The awful symbolism of Obama's Dresden visit

Dresden is, as Angela Merkel put it in her joint press conference with Obama on Friday morning, a “highly symbolic city.” And within this highly symbolic city, there is no more symbolic monument than the historic Frauenkirche or “Church of our Lady.” The Frauenkirche was destroyed in the fires provoked by the Allied bombing and it was left in ruins for decades. The renovated church was first reopened to the public in 2005. The symbolic significance of Obama’s visit to Dresden could hardly be made complete without a visit to the Frauenkirche. But as late as Friday morning, there were still doubts about whether Obama would go to the church. Seemingly cognizant of the controversy that his Dresden visit had sparked back home, the president and his handlers were reportedly resisting the entreaties of his German hosts.

A big screen had been set up in Dresden’s Altmarkt or Old Town Square to watch the stages of the Obama visit. Reporting from the Altmarkt, Natalie Steger of Germany’s ZDF public television noted that when Obama finally did cross the threshold of the church, the images set off “downright jubilation” among the assembled Dresden residents. “That was definitively the highlight,” Steger added…

But as the ZDF’s Guido Knopp would note later in the day, Obama did not have to say anything. The heavily loaded symbolism of the Frauenkirche visit did the talking for him. By virtue of his visits to Buchenwald and the Frauenkirche, as Knopp put it, Obama had paid tribute to “all the victims,” i.e., both the victims of Nazi persecution and the German “victims” of the Allies. Knopp, the director of numerous popular television documentaries on the Third Reich, even mumbled something about remembering everybody’s “crimes,” thus making the assertion of moral equivalence more explicit still.