“This is a place that commands silence,” Helmut Schmidt said at Auschwitz on an overcast November day in 1977. “Yet, I am certain the German chancellor cannot remain silent here.” Schmidt’s was the first visit by a high-ranking German politician, let alone a chancellor, to the site of the Nazi concentration camp and extermination center. From the day Auschwitz received its first prisoners in 1940 until the day it was liberated by Soviet forces in 1945, Nazi Germany killed more than 1.1 million people there.
In his speech, which was broadcast live on Polish television, Schmidt — who had received an Iron Cross for his service in the German military during World War II — said Poland, where the Nazis had built the camp, “had suffered the most” before addressing his own nation’s guilt. “There is no escaping the realization that politics requires an ethical basis and a moral order,” he said.
Auschwitz is always precarious terrain for a German chancellor to navigate. Twelve years after Schmidt’s visit, his successor, Helmut Kohl, also paid a visit.
Kohl deeply affected
In November 1989, overjoyed Germans were celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. Those events caused Kohl to cut a visit to Warsaw short so that he could return to Germany. But, shortly thereafter, Kohl went back to Poland to, among other things, visit Auschwitz, something he said was of paramount importance to him.
Speaking in his role as the chairman of the Christian Democrats (CDU) on November 6, 1989, Kohl had called Auschwitz a “minefield.” Still, he said, nearly 45 years after the liberation, “it is simply overdue that Germany attempt to found a memorial at Auschwitz.”
Once there, Kohl wrote in the guestbook of the “unspeakable suffering” of many peoples “in Germany’s name.” He specifically mentioned Jews — which Schmidt had failed to do. “Here we renew our promise to do all we can to ensure that life, dignity and the right to liberty remain unharmed on this earth, no matter what god a person prays to or what people they belong to or are descended from,” he wrote.
Scheduling obligations and inclement November weather ultimately cut Kohl’s visit short. German newspapers reported on Kohl’s “quick visit,” which they described as a “compulsory exercise” without so much speech.
Kohl, however, said seeing Auschwitz had deeply affected him. “The image of that place, one that has been completely robbed of all words, must be taken in physically,” Kohl told the CDU after his return. He spoke of the train platform at Auschwitz-Birkenau where Nazi German soldiers had made their “selections” — instantly determining who would live and who would die.
“A man told me how he stood there and looked at his mother and his wife for the very last time,” Kohl said. “There is a difference between discussing such things theoretically and standing together with someone who experienced them. It is a place where one dare not speak.”
Kohl also visited the death row cell of Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan friar who volunteered to be executed in the place of a man who had children, thus saving the other prisoner’s life. “One does not need a guide to understand that this was a place where the unthinkable became reality,” Kohl said.
Later, Kohl told the Bundestag that “the darkest and most horrific chapters of German history were written at Auschwitz and Birkenau.”
In July 1995, Kohl returned to Auschwitz. He had just come back from a monthlong visit to Jerusalem. Standing alongside Polish Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, who had been imprisoned at Auschwitz from September 1940 to April 1941, Kohl and Bartoszewski laid a wreath at the international monument at Birkenau. “The suffering and death, the pain and the tears of this place, leave us speechless,” Kohl wrote in the guestbook on that visit. “Commemorating together, mourning together and acknowledging our will to be together — that is our hope, our path.”
And now, after 14 years as chancellor, Angela Merkel will make her first official visit on Friday. She will become the first chancellor to visit Auschwitz without stopping in Warsaw. At Auschwitz, she will be accompanied by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, as well as former prisoners and the representatives of various Jewish organizations.
The official reason for the trip is the 10th anniversary of the creation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, which exists to preserve the site. Bartoszewski, who died in 2015, had helped create the foundation. On Friday, Merkel will officially announce that Germany will donate €60 million ($67 million) in financial assistance. Low interest rates have hampered the foundation, rendering its original 2009 financial reservoir insufficient for the task of commemorating the atrocities. It is a problem that the German funds are now intended to alleviate.
Clear signs of solidarity with the Jewish community and the cautionary historical lessons of Nazi Germany’s crimes have been cornerstones of Merkel’s chancellorship. She has visited Israel’s Yad Vashem — The World Holocaust Remembrance Center five times. In 2009, she and US President Barack Obama visited the Buchenwald concentration camp, and in 2013 she traveled to the Dachau concentration camp with survivors. She returned to Dachau in 2015, on the 70th anniversary of its liberation.
Germany’s ‘enduring responsibility’
The International Auschwitz Committee has called Merkel’s visit an “especially important sign” of solidarity with those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust.
Merkel will speak at the Birkenau death camp. Before the event, she will visit the Death Wall at the Auschwitz portion of the camp, where SS soldiers shot thousands of people, the majority of them Polish political prisoners. This execution site is an important national place of remembrance. According to the official itinerary, she will address the 10th anniversary of the foundation’s work in preserving the so-called Central Sauna, where newly arrived prisoners were registered and subjected to techniques of “disinfection.” After the official ceremony at the Central Sauna, Merkel will tour the remainder of the Birkenau death camp.
When visiting the Dachau concentration camp in 2013, Merkel said Germany had an “enduring responsibility” after the “horrible and unprecedented chapter of our history”: “Sites like these caution each of us to help ensure that such things never happen again. That no one can simply look on, shrug their shoulders or even cheer when people are disadvantaged, harassed and persecuted, only to be left alone to fear for their lives.”