According to reports in the German media, President Obama is planning a trip to Germany in the first week in June. The Germany trip would precede Obama’s June 6 participation in ceremonies in France marking the 65th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy.
That Obama would be planning a trip to Germany in connection with ceremonies marking the anniversary of the Normandy invasion is already rather odd. Following the turning point represented by the Battle of Stalingrad, the invasion was, after all, the crucial event that all but guaranteed Germany’s defeat in the Second World War.
But when one considers just where exactly in Germany Obama is headed, then the significance of the visit becomes more clear. There is some talk of Obama visiting the Buchenwald concentration camp outside Weimar, in whose liberation Obama’s great uncle Charlie Payne is famously supposed to have taken part. But the Buchenwald visit appears not to be the main event and indeed it can be presumed to have been included in discussions as something of an alibi.
The latest German reports suggest Obama’s principal German destination will be Dresden. According to an article in the local paper Die Dresdner Neueste Nachrichten, representatives of the German and American governments met in Dresden last Wednesday to discuss preparations for the visit. An American security detail is reported to have already scoped out sites in the city: presumably for a public speech.
The symbolic significance of a visit to Dresden by the American president — especially one undertaken in connection with a D-Day commemoration in France — may be missed by some Americans, but it is absolutely unmistakable for the German public. For Germans, Dresden is the symbol bar none of German suffering at the hands of the Allies. The city was heavily bombed by British and American air forces in February 1945, toward the end of the war. According to the most recent estimates of professional historians, anywhere from 18,000 to at most 25,000 persons died in the attacks. These numbers come from a historical commission established by the city of Dresden itself. But far higher numbers — ranging into the hundreds of thousands — have long circulated in Germany and beyond. The bombing of Dresden is commonly described as a “war crime” in German discussions.
Alleged crimes committed by the Allies against Germans and Germany have indeed become a sort of German literary obsession in recent years, with numerous books being devoted to the subject. The taste of the German public for the theme was made particularly clear by the enormous success of author Jörg Friedrich’s 2002 volume The Fire [Der Brand], which is about the Allied bombardment of Germany. The book’s success was so great that Friedrich and his publisher quickly followed up with a picture book on the same topic titled Scenes of the Fire: How the Bombing Looked.