President Obama will be visiting two places in Germany on June 5: the concentration camp at Buchenwald and Dresden. It is hard for me to convey how tactless, bad, and wrong I think this juxtaposition is. In fact, I do not think that Obama should go to Dresden at all. As I’ve noted in a paper just published by the Heritage Foundation, the Anglo-American bombing raid on Dresden on February 13, 1945, is the subject of a great deal of mythology, most of it concocted by the Nazis and spread by the Communists after the war.
But mythology matters, because it creates its own symbolism. Whether he intends it or not, Obama’s appearance at Dresden will, to many Germans, have the feel of the Emperor’s pilgrimage of penance to Canossa. There are better and worse ways to handle a visit to Dresden: the worst would be for Obama to start apologizing for Dresden – which, given its iconic status in myth, would be an apology for the air war as a whole.
The myth of Dresden is essentially unchallengeable in the minds of those who want, for reasons of contemporary politics, to accept it. It would have been better if Obama had recognized this. He should
simply have said to the Germans that, while he felt it was necessary to go to Buchenwald, he did not feel the same compulsion about Dresden, and that he would prefer to meet Chancellor Merkel somewhere
The fact that Obama accepted the Dresden location gives me the horrible feeling that he recognizes its symbolism and intends to do in Germany what he has already done in Strasbourg: apologize for the U.S. Except in this case, he will be apologizing for the Allied conduct of World War II. I hope I am wrong about this.
Dresden’s symbolism is particularly potent now, because Germany is holding European elections on June 7, and national elections on September 27. Whether he intends it or not, Obama is intervening in German politics by giving Merkel the kudos of being the German leader who brought an American president to Dresden. That is a minor matter compared to the fundamental moral issues raised by the Holocaust and the Second World War, but it is unwise nonetheless. From Egypt to Germany to France, this latest trip is all about symbolism, and, in Germany, Obama, so far, is striking a note that could not be more discordant with his final stop on the beaches of Normandy.