Angela Merkel has become the first German chancellor to visit the former Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, but critics slammed her decision to include the stop on an election campaign swing.
Ahead of a beer-tent rally for supporters in Dachau, northwest of Munich, Merkel spent an hour at the site on Tuesday, making a short but emotional speech, laying a wreath of flowers and touring the remnants of the camp with a handful of survivors.
"The memory of the prisoners' fates fills me with deep sadness and shame," said Merkel, 59, the first German leader born after the second world war.
A visibly moved Merkel said that the camp, whose gate still bears the Nazi motto Arbeit macht frei (Work will set you free), stood for "a horrible and unprecedented chapter of our history". "At the same time, this place is a constant warning: how did Germany reach the point of taking away the right of people to live because of their origin, their religion ... or their sexual orientation?" she asked.
Merkel visited at the invitation of 93-year-old Dachau survivor Max Mannheimer, who called the decision to pay her respects historic.
But while Holocaust survivors hailed a long overdue gesture, the opposition blasted a tasteless combination of electioneering and historical atonement.
Immediately after her visit, the popular Merkel was to hold a campaign rally at a fair in town ahead of a Bavarian state poll and the German general election next month.
A leader of the opposition Greens party, Renate Künast, slammed Merkel's programme, telling the daily Leipziger Volkszeitung: "If you're serious about commemoration at such a place of horrors, then you don't pay such a visit during an election campaign."
News website Spiegel Online said it was a visit "to the right place at the wrong time".
While Merkel's motives had been sincere, it said "a little more sensitivity in the planning wouldn't have hurt".
Jean Samuel, a French resistance fighter held at Dachau from July 1944 until the camp's liberation in April 1945, said the gesture was important. "We are fighting for the duty to remember so I hope that is also why she came," he said at the ceremony.
The Nazis opened Dachau as a concentration camp for political prisoners in March 1933. It was the first such site in Germany and served as a model for all the camps to follow. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned there. Over 41,000 people were killed, starved or died of disease before liberation in April 1945.