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Bitburg: Missing the Point

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has made President Reagan’s scheduled visit to the German military cemetery at Bitburg next Sunday a touchstone of relations between the United States and the Federal Republic. For Reagan to cancel the visit, Kohl argues, would be to diminish the friendship and even weaken the alliance between the two countries. That contention has helped reinforce Reagan’s determination to go to Bitburg. It is a powerful argument, certainly, raising important questions of national interests as well, perhaps, as far-reaching questions about the future course of events in Europe. But it also defines the issue and the controversy over Bitburg in a way that wildly misses the point.

The protests that have been raised against the Bitburg trip are not aimed at weakening the U.S.-German relationship, nor are they anti-German in motivation. They are prompted instead by the profound conviction that it is simply wrong for the President to take part in a ceremony in which an act of homage to fallen soldiers could inferentially be seen as extending to those responsible for the vilest crimes of the Nazi era. The clearly marked graves of SS troops in the Bitburg cemetery, whatever those who lie there may individually have done, make such an inference inescapable.

It is proper for the President to make a gesture of reconciliation. It is wholly inappropriate that in the process he should appear to honor the dead of the SS. Most of the SS men buried at Bitburg, Kohl says, died young, and many may even have had no choice about their service. But the symbol of the SS, Hitler’s elite, nonetheless marks their graves, setting them off from other soldiers buried close by. The distinction exists in the cemetery just as it existed in the German armed forces of 40 years ago. It is ironic that West Germany’s leader, who only the other day again eloquently condemned “the crimes of the Nazi tyranny,” should insist on blurring that distinction.

The vast majority of Germans who are living today did nothing to create or to participate in the Nazi past; most have no memory of it. But the past exists--a burden and a warning, ineradicable and unforgettable. Long after the last surviving victims of Nazism are gone the wounds inflicted on civilization by that tragic era will endure. For Reagan not to go to Bitburg, Kohl says, would “deeply offend the feelings of our people.” Those who protest the Bitburg trip do not seek to give offense. Their wish is only that the President of the United States do nothing that could be interpreted as memorializing or dignifying the agents of Nazi criminality. That is not Reagan’s intention, certainly. But in the end what will be perceived at Bitburg could be far different from what either Kohl or the President intended.

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