Barack Obama's planned trip to Germany in June is not going to be an official state visit. German diplomatic sources told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the US president is planning a private trip in which he will go on a personal search to places of importance for his family history.
On Tuesday, the news became public that a White House advance team is currently in the eastern German city of Dresden, where they are looking for possible accommodations for the president. In addition to a short visit to the city on the Elbe River, the president is also intending to visit the memorial at the former Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald.
Obama's great-uncle, Charlie Payne, served in the 89th Infantry Division during World War II and participated in the liberation of Ohrdruf, a forced labor camp that was a satellite camp of Buchenwald. It's possible Obama could visit on June 5, one day before his planned participation in the celebrations of the 65th anniversary of the landing of the American troops in Normandy.
A diplomat said Dresden would offer the president a good opportunity to get some first-hand historical impressions of Germany. But other sites are also being discussed for his visit. The German federal government is also helping the White House advance team with its work. The White House recently informed the German government of Obama's desire to visit the country.
German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said on Tuesday that Berlin and Washington were already conducting preliminary discussions regarding the possible visit in June. German Chancellor Angela Merkel would be delighted if the US president were to visit again, Wilhelm said. During the NATO summit in Strasbourg and Kehl at the beginning of April, Obama had already made a side trip to the German town of Baden-Baden. As presidential candidate, he held a speech in July 2008 in front of around 200,000 people at Berlin's Victory Column which generated massive media attention.
German diplomats are now quickly saying that the new proposed visit, despite its more personal nature, fits wonderfully into this series. But that could just be an attempt to put a positive spin on things. An official visit by Obama to Berlin seems highly unlikely during the German election campaign -- even though Chancellor Merkel for one would prefer the popular US president to make an official appearance at the Chancellery instead of touring around the states of Saxony and Thuringia.
Diplomats point out that other major nations such as France have so far tried in vain to secure a normal state visit from Obama. However it's perfectly plausible that the White House could be sending a message with the unusual travel plans. Relations between Chancellor Merkel and the new US president have not been particularly close so far.
Merkel rejected Obama's wish to be allowed to speak at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin as a presidential candidate. So far, she has made no official visit to Washington since Obama was inaugurated, even though a date had already been found before the G-20 summit in April. But according to reports, the chancellor had little desire to cross the Atlantic just for a few hours of talks. In return, Obama may now have little desire to grant Germany an official state visit like the one America's closest ally, the United Kingdom, already received in the context of the G-20-meeting.
Have the two politicians become distanced from one another? Merkel and Obama got on marvelously at previous meetings such as the G-20 and NATO summits, top German officials claim, saying that their personalities are very similar. The German-American relationship is currently characterized by "strategic patience on both sides," say officials diplomatically.