Late Tuesday, Angela Merkel became the first active German chancellor to visit the former Nazi concentration camp. Merkel, in office since 2005, laid a wreath at the camp's memorial before visiting its museum and meeting with survivors.
"This is a very significant moment for me," Merkel said. "The memory of these fates fills me with deep sadness and shame."
Dachau opened in March 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power, to house opponents of the Third Reich and later those deemed undesirable by the Nazis, such as Jews, homosexuals, Roma, prisoners of war and political opponents. The SS imprisoned more than 200,000 people at Dachau, which became a model for other concentration camps built by the Nazis during their 12 years in power. At least 41,000 people died at Dachau - starved, killed or diseased - before US troops liberated it in April 1945.
"It is and remains incomprehensible what happened at the concentration camps," Merkel said in a podcast ahead of her visit, adding that she would travel to Dachau with "a feeling of shame and dismay."
In her podcast, Merkel warned that Europe must remain ever vigilant to the threat posed by the extreme right and urged people to show more courage in the fight against neo-Nazi movements.
"We must never allow such ideas to have a place in our democratic Europe," Merkel said.
A survivor speaks
Merkel was to be accompanied on her visit to Dachau by 93-year-old Max Mannheimer, one of the survivors of the camp and the president of the committee of former prisoners. Six members of Mannheimer's family died during the Holocaust.
"It is a great honor and an historic event for us survivors," said Mannheimer, who had long lobbied for the chancellor to visit the camp. He said he saw her decision as a "signal of respect for the former detainees."
'Tasteless and impossible'
Süddeutsche Zeitung noted that leaders commonly paid tribute to Nazi victims abroad but rarely within Germany and called it "unwise" that Merkel's first visit to the camp as chancellor would come "on the sidelines of a campaign appearance in a beer tent at the Dachau funfair."
After her visit, Merkel was scheduled to hold a campaign rally ahead of a Bavarian state poll and the German general election next month.
Green Party parliamentary leader Renate Künast called Merkel's pre-election trip to the camp "a tasteless and impossible combination" in an interview with the daily Leipziger Volkszeitung, noting that the chancellor would follow her visit with the campaign speech.
"If you're serious about commemoration at such a place of horrors, then you don't pay such a visit during an election campaign," Künast told the newspaper.
mkg/kms (AFP, dpa)