Visit to Buchenwald 'Obama in the Historic Steps of His Family'

US President Barack Obama visits the former concentration camp Buchenwald on Friday. Memorial site director Volkhard Knigge told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the visit has symbolic importance far beyond the borders of Germany.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: In geo-political terms, Barack Obama's visit to Germany seems to be little more than a stopover. What is the significance of the US president's visit to Buchenwald?

Volkhard Knigge: One cannot see Barack Obama's speech in Cairo and his visit to Buchenwald as two completely separate events. In Cairo, the president attempted to initiate a new, real dialogue between the West and the Muslim world. In this context, the visit to Buchenwald signifies that this dialogue is meant very seriously, but that it should not be misinterpreted as appeasement of anti-Semitism, racism and dictatorships. With his visit, Obama is also acknowledging the self-critical culture of remembrance in Germany. It underscores the fact that these sites of 20th century crimes against humanity continue to convey an essential message. This is especially true of Buchenwald, because it was also a center of European resistance to the Nazis and to occupation.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Obama is also walking in the historic steps of his family. His great-uncle Charles Payne, who was 20 at the time, was among the US troops that reached Ohrdruf, one of the Buchenwald satellite camps. What did Payne and the other soldiers find when they arrived here on April 6, 1945?

Knigge: Payne and the other soldiers saw a camp full of murdered people. The parade ground was covered with bodies of inmates who had been shot and stacks of corpses were still burning. There were bodies in many of the camp's buildings, and there were also some open mass graves.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The satellite camp had not been in existence for very long at the time.

Knigge: Ohrdruf was established in November 1944, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of the main camp, with the sole purpose of building an underground headquarters for Hitler and his government. There was absolutely no consideration for human life. It was one of the most horrific satellite camps in the Buchenwald system. In the short period leading up to its liberation in April 1945, more than 10,000 of the camp's 30,000 inmates lost their lives.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Ohrdruf was the very first camp reached by the Western Allies. This must have made it all the more shocking for the liberators.

Knigge: Obama's great-uncle was one of the soldiers who, as a representative of the Western world, first came into direct contact with Nazi atrocities. They were certainly aware of the Nazi extermination camps, since the Red Army had already liberated camps in the East. But there is a big difference between hearing about such crimes and standing in front of the bodies. The shock was so great that General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Western Allied forces, quickly rushed to Ohrdruf. It was so great that politicians, church representatives and other delegations traveled to Ohrdruf from everywhere to witness the Nazi crimes firsthand.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is this why Buchenwald played such an important role in shaping the American view of Nazi Germany?

Knigge: Buchenwald made the horror visible. This place reawakened the world's conscience. It also made it clear to American soldiers, once again, why it was necessary to wage this war. Later on, the photos and documentary films that were made here helped shape our historical memory, particularly after 1990 when East Germany came to an end and the West gained unrestricted access to Buchenwald once again. To this day, every major historical exhibition in the United States begins with images from Ohrdruf and Buchenwald.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did the Americans ever view Buchenwald as a sign of triumph over the Nazis?

Knigge: No, never as a sign of triumph, but as irrefutable, material proof of Nazi crimes, and of everything Nazism was -- a racist social system with an extreme compulsion to conquer and exterminate.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What will Barack Obama see in Buchenwald?

Knigge: The president finds it important to visit the key sites of crimes and the places that represent all of Buchenwald's victims. We will go to the parade ground, where the memorial to all groups of victims at Buchenwald was built in 1995. It was there that every inmate had to begin and end his day. From the parade ground, we will go to the Small Camp, once the most hellish place at Buchenwald, where thousands were squeezed into horrible barracks, and where 903 children were saved, hidden by the resistance movement under the eyes of the SS. The US president will also visit the former crematorium, but without the public. It is one of the most extreme pieces of material proof of Nazi atrocities and the technical efficiency with which these crimes were committed. And it is the representative monument to all those who, as the prisoners would say, went through the smoke.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Eli Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who was liberated from the Buchenwald Camp as an adolescent, will accompany Obama. Holocaust survivors Bertrand Herz and Floréal Barrier will likewise greet the president. When they were liberated, the inmates swore an oath to destroy Nazism and support the creation of a new world of peace. Will Obama hear this oath?

Knigge: He knows about the oath. The Buchenwald survivors see Obama's visit as a very special and unexpected acknowledgement. What counts for them is his family history, which is directly related to the liberation and the safeguarding of their survival after surviving Buchenwald. And what counts for them is Obama the politician, who they see as being closely tied to their legacy, the legacy that is articulated in this oath. It is an oath that signifies a complete commitment to indivisible human dignity and human rights as the basis of any civilization.

Interview conducted by Philip Wittrock.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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