarks made by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said on March 4: "Now if this all sounds familiar, it's what Hitler did back in the '30s.
Clinton said the next day that she was not making a comparison between Hitler and Putin but rather saying the world today can learn from a tactic that had been used before.
Hitler first annexed parts of Czechoslovakia where some three million German speakers were living, and a year later invaded the rest of the country.
Schaeuble was responding to a student asking him if the Ukraine crisis might worsen the euro zone crisis. Schaeuble said it was above all important to prevent Ukraine going bankrupt.
"We've got to take care that Ukraine doesn't become insolvent," he said, noting that if the Kiev government were unable to pay police officers "then obviously some armed bands will come along and take power into their hands.
"Then the Russians will say 'that's not on, now there are some fascists in control of the government, they're threatening the Russian (speaking) population'," Schaeuble said.
That, he said, could lead the Russians to say: "Now we've got to protect them and we'll use this as a reason to invade."
Schaeuble said that it could not be ruled out that there would be a severe worsening of relations with Russia in the months ahead. He said that there are considerable fears about Russia in the Baltic nations as well as in Poland and Hungary.
"They're all crapping in their pants," he told the students.
(Reporting Matthias Sobolewski; Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Louise Ireland)