German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to former Nazi concentration camp Dachau received mixed reactions, but in doing so, she became the first-ever incumbent chancellor to take such a step.
Merkel was immediately slammed for combining the obvious potent symbolism of a German head of state describing the shame she feels about an ugly chapter in her country’s history – indeed in world history – with a planned Oom-pah-pah beer tent and campaign rally moments later.
“We speak about the duty to remember,” said Jean Samuel, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor and former member of the French resistance, who attended the Dachau event. “Well, today, she is carrying out that duty. Maybe if she didn’t have elections in Germany she wouldn’t have come but she came to Dachau. She could have not come, but she did. So, bravo.”
Many here in South Korea see Merkel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a study in stark contrasts.
The Dachau visit brouhaha is not lost on observers here. They see Germans arguing about not being apologetic enough when, at the same time in Japan, politicians continue to clamour to visit a war shrine that millions of people across East Asia believe honours perpetrators of war crimes before and during World War II.
Though the optics of Merkel’s “duty to remember” speech may have diminished the effect – Spiegel Online described it as a visit to the right place at the wrong time – few could question overall German contrition with regard to World War II and the Holocaust.
In contrast, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made one thing unintentionally clear after months of muddled statements, gaffes and ill-timed photo ops: He believes Japan did little wrong through the years of colonial expansion, war and destruction, so there is no reason now to apologise.
A stream of senior Japanese politicians followed his lead, and even found opportunities to deny colonial brutality in Korea, the rape of Nanjing in China and slave labour in Asia.
It is no wonder observers here see the juxtaposition between Merkel, however clumsy her effort, and Abe so jarring.