General George Patton did not dither. Few days after the gruesome discovery of thousands of starved, slain or shot corpses, he issued a rigorous order: Weimar residents had to pay a visit to nearby concentration camp Buchenwald. The name bears witness to the unspeakable cruelties of the National Socialist state. After its liberation through American forces this was the place that first dragged the shocking consequences of twelve years of Nazi rule into the international limelight. The idyllic name Beech woods concealed one of the first labour camps to be established under Nazi rule as early as in 1937. In the end 56 000 humans out of 30 countries lost their lives here.  

The full extent of it all was unknown to the populace of Weimar in those last days of the war. The remaining, mainly women, set out to what seemed an outing at first. Movie footage features laughing faces, a gay crowd. Then there is a cut. Horror spreads across the faces, as they pass heaped corpses. Consternation, silence.

In front of the group lay haggard bodies, grotesquely distorted in their last agony. To the people, passing the piles, the terror became obvious. Germany, the land of poets and philosophers, and Weimar, the city of Goethe and Schiller, displayed the twisted morality of confused minds. The country that perfected the organized mass murder of six million Jews, a people that saw itself as superior and defined others as inferior, were defeated. Buchenwald allowed a true glimpse of the regime’s reign of terror –not the last by far, and not the worst.

When American president Barack Obama arrives in Buchenwald from Dresden this Friday afternoon with chancellor Angela Merkel, this part of German-American history will see a revival. The concentration camp under the cynical heading “to each as he deserves” has been conserved and turned into a memorial site. Located on the slope of a hill and surrounded by picturesque forests, it allows a sweeping view of the Thuringian Basin. An idyllic place, would you not know that every square centimetre of the soil is blood drenched. As the memorial site’s director, the historian Volkhart Knigge, never ceases to stress.

He regards Barack Obama´s visit as historical, with it being the first time that an American representative is paying a visit. Obama has a personal reason to come: his mother’s uncle had been directly involved in the liberation of the 60 kilometres off camp Ohrdruf. Kitchen table stories on that event have left a lasting impression, so Buchenwald is Obama’s most important destination during his short visit to Germany.

He earmarked two hours to get to know the camp’s former site. When walking through the extensive complex, the world will be reminded once again. And Obama might also get to hear the story of that “outing”.

This drastic pedagogical attempt, however, had not been entirely successful. The participants later reacted with indignation to this alleged impertinence. Twelve years of indoctrination could not be dismantled that quickly. In a documentary, fifty years later, an elder woman eventually did voice out the decisive words. What she had seen, had shaped her attitude throughout her life. The young, close to twenty years old woman carried the horrible images and the memories of her own embarrassment around with her all her life.

One had to learn to live with those images. Generations later still only few manage, others suppress them. Barack Obama’s visit recalls them drastically.

The almost private visit has another, a lighter side to it, however. Also the new and beautiful Germany shall be remembered. To provision for that, Berlin has invited him to Dresden first. The freshly rebuilt Frauen church and the enchanting old town shall also leave a lasting memory for the president and the 1500 accredited journalists.

The people’s expectations are mixed. Half of Dresden’s population is not impressed by president Obama’s visit and will follow their average day’s business. At least if you would want to trust a tabloid’s online poll.

A 44-year old in Weimar does not care what happens on the Etter hill five kilometres outside the city. What takes place there is without relevance to his own life. Others are wondering. Is he coming? Or is he not? They can hardly believe the president could leave aside their town, after all the city has made quite an effort to present herself. That the protocol did decide otherwise had been communicated only few days ago.

An entrepreneurial baker is moaning particularly. He is dreading losses with his specifically designed donuts, bearing the president’s portrait.



Translation: Luki Egetemayer