Holocaust: Angela Merkel visits Auschwitz for first time

Holocaust: Angela Merkel visits Auschwitz for first time

  • 6 December 2019
Related Topics
  • The Holocaust
Image copyright AFP
Image caption The chancellor was due to hold a minute's silence at the concentration camp before giving a speech at the death camp

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been visiting Auschwitz concentration camp, her first trip to the site.

She was due to take part in a ceremony alongside a camp survivor and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

Her visit comes amid a rise in German anti-Semitism and ahead of the 75th anniversary of the camp's liberation.

The Nazi regime murdered an estimated 1.1 million people, the vast majority of whom were Jewish, at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The chancellor went through the notorious "Arbeit macht frei" (work sets you free) gates of the Auschwitz camp.

She was due to hold a minute's silence at the so-called Black Wall, where thousands of prisoners were executed in the original camp, before moving to the Birkenau extermination camp where she was set to give a speech.

The gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau were built near the main concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

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Mrs Merkel was also accompanied by the president of Germany's Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, and the head of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma, Romani Rose.

Tens of thousands of non-Jewish Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners-of-war, homosexuals and political prisoners were murdered at the Auschwitz camp complex.

More than six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, the Nazi campaign to destroy Europe's Jewish population.

Why is Merkel visiting now?

Major events are planned for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops on 27 January.

But Mrs Merkel has chosen to go to the site now. She was invited to attend the 10th anniversary of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, a group that tries to preserve the camp as a memorial and a warning for future generations.

As part of her visit, Germany's federal states announced a €60m (£51m; $66m) gift to the foundation.

Though she has been to other concentration camps, including Dachau and Buchenwald in Germany, this is the chancellor's first visit to the notorious Nazi site, west of the Polish city of Krakow.

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Media caption'What a wonderful thing it is to know that you're alive'

German chancellors have made the trip to Auschwitz before - Helmut Schmidt visited in 1977 and Helmut Kohl in 1989 and 1995. But none has visited since and this first visit by a chancellor for 24 years is being viewed as highly symbolic.

Neither chancellor had to confront a rise in anti-Semitic attacks.

Less than two months ago, a 40-year-old woman and 20-year-old man were shot dead outside a synagogue in eastern Germany. A 27-year-old man confessed and admitted having a far-right, anti-Semitic motive for the shooting.

Official figures showed 1,646 hate crimes against Jews were committed in Germany last year - an increase of 10% on the previous year.

Physical attacks against Jews in Germany also rose in the same period, with 62 violent incidents recorded in 2018, up from 37 in 2017.

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German reports suggest Mrs Merkel has chosen to visit now in case she is forced out of office earlier than planned. She has previously said she will not stand for re-election in 2021.

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Media captionAngela Merkel joined the Jewish community for a vigil after a shooting in October

Added to this are fears Mrs Merkel's governing coalition could fall apart.

Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz lost his bid for leadership of the centre-left SPD in November. The party is now expected to vote on whether to stay in the coalition with Mrs Merkel's conservative CDU/CSU.

What was Auschwitz?

Originally an old army barracks converted by invading Nazi troops to hold Polish political prisoners in 1939, it became a vast complex of about 40 camps, and the epicentre of the Holocaust.

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Media captionAuschwitz: Drone footage from Nazi concentration camp

Birkenau was set up in 1941 a short distance from the concentration camp and one million Jewish Europeans were murdered in its gas chambers or died of starvation and disease between early 1942 and late 1944.

Soviet forces liberated the camp on 27 January 1945, a date now commemorated worldwide as Holocaust Memorial Day.