GERMAN Chancellor Angela Merkel has ignited a furious political row by becoming the first post-war German leader to visit the former Nazi concentration camp at Dachau and then going on to address a campaign rally for her conservative party in a noisy beer tent at a nearby fair.
Ms Merkel, who faces a general election on September 22, had been invited to speak at a Bavarian conservative rally in the town of Dachau outside Munich. She agreed before her campaign appearance to spend an hour at the site of the town's infamous Nazi concentration camp, where 41,500 people were murdered.
But the combination of political rally and concentration camp tour, billed by the Chancellor's office as "the first visit by a German leader to Dachau", invoked savage criticism.
Renate Kunast, the Green Party parliamentary leader, said Ms Merkel's timing was "tasteless and impossible". She added: "Anyone who takes such places of horror seriously, does not visit them during an election campaign."
Wolfgang Benz, a leading German historian, said that "by laying a wreath and expressing condolences just before going off to a beer tent", Ms Merkel had given the impression that she was casual about concentration camps. "It is the right place at the wrong time," remarked 'Der Spiegel' magazine online.
However, the criticism was not shared by Jewish community leaders. Dieter Graumann, the head of Germany's Central Council of Jews, said that Ms Merkel's Dachau visit helped to underline the fact that Nazi terror did not just occur in camps outside Germany but "among us".
Charlotte Knobloch, a Bavarian Jewish leader, said the visit sent a "convincing, impressive and moving message". Previous chancellors have visited Nazi death camps outside Germany.
Ms Merkel's tour of Dachau, which was the first Nazi concentration camp, included a meeting with Max Mannheimer, one of its few remaining survivors. More than 200,000 people including Jews, homosexuals, Roma and political prisoners were imprisoned, forced to work and used for medical experiments at Dachau which opened in 1933. It was liberated by US troops in April 1945.
Ms Merkel was shown the camp baths and a room where prisoners were stripped of their clothing and identity and henceforth referred to only by numbers.
Ms Merkel's coalition of conservative Christian Democrats and liberal Free Democrats has been criticised for failing to be more vigilant in the pursuit and condemnation of the far right.
The neo-Nazi, National Democratic Party holds seats in two states in eastern Germany. Repeated attempts to ban the party have failed on purely legal grounds.
Politicians and police have also been accused of being blind to the threat posed by neo-Nazis. (© Independent News Service)