BERLIN — It started out simple enough: German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized constitutional changes that have been made in Hungary. But Hungary's leader not only objected, he also found what he called a veiled reference to Adolf Hitler's occupation of his country in 1944.
The result? Tensions between Germany and Hungary have flared, and if there is one lesson to be learned it may be that the word "cavalry" should be left out of all future back and forths.
The spat began Thursday when Merkel said at an event in Berlin that despite her concerns about Hungary's democratic deficits, the problem can be resolved.
"We will do anything to get Hungary onto the right path – but not by sending the cavalry right away," Merkel said at the Europaforum WDR, an annual meeting of politicians, business leaders and journalists.
Germany and the European Union have repeatedly expressed concern over Hungary's constitutional changes, which many have condemned as undemocratic.
However, Merkel's mention of the cavalry was seen in Germany as a reference to two remarks by opposition party leader Peer Steinbrueck, who is running against Merkel in Germany's September election.
He had said that he could see Hungary being excluded from the EU, given its anti-democratic tendencies. In 2009, Steinbrueck also had enraged Switzerland by calling for governments to use "the whip" against its "tax havens" and saying the Alpine nation faced the threat of the "cavalry."
On Friday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban responded to Merkel's cavalry comment by referring to the German tanks that had invaded Hungary during World War II in 1944.
"The Germans have already sent cavalry to Hungary – they came in form of tanks. Our request is that they don't send any. It didn't work out," Orban told state broadcaster Kossuth Radio.
That comment and a report on German news website Spiegel Online headlined "Orban accuses Merkel of using Nazi methods" upset the Germany government. On Monday, its foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, issued a statement accusing Orban of "a deplorable derailment which we clearly reject."
Then the reaction spread even further.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz criticized Orban's remarks. "The content of his statement is so ridiculous that one doesn't even have to comment on it," Schulz told Spiegel Online on Monday. "I'm sure he understood very well that the chancellor sent a rather ironic reprimand to Hungary."
Earlier last week, Human Rights Watch urged the EU to ensure that Hungary changes its constitution and other laws to bring them in line with international norms on issues ranging from independence of the judicial system to the rights of the homeless.
Orban's Fidesz party has used its two-thirds majority in parliament to pass laws, including a new constitution, that critics say weaken checks and balances on the government's power.
Pablo Gorondi contributed reporting from Budapest, Hungary.