BERLIN (Reuters) - Over the past year, Thilo Sarrazin has upset Jews, Muslims, the poor and all of Germany’s main political parties — and become a bestselling author backed by broad swathes of the German public.
Sarrazin said he would quit the Bundesbank’s board from the end of September after his divisive remarks on race, religion, and immigration earned him censure from Chancellor Angela Merkel and prompted the central bank to seek his dismissal.
His resignation, announced Thursday, means President Christian Wulff no longer has to decide whether to approve the Bundesbank’s request, an awkward task that threatened to expose Merkel to a backlash from conservative voters. Sarrazin, a former finance minister of the city of Berlin had long been outspoken, but recent claims that Jews shared a particular gene and Muslim immigrants were lowering the intelligence quotient of German society proved a tipping point.
Uproar over his contentious musings culminated last week with the publication of the banker’s new book “Deutschland schafft sich ab” (Germany does away with itself), and Sarrazin is now under police protection following threats to his life.
Sarrazin’s center-left Social Democrats (SPD) have also begun proceedings to expel him, though the 65-year-old has said he aims to “go to his grave” a member of the SPD. Polls show the party has been hurt by the debate over whether to eject him.
Having inflamed opinion in 2009 with disparaging remarks about Germany’s large Muslim population, Sarrazin’s book makes a number of claims that have been seized on by far-right parties as a vindication of their own policies.
In 2009, Sarrazin — who has been compared to Geert Wilders, the head of the Netherlands’ anti-immigration Freedom Party — was stripped of some of his duties at the Bundesbank after comments in a magazine interview:
“I don’t need to accept anyone who lives off the state, rejects this country ... and is always producing little girls with headscarves. This is true of 70 percent of the Turkish and 90 percent of the Arab population of Berlin,” he said then.
Right-wing online forums have hailed Sarrazin as a champion of free speech who is addressing painful truths. One featured an image of the former rail executive that parodied U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2008 “Hope” election campaign poster.
But many advocates of improving integration say Sarrazin has made it harder to hold objective debate on the matter by polarising opinion and obscuring the facts with disputed claims.
Polls have showed Germans are divided about Sarrazin’s views, though many phone-ins came out strongly in his favor.
His 464-page book, which has become a bestseller, argues in part that Muslims undermine German society, sponge off the state and may swamp the country due to a higher birth rate.
While in the capital, Sarrazin won praise for cutting the city’s huge budget deficit, racking up the first budget surplus in its postwar history in 2007.
However, a talent for stirring up controversy — including his suggestion in 2008 that the poor could wear sweaters if their heating bills got too dear — meant many in the SPD were glad to nominate him for a move to the Bundesbank in 2009.
Prominent figures were not spared his scorn.
In 2007, Sarrazin called ex-SPD chief Oskar Lafontaine an “arsehole” on television. Prominent German Jewish journalist Michel Friedman described having the same experience last week.
Sarrazin, a civil servant since 1975 whom the German press once nicknamed “Rambo” for his no-holds-barred approach to politics, alienated many of his former allies after departing Berlin for the Bundesbank in May 2009.
Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton