Angela Merkel visited the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz today for the first time in her 14 years as chancellor, as Germany grapples with a resurgence of anti-Semitism and the growth of the far-right.
The German leader crossed the gates of the infamous extermination site in Poland, promising to battle a new wave of anti-Semitism.
Merkel became only the third German chancellor ever to visit the camp, where a million Jews were killed between 1940 and 1945 and which has come to symbolise the Holocaust as a whole.
Her highly symbolic trip has come ahead of the 75th anniversary of its liberation by Soviet troops on January 27, 1945.
On the eve of her trip, Merkel said that ‘the fight against anti-Semitism and against all forms of hate’ was a priority for her government.
The 65-year-old also promised ‘determination’ from the government in making Jewish life flourish in Germany.
Merkel will begin the visit at around 9am by walking through a gate bearing the chilling Nazi message ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (Work will set you free).
(From left) museum director Piotr Cywinski, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and deputy director Andrzej Kacorzyk visit the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, today
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (centre) and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (right) visit the former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim today
Angela Merkel walking through the entrance to Auschwitz as she becomes only the third German chancellor to visit the site where millions were exterminated during the Holocaust
Merkel (pictured) said that ‘the fight against anti-Semitism and against all forms of hate’ was a priority for her government on the eve of her visit to the Auschwitz Nazi death camp today
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki lay wreaths at the ‘death wall’ in the former Nazi German concentration camp
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in solemn reflection after laying wreaths in Auschwitz today
She will hold a minute’s silence by the Death Wall where thousands of prisoners were shot dead.
Merkel will also give a speech during the visit, as well as laying a wreath at the nearby Birkenau camp.
The visit ‘is a particularly important signal of attention and solidarity at a time when Auschwitz survivors are victims of anti-Semitic insults and hate-filled emails,’ said Christoph Heubner, deputy chairman of the Auschwitz International Committee.
Ahead of her trip, Germany’s federal states approved a 60 million euro ($66 million) donation for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.
Merkel will be accompanied by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and a survivor of the camp.
Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and Ronald Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, will also be taking part in the visit.
A million Jews were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with 100,000 non-Jewish Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma and anti-Nazi fighters.
Many were killed the same day they arrived at the camp.
‘There is no other place of memory that demonstrates with such precision what happened during the Shoah [Holocaust]’, Schuster said ahead of the visit.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki vising Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland
Visitors enter through the main gate with the inscription ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (literally in English: ‘work makes [one] free’) at the entrance to the Auschwitz German Nazi death camp ahead of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s landmark visit in Oswiecim, Poland
Visitors pictured walking across the barbed wire fences of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp yesterday. January 27 next year will mark the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation
The crematorium of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s landmark visit will take place today
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking during a press conference after the meeting with premiers of federal states at the Chancellery in Berlin yesterday. She will visit the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau today
Merkel has called the Holocaust a ‘break with civilisation’ and has voiced concern about the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany.
Her visit comes two months after an attack aimed at a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle in which two people were killed.
Police figures show that anti-Semitic offences rose by almost 10 percent in Germany last year from the previous year to 1,646 – the highest level in a decade.
Violent attacks went up more than 60 per cent.
Merkel follows in the footsteps of previous German chancellors Helmut Schmidt, who came in 1977, and Helmut Kohl, who visited in 1989 and 1995.
She has already visited several of the former camps in Germany over many years and has been to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre five times.
In 2008, she became the first German leader to address the Israeli parliament. In that speech, she spoke of the ‘shame’ that Germans still feel.
The railway tracks entering the building at Auschwitz where prisoners were first brought to the camp. Merkel will be only the third German chancellor to visit the site
The barbed wire fence at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp – a Nazi German killing factory where more than 1.1 million people, mostly European Jews, died during World War II
Few countries have done as much to memorialise the victims of Nazi crimes as Germany, and the capital Berlin is dotted with monuments to them.
But the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland party, some of whose members have been accused of using anti-Semitic rhetoric, has called for a rethink of Germany’s culture of atonement for Nazi crimes.
Senior AfD lawmaker, Bjoern Hoecke, has called for a ‘180-degree shift’ in the culture of remembrance.
The timing of the visit is also significant because of questions over Merkel’s political future as tensions persist within the governing coalition.
German media reported that she wanted to make the trip ahead of any potential political crisis.
Merkel intends to step down at the end of her mandate in 2021 but there is a chance that the date could be brought forward if her junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats, pull out of the government.