Obama in Dresden: the Non-Controversy Controversy

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, during their joint news conference at Dresden Castle

Sometimes location is everything. Other times, it's just a convenient place to spend the night.

On both sides of the Atlantic, much has been made of Barack Obama's decision to spend Thursday night in Dresden, the German city known primarily as the site of a horrific bombing campaign by U.S. and British forces just months before the end of World War II. The bombing, which lasted 63 minutes, started fires that ultimately claimed the lives of between 18,000 and 25,000 Germans, according to a recent report by historians commissioned by the city.

In Germany, speculation surfaced in the press that Obama's decision to visit Dresden, instead of the capital of Berlin, could be seen as a slight to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who faces challenging parliamentary elections in September. In a press conference Friday morning, Obama himself knocked down this idea, saying the choice of Dresden had more to do with his tight schedule, which left scant time between his Egypt visit and his visit Friday afternoon to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp and the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, where he will meet with wounded U.S. soldiers. (See pictures of Obama in Germany.)

"Most of the speculation of my schedule in Germany doesn't take into account simple logistics," Obama said, before jokingly chiding reporters to stop promoting controversies without clear basis. "Stop it, all of you," he told the press, in a light tone. "We have enough problems out there without having to manufacture problems."

Obama praised Merkel's leadership, calling her "my friend." The two national leaders met privately for roughly an hour at Dresden Castle, a Thirteenth Century building that has been rebuilt since the 1945 bombing, discussing a wide range of issues, from Iran, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to issues of global warming and the economic downturn. (See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.)

Back in the United States, Obama's decision to stay in Dresden has sparked protests from some of Obama's conservative political critics, who have argued that the visit demonstrates his willingness to highlight America's lesser historical moments. "Dresden: Next Stop on Obama's Apology Tour," ran one headline on the conservative Powerline blog. Obama's aides rejected those suggestions, pointing to the same logistical issues that the president had mentioned, and a desire to find a location that was convenient for Merkel. (See pictures of people around the world watching Obama's inauguration.)

While in Dresden, Obama took time to visit Frauenkirche Dresden, a church that was destroyed during the firebombing and recently rebuilt. During a tour of the church, Obama lit a candle and signed a book at a memorial to the firebombing. He stood a moment before the church's old tower cross that was retrieved from the rubble of the church in 1993, 48 years after the building was destroyed. The rebuilt church has a new tower cross, which was paid for by the people of Great Britain and crafted by the son of one of the British pilots who bombarded the city.

During the joint press conference with Merkel, Obama noted that Dresden had overcome "great tragedies and is now this beautiful city full of hope." Merkel called Obama's second visit to Germany as president "a trip of a highly symbolic nature." "It is just so important that President Barack Obama makes his first stop here in Dresden," said the German chancellor.

See Cairo getting ready for Obama.

See pictures of Buchenwald concentration camp at LIFE.com.