BERLIN // Barack Obama made a historic visit to Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp in Germany yesterday and called the site where more than 50,000 Jews, political dissidents and prisoners of war were murdered the "ultimate rebuke" to anyone who denied the Holocaust had taken place. "More than half a century later our grief and our outrage over what happened here have not diminished. I will not forget what I have seen here today," he said.
Mr Obama's visit to the camp, a day after his much-praised speech in Cairo to repair America's ties with the Muslim world, was steeped in symbolism, and some analysts have suggested it was a gesture of reassurance to Israel. "Obama is telling the Israelis: 'I'll make sure it won't happen again'," said Josef Braml, a political analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Earlier in the day Mr Obama again called on Israel to stop the expansion of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory and reiterated his desire for a two-state solution.
He said both the Palestinians and Israelis now needed to take "difficult decisions". "Yesterday was just one speech and it doesn't replace all the hard work that's going to have to be done, that was done before the speech and that is going to have to be done in the years to come to solve what has become a 60-year problem," Mr Obama said. "And I'm under no illusions that whatever statements I put forward are going to supplant the need to do that work."
He said his administration had made a priority of the Middle East conflict from day one. Mr Obama spent an hour walking around Buchenwald, now a memorial site, as part of his one-day stopover in Germany before he attends the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, France, today. "To this day there are those who insist the Holocaust never happened, a denial of fact and truth that is baseless and ignorant and hateful," Mr Obama said. "This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts, a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history."
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, who again described the Holocaust as a "great deception" this week, should visit Buchenwald, Mr Obama had said in a television interview with NBC News earlier in the day. "He should make his own visit," Mr Obama said. "I have no patience for people who would deny history. And the history of the Holocaust is not something speculative." Mr Obama had said he had wanted to come to Buchenwald partly because his great-uncle Charles Payne had been among soldiers of the US 89th Infantry division who liberated a sub-camp of Buchenwald called Ohrdruf, located about 40 kilometres from the main camp.
The president, flanked by Mrs Merkel and two survivors of Buchenwald, walked through the wrought-iron gate to the camp that bears the cynical inscription Jedem das Seine, German for "To each his own", and placed a white rose at a memorial plaque listing the 50 nations from which prisoners were incarcerated in Buchenwald. The plaque is permanently kept at a heat of 37 degrees Celsius - body temperature.
Approximately 250,000 prisoners were held at Buchenwald from its opening in July 1937 to its liberation by US troops in April 1945. An estimated 56,000 people were killed, including approximately 11,000 Jews. Mr Obama's expression gradually turned from solemn concentration to outright disgust as the two survivors, Elie Wiesel and Bertrand Herz, explained the camp to him while they walked across a large empty space where the outlines of torn-down prisoner barracks are marked on the ground.
Cameras were not allowed to follow Mr Obama into Buchenwald's crematorium which contains ovens of a type originally developed to destroy animal cadavers. More efficient ones were developed for the Auschwitz death camp located in Poland, where more than a million Jews were murdered. "This place teaches us that we must be ever-vigilant about the spread of evil in our own time," said Mr Obama, visibly moved by his tour after he emerged from the crematorium.
Mr Braml said the visit was also aimed at shoring up support among European allies for the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "Obama is carrying on George W Bush's argument of pointing out the good wars America fought, such as the fight against National Socialism and the Cold War, and linking them to the fight against terrorism. "The visit to Buchenwald and Normandy is intended to boost domestic support for America's foreign missions but also to make it more difficult for Europeans not to play a stronger role. This also applies to Iran, where he needs to get serious with sanctions and needs German and French support for that."
Mr Wiesel, who was 16 when he was freed from Buchenwald, gave a moving account of watching his father die and hearing him calling out his name as he lay in a bunk in one of the camp barracks. He said he hoped Mr Obama's "moral vision of history" would "change this world into a better place". "The world hasn't learnt," said Mr Wiesel. "Had the world learnt there would have been no Cambodia, no Rwanda, no Darfur and no Bosnia."