BERLIN (Reuters) - A senior member of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) said on Wednesday that media had misrepresented comments he made about Berlin's Holocaust memorial and the need to rewrite history books to focus more on German victims.
A speech by Bjoern Hoecke, the AfD's leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, on Tuesday triggered anger across Germany and even caused one member of the radical Left party to report him for incitement to racial hatred.
The AfD's anti-immigrant rhetoric has won support among Germans worried about the influx of more than a million migrants in the last two years. With polls putting it on 12-15 percent, the AfD is tipped to win seats in the federal parliament for the first time in September's national election.
"Germans are the only people in the world who plant a monument of shame in the heart of the capital," Hoecke, said in a speech to young members of the party in Dresden, the cradle of the anti-Muslim PEGIDA movement.
The Holocaust Memorial, located near the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of Berlin, comprises a large number of grey granite slabs of varying heights, arranged in a grid pattern - a sombre reminder of the millions killed during the Holocaust.
Germany's Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said Hoecke's speech had sent shivers down his spine.
"Never, never must we allow ourselves to let the demagogy of a Bjoern Hoecke go unchallenged," he said.
Thomas Oppermann, who heads the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) in the German parliament, told the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung newspaper that Hoecke had exposed himself as a Nazi.
However, Hoecke said in a statement that any suggestion he had criticised the Holocaust memorial was "a malicious and deliberately denigratory interpretation of what I actually said". He said he had made clear in his comments that the Holocaust was a disgrace and that Germany had a monument to it.
"In my Dresden speech I wanted to ask how we Germans look at our history," he said, adding there were other aspects to German history as well as guilt, such as poets and composers.
"This laughable policy of coming to terms with the past is crippling us. We need a 180 degree turnaround in our policy of memory," Hoecke said, drawing applause from young AfD supporters.
Re-education imposed on Germany after 1945 had largely pulled up Germans' roots, he said. "There were no German victims any more, only German perpetrators," he said.
Diether Dehmn, of the Left party, said he was reporting Hoecke for incitement. He also said Hoecke had been emboldened by a Constitutional Court ruling on Tuesday which rejected a ban on the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD).
Burkhard Lischka, the SPD's domestic policy expert, said Hoecke's remarks revealed a growing radicalisation of parts of the AfD and urged Germany's domestic intelligence agency (BfV) to place the nationalist wing of the party under observation.
"The BfV must finally set its sights on the AfD if it does not want to be accused of being blind in the right eye," he told the Rheinische Post newspaper.
Some members of the AfD, which includes moderate conservatives, distanced themselves from Hoecke's comments.
"Mr Hoecke's unilateral approach damages the acceptance of the party among citizens," said senior AfD member Alice Weidel.
Dieter Graumann, a former head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told Bild daily Hoecke's speech was "outrageous", especially from a politician in a party set to win seats in parliament.
Editing by Gareth Jones