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In Dresden and Nazi camp, Obama highlights capacity for reconstruction

The president visits the city that bore some of World War II’s heaviest damage, as well as the death camp.

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent / June 5, 2009

President Barack Obama observes a moment of silence in front of the gate building at Buchenwald, a former Nazi death camp near Weimar, Germany, Friday.

Oliver Multhaup/AP


Dresden, Germany

A day after President Barack Obama made his appeal in Cairo for peace in the Middle East, he visited two sites in Germany that epitomize war's power to destroy as well as society's ability to rebuild.

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Close to Buchenwald concentration camp, where 56,000 people, mostly Jews, died, and home of the newly restored Frauenkirche cathedral, which lay in ruins for decades after World War II, Dresden is one of the world's most powerful symbols of postwar reconciliation and reconstruction, says London-based Alan Russell, chairman of the Dresden Fund, which raised $2 million in recent years to reconstruct the famed church.

After angering many Israelis for a comparison made in his speech Thursday in Cairo of the Holocaust and Israel's occupation of Palestine, the Buchenwald visit also stands out as part of a careful diplomatic balancing act.

"His visit to Dresden makes the point that in a war, everybody suffers – even those who started it," Mr. Russell says, adding, "Obama shows he wants to turn tragedies into symbols of reconciliation."

Early Friday morning, after a private meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr. Obama, carrying a white rose, walked the green grass of Buchenwald.

He called the camp the "ultimate rebuke" to Holocaust-deniers, and toured the site with Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who was imprisoned at Buchenwald and whose father died there.

Obama challenged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly questioned the Holocaust, to visit.

Obama's trip also paid tribute to the veterans who ended the Nazi regime and closed the camps, including his great-uncle, Charles Payne, who helped liberate a satellite camp of Buchenwald.

While the president told reporters that his route from Cairo to Dresden – before going on to visit wounded troops at a US military hospital in Germany – was largely about logistics, most here believe Dresden's history played an important role in the choice.

Dresden eagerly awaited Obama

This was Obama's second visit to Germany within weeks. It was only a stopover, with little handshaking, no waving at the crowds, no strolling the streets of the old monuments.

Some Dresdeners were annoyed. This city on the Elbe River has spent millions of euros in recent years on a facelift. Thousands of police blocked the city, and the city's best bakers and chefs had prepared their best.

"So much money thrown out of the window, and he's not even coming close to us," sighs Adina Huber. "But it's a good thing he's coming. He can help people understand that there needs to be a little more humanity in the world – not just war, money, and greed."

A destroyed church rises above war

Although Dresden was once known as the "Florence of the Elbe," war and four decades of communism disfigured its Baroque silhouette. Dresdeners suffered mightily during these times and the economy was deeply damaged.

And yet, after the Iron Curtain fell, Dresden literally rose from its ashes, highlighted by the reopening in 2005 of the Frauenkirche.

"If you want to know what hope is, you have to come to Dresden," Horst Köhler, president of Germany, said during the opening ceremonies.