Merkel to make historic visit as chancellor to Nazis' Dachau camp

BERLIN (AFP) - Angela Merkel will become the first German chancellor to visit the former Nazi concentration camp Dachau on Tuesday as she steps up warnings about the far-right threat while campaigning for a third term.

Ahead of an evening election rally in Dachau, northwest of Munich, Ms Merkel will arrive at the memorial at 1645 GMT (0045 Wednesday Singapore time ) and, after making a short speech, lay a wreath of flowers and tour the remnants of the camp.

Ms Merkel, 59, will be joined by the president of the Dachau camp committee of former prisoners, Max Mannheimer, and other survivors. Only part of the visit will be open to media.

The 93-year-old Mannheimer had long lobbied for Ms Merkel to pay a visit to the camp and said he saw her decision as "historic" and a "signal of respect for the former detainees".

The Nazis opened Dachau as a concentration camp for political prisoners in March 1933, just weeks after Adolf Hitler took power.

It was the first such site in Germany and served as a model for all the camps to follow.

More than 200,000 Jews, gays, Roma, political opponents, the disabled and prisoners of war were imprisoned in Dachau during World War II.

Over 41,000 people were killed, starved or died of disease before US troops liberated the camp in April 1945.

The memorial now attracts some 800,000 visitors each year.

Although it will be the first visit by a German chancellor to Dachau, Ms Merkel has gone to other former Nazi concentration camps including Buchenwald with US President Barack Obama in April 2010.

And former president Horst Koehler, whose office is largely ceremonial, attended commemorations of the 65th anniversary of the Dachau liberation three years ago.

In her weekly podcast, Ms Merkel on Saturday warned ahead of the visit that Europeans must remain vigilant against Holocaust deniers and right-wing extremists.

"We must never allow such ideas to have a place in our democratic Europe," she said, stressing how "inconceivable" the Nazis' atrocities seemed today.

After her visit, Ms Merkel will hold a campaign rally the same evening in the town of Dachau ahead of a Bavarian state poll and the German general election next month.

The director of Bavaria's historic memorials, Karl Freller, said that interest in the former concentration camps had jumped since the start of a neo-Nazi murder trial in Munich in May.

A far-right trio known as the National Socialist Underground is believed to be behind 10 murders over a seven-year period, with most of the victims immigrant shopkeepers.

The case exposed serious failings of the German security services, which had focused their investigation almost entirely on Germany's large Turkish community and ignored clues pointing to the neo-Nazi scene.

"Apparently the trial has had the effect of making people want to focus more on National Socialism" or Nazi ideology, Freller told Die Welt newspaper.

Historian Michael Wolffsohn of the German military's Bundeswehr University in Munich said there was no reason to believe that the visit to the Dachau camp had anything to do with the popular Ms Merkel's re-election campaign.

"For starters it's hard to draw much enthusiasm in this country with policy on (German) history, particularly in relation to National Socialism," he told the daily Tagesspiegel on Monday.

"However something has changed in recent years - there is apparently no longer any (political) risk involved in visiting a Nazi memorial at the height of the election campaign.

"Merkel's choice is... a sign that Germans' relationship with their history is becoming more relaxed."

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