Obama's trip to Germany has been shrouded in history. First, he visited Dresden, site of one of the most aggressive and controversial bombings of the Allied campaign in WWII. Historians dispute the actual death toll, but most concur that somewhere in the order of 25,000 lives where claimed. While much of the city is restored, signs of the devastation are still evident in many of the city's most celebrated structures.
This afternoon, Obama visited Buchenwald, a concentration camp that his great uncle was involved in liberating. Obama has spoken of his uncle numerous times, alluding to the emotional struggle he endured upon returning home after witnessing such horrors. It's fitting that he will soon be visiting injured veterans at Landstuhl, many of whom will likely return with unseen scars.
Touring the camp with Chancellor Merkel and two Buchenwald survivors - Bertrand Herz and writer and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel - Obama placed a long-stemmed white rose at two memorial slabs. They visited Little Camp where Wiesel was held for a time, and read the history of the camp from plaques. At Little Camp, bodies lay in the open, there was no sanitation and prisoners were forced to use food bowls as latrines. Obama later visited the crematorium.
Merkel, Obama and Wiesel each gave moving remarks in front of a clocktower which is permanently frozen at 3:15, the hour of liberation. "I will not forget what I have seen here today," Obama said. "This places teaches us that we
must be ever vigilant about the spread of evil in our own time, that we
must reject the false comfort that others' suffering is not our problem
and commit ourselves to resisting those who would subjugate others to
serve their own interests." He then spoke of small freedoms thriving amongst the despair of the camp and the unassailable hopefulness of many holocaust survivors who, despite their terrifying ordeals, maintained a belief that humanity could rise above tragedy. "Surrounded by death they
willed themselves to hold fast to life. In their hearts they still had
faith that evil would not triumph in the end; that while history is
unknowable it arches towards progress, and that the world would one day
remember them," he said.
Also in his remarks, Obama admonished holocaust deniers. "To this day, there are those who insist that the Holocaust never happened -- a denial of fact and truth that is baseless and ignorant and hateful. This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts; a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history," he said. His harsh words likely aimed at Iranian President Ahmadinejad who has called the holocaust a "myth".
Wiesel spoke stirringly of his father, who died at Buchenwald. Calling it a way of visiting his father's grave, Wiesel recounted his father's suffering and his own fear in his father's dying moments. "Mr. President, we have such high hopes for you because you, with your moral vision of history, will be able and compelled to change this world into a better place, where people will stop waging war," Wiesel said. He spoke of the importance of sites like Buchenwald. "Memory must bring people together rather than set them apart," he said.
(You can find the full remarks from Merkel, Obama and Wiesel here. They are quite compelling and worth the read.)
Earlier in the day, ABC's Jake Tapper, foreshadowing the afternoon's events, asked the President what the refrain "never again" meant to him, particularly in light of the genocide occuring in Darfur. "