“Even unto them will I give in My house and within My walls a monument and a memorial better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting memorial, that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5)
On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel became the first German leader to visit the Dachau concentration camp during her tenure. She delivered a short speech, laid a wreath, and toured the camp. She also met with survivors, including Max Mannheimer, the 93-year-old president of the Dachau camp committee and a former inmate. He was imprisoned there in 1944.
Although previous German leaders have visited Nazi death camps outside of Germany, this marks the first time a sitting leader has visited Dachau, located inside the country. According to Dieter Graumann, the head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, the visit recognizes that Nazi atrocities were not something that happened only outside of Germany, but also “among us.”
Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Jewish Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria, the region where Dachau is located, called the visit “a strong and important symbol.”
“There are several concentration camps, like Auschwitz, abroad, and for decades chancellors and German presidents have been travelling to these places of horrible German crimes and taking historical responsibility,” she said.
“But the fact that she’s visiting a location within Germany where these unimaginable crimes took place, that doesn’t happen so often … it shows her determination and will to learn the right lessons from history.”
Dachau opened in 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power, the first in Germany. It was a prison camp for political prisoners initially, and served as a model for the camps to come. Ultimately, over 200,000 Jews, gays, Roma, political opponents, the disabled and prisoners of war were imprisoned in Dachau during World War II, and 41,000 lost their lives.
The plan to visit the camp came up after Merkel was invited to speak at Bavarian conservative rally in the city from which the camp takes its name. Mannheimer had long been pressing Merkel to visit the concentration camp, and she agreed to take the opportunity to make the visit prior to the rally.
At the rally, she told her audience, “At the time when the camp was operating near here, those who wanted to could have seen and could have heard what was going on. It is today so important that it never happens again that we allow ourselves to decide not to see and not to hear.” Similarly, in a recent podcast she warned, “We must never allow such ideas [Holocaust denial and right-wing extremism] to have a place in our democratic Europe.”
But not everyone was impressed with the timing of Merkel’s visit. Merkel is campaigning for re-election in September, and some of her critics saw the move as “tasteless” electioneering. “If you’re serious about commemoration at such a place of horrors, then you don’t pay such a visit during an election campaign,” Renate Kuenast, leader of the opposition Green Party, told the Leipziger Volkszeitung daily paper. The Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper called Merkel’s timing “unwise…on the sidelines of a campaign appearance in a beer tent at the Dachau funfair.” German historian and Holocaust expert Wofgang Benz particularly criticized the casual atmosphere she created “by laying a wreath and expressing condolences just before going off to a beer tent.
Still, Jewish community leaders hailed what Merkel herself called, “a very special moment.”