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Merkel to visit Dachau concentration camp

Angela Merkel will become the first German chancellor to visit the former Nazi concentration camp Dachau next week, her spokesman said Wednesday.

She will travel to the memorial near the southern city of Munich on Tuesday and, after making a short speech, lay a wreath of flowers and tour the remnants of the site.

"This is the first time that the head of the German government will visit this concentration camp memorial," her spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters.

She will be joined by the chairman of the Dachau camp committee of former prisoners, Max Mannheimer, and Bavarian state education minister Ludwig Spaenle.

Mannheimer, 93, said he saw the visit as a "signal of respect for the former detainees" that sent a vital political message.

"In a time where a great deal of anti-Semitism emerges and where hostility towards Jews rises alarmingly and increasing extremist right-wing motivated crimes grow drastically, this visit is politically and socially very important," he said in a statement.

According to Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic Union, she will hold a campaign rally the same evening in the town of Dachau ahead of a Bavarian state election and the German general election next month.

Although it will be the first visit by a German chancellor to Dachau, Merkel has gone to other former Nazi concentration camps including Buchenwald with US President Barack Obama in April 2010.

The Nazis opened Dachau as a concentration camp for political prisoners in March 1933, just weeks after Adolf Hitler took power.

It was the first such site in Germany and served as a model for all the camps to follow.

More than 200,000 Jews, gays, Roma, political opponents, the disabled and prisoners of war were imprisoned in Dachau during World War II.

Over 41,000 people were killed, starved or died of disease before US troops liberated the camp in April 1945.

Merkel's trip to Dachau comes two weeks ahead of a historic gesture of reconciliation planned by German President Joachim Gauck at the French site of a Nazi atrocity during World War II.

Gauck will become the first German head of state to pay his respects in Oradour-sur-Glane, a village that was almost wiped out in an SS massacre on June 10, 1944.