Merkel criticized over visit to Nazi death camp during election campaign

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures during a press conference in Berlin, Germany, Monday, Sept. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
Michael Sohn
German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures during a press conference in Berlin, Germany, Monday, Sept. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Chancellor Angela Merkel was expected to warn Europeans about the dangers of right-wing extremism Tuesday as she visited the former Nazi concentration camp at Dachau — but drew criticism for doing so during an election campaign.

She will become the first incumbent German chancellor to visit the site, hours ahead of an evening election rally in a beer tent in the nearby Bavarian city of Munich.

She is scheduled to give a short speech, tour the site museum, lay a wreath and meet with a small group of survivors.

"I know that this will not be an easy visit," she said in her weekly podcast ahead of the trip. The visit would be conducted with a sense of "shame and dismay," she said.

Merkel's visit to Dachau comes less than a week after she officially launched her election campaign for a third term as chancellor. Germany's parliamentary elections are set to be held on September 22.

In her podcast, she warned that Europeans must remain vigilant against right-wing extremism.

She stressed there was a "common European consensus" to battle right-wing extremist tendencies in the member states, adding that "we must never accept that such lines of thought have a place in our democratic Europe."

The battle against far-right extremism has been making headlines in Germany through a high-profile neo-Nazi murder trial. Beate Zschaepe, 38 - allegedly the sole surviving member of the National Socialist Underground, a neo-Nazi terror cell accused of a seven-year racist killing spree - is presently on trial in Munich.

Some opposition politicians heavily criticized Merkel's visit to Dachau, saying that the juxtaposition of the somber event, followed by the beer tent election rally, was "tasteless."

"If you are serious about the commemoration at such a site of horror, you surely do not make such a visit during an election campaign," Renate Kuenast from Germany's Greens party told Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper.

But analysts argue that visiting a former concentration camp would be unlikely to win her additional support from German voters.

"It is difficult to draw much enthusiasm in this country with policy on (German) history, particularly in relation to National Socialism," Michael Wolffsohn, a historian at the German Bundeswehr University told NBC News.

"Election campaign topics in Germany are soft, soft, soft," Wolffsohn added.

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Merkel was invited to Dachau by officials, including 93-year old survivor Max Mannheimer, the president of the committee of former prisoners.

"Mrs. Merkel's visit sends a strong signal, reflecting the estimation for the survivors and the work of the memorial site," said Dr. Gabriele Hammermann, director of the Dachau commemoration site.

"The chancellor is making good for the necessary attention that her predecessors neglected in the past," he added.

While former chancellor Helmut Kohl visited the former concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen with US president Ronald Reagan in 1985 and Merkel visited Buchenwald with President Obama in 2009, no German chancellor has ever been to Dachau in the past.

The Nazis opened Dachau as a concentration camp for political prisoners on March 22, 1933. Often described as 'the school of violence', the Dachau facility functioned as a model for other Nazi concentration camps across Europe.

According to official statistics, more than 200,000 people from across Europe were imprisoned there. It began as a prison primarily for German communists, trade unionists, and other political opponents of the Nazi regime. In later years, Jehovah's Witnesses, gypsies and homosexuals were also imprisoned and killed there..

In total, more than 41,500 people were killed at the concentration camp or died in captivity. The camp was liberated by US troops in early 1945.

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