Germany's media fret about 'Russian Hitler'

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BONN - For most of this week, it was the sex-slave story that was getting dramatic play on the front pages, writes Steve Crawshaw.

Then, yesterday, it was the turn of the spy-at-the-top to dominate the agenda. One way and another, the Russen-Hitler, as Vladimir Zhirinovsky is now invariably described, has had a busy week in the German media.

Under front-page headlines such as 'Russia's Hitler whipped and strangled me', a stripper in Vienna this week described in Bild 'the most disgusting sex I have ever experienced', allegedly watched by four of Mr Zhirinovsky's bodyguards. Three days running, Bild ran front-page stories based on the claims by 'Nadia', who also said that she had received threatening phone calls from Mr Zhirinovsky's entourage. Nadia was pictured in Bild, alongside pictures of Mr Zhirinovsky, who Bild described as having a 'butcher's skin'. Nadia said that her life had been threatened.

Then, yesterday, the agenda changed. Bild's front-page story claimed the 'Russian Hitler' had a spy in Chancellor Helmut Kohl's office, and ran an editorial arguing that 'Zhirinovsky has become a nightmare - not just for women of a horizontal profession'. There have been allegations, too, about slush-funds from the former East Germany for Mr Zhirinovsky's campaign.

But it is not just in the popular press that Mr Zhirinovsky is seen as the number-one threat. The cover story in this week's Der Spiegel magazine describes him as Der Hetzer, 'the fomenter'. In the background is a picture of Hitler. In this week's Die Zeit, too, the headline is Sein Kampf, 'His Struggle'. Again, the comparisons between Hitler and Mr Zhirinovsky are clear, and detailed.

Mr Zhirinovsky is seen as embodying the most dangerous aspects of Germany's own past, and as a threat to Germany's stability today. The Russen-Hitler tag can seem to be a mere headline- writer's phrase. It may, however, prove to be more.