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BERLIN (Reuters) - A prominent member of Germany's Pirates, a new party now ranking third in opinion polls and set to enter parliament next year, has compared his group's meteoric rise to that of Adolf Hitler before 1933, sparking protests across the political spectrum.
"The ascent of the Pirate Party is proceeding as swiftly as the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazis) between 1928 and 1933," Martin Delius told Monday's edition of the weekly news magazine Spiegel. He then tweeted his remark.
The 29-year-old former software designer later apologised and withdrew from an election for the Pirates' executive board, but resisted calls to quit his post in the Berlin city assembly.
The Pirates, whose platform is based on internet freedom and more direct participation in politics, came out of nowhere last September to win seats in the city government of the capital. They are due to hold a national conference this weekend.
An offshoot of a party founded in Sweden, they have tapped into a rich vein of discontent with established parties. Recent opinion polls suggest the Pirates have now overtaken the Greens to become the third biggest party with about 13 percent support, behind only Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling conservatives and the main opposition Social Democrats.
But the Pirates, who are mostly made up of young men with a keen interest in computing, lack tact and experience and have been accused by other parties of misogyny because of their lack of women members, as well as being devoid of political content.
Worse still, in a country whose history means there is no tolerance in mainstream politics of neo-Nazi sympathies or anti-Semitism, they have suffered the embarrassment of having two members outed as former members of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD).
The NPD also taps into disillusionment with mainstream politics but espouses xenophobic views and disagrees with the German constitution.
It is also suspected by police of links to a small far-right cell discovered late last year that carried out a decade-long murder campaign against foreigners.
The two members with an NPD past resigned late last year, but the Pirate's federal chairman Sebastian Nerz said there were "almost certainly a few more Pirates who used to be NPD".
Reacting to Delius's comment, Nerz told the top-selling Bild daily: "Everyone should think properly about what he says, about the historical analogies he draws and what effect they may have."
In a commentary, Bild said parties without an understanding of history had no place in parliament.
A candidate for the Pirates in a regional election in May in Schleswig-Holstein told Delius on Twitter: "You have not made my life any easier just now."
Other parties, which have watched the Pirates' rise with unease, jumped on Delius's gaffe.
Claudia Roth, leader of the Greens, who have suffered particularly from the Pirates' success, called the remarks an "outrageous transgression" that could not be excused by the party's lack of experience.
Senior Social Democrat lawmaker Thomas Oppermann said the "tasteless" comparison showed the Pirates had yet to clarify their view of far-right militancy.
One Pirate candidate recently criticised Israel in a Youtube clip. Bild quoted the blog of another, Bodo Thiesen, as suggesting that Germany had acted in self-defence in 1939 in attacking Poland because the Poles had ordered a general mobilisation.
Reporting by Gareth Jones and Alice Baghdjian; Editing by Kevin Liffey