Chancellor Helmut Kohl issued a plea Tuesday for understanding of the controversial plan for President Reagan to visit a German military cemetery and predicted that history will judge the visit positively.
"I would like to speak to you in a quarter of a year about who will have been proven right in the American public -- the President or his critics," Kohl said during a wide-ranging 75-minute interview with The Times. "I am betting on the President."
Kohl said he initially proposed the idea as a gesture of reconciliation and to bring Reagan "closer to the German people."
"Any gestures that take reconciliation further are always, at the time, heavily disputed," the chancellor said. "I know it is hard for some to comprehend (the cemetery visit) and I respect that, but I ask them to understand what Ronald Reagan and I had in mind."
Kohl made his comments on the eve of Reagan's arrival here for the most hotly debated trip of his presidency. The President will take part in the seven-nation economic summit here and will later visit parts of Western Europe.
Relaxed and at times lapsing into reminiscences of his first contacts with American occupation troops as a teen-ager, the 55-year-old chancellor dwelt on the importance of Reagan's visit for reaching younger West Germans, cementing U.S.-West German relations and helping his people come to terms with their past.
Although the final itinerary for Reagan's trip showed the May 5th stop at the Bitburg cemetery has been compressed to only 20 minutes, the chancellor said he is satisfied with the arrangements.
"I am certain the visit will go off in a dignified manner," he said. "A question that affects the hearts of people is not a matter of how long it lasts."
Last autumn, the chancellor met with French President Francois Mitterrand at Verdun, France, where one of the bloodiest battles of World War I was fought. There, at separate cemeteries for French and German war dead, the two European leaders joined to commemorate the dead of both sides, at one point grasping hands in a gesture that was greeted with appreciation in West Germany and without major protest in France.
On his trip to Washington last November, Kohl said, he first discussed a possible cemetery visit with Reagan.
"He was extremely pleased with the idea because we would be trying to demonstrate that in the future, such things should never happen again," Kohl recalled. "I wanted (our) younger people . . . (to) look over the Atlantic with the feeling that Americans are our friends."
Pride in Democracy
Instead, the outrage that has erupted among Jewish groups and others in the United States has brought upset and dismay, especially among West Germany's political elite who are most proud of their postwar democracy.
Kohl acknowledged that the reaction in the United States has eroded good will toward America here but added, "Pain is also a prerequisite for a further healing process."
The chancellor predicted that despite the high emotions, the Bitburg trip will eventually be judged positively in both countries.
"The art of statesmanship is more than a reaction to day and night," he said. "Otherwise we could abdicate and have the Gallup polls replace the government. We must be capable of doing the right thing even when at the time, we have great difficulties."
Kohl said he regretted causing Reagan domestic problems but added that he believed that public opinion in the United States would eventually swing in Reagan's favor.
'Scapegoat for All Suffering'
The chancellor also said he saw in Reagan's visit a chance to counter the negative image of the President here, which he said was spread by younger, left-oriented Germans who had made Reagan "the scapegoat for all suffering."
"I saw a chance to bring the real Ronald Reagan nearer to the Germans," he said. "When the Germans see the real Ronald Reagan, he'll receive a tremendous wave of sympathy."
As other German political figures have done previously, the chancellor rejected the characterization of the 49 SS soldiers buried at Bitburg as war criminals. These soldiers were members of the Waffen SS, a separate combat arm of the much larger SS, or Schutzstaffel, the organization that originally served as a bodyguard for Adolf Hitler. It was later expanded to include units that administered the infamous concentration camps.
Kohl argued that young men drafted late in the war had no choice if ordered into an SS combat unit and emphasized the youth of those buried at Bitburg. Most of those at Bitburg were killed in the final year of the war. Nearly half of the 49 SS dead were 17 to 20.
"They have been dead longer than they lived," he said. "Twenty years of life and 40 years of death. A merciful earth has long since accepted them."
He explained that Bitburg was chosen because it lies near a major U.S. air base, partly for the protection of the President but also because of the strong U.S.-German relations that exist in the town.
"It is a place where there is a symbiosis between Germans and Americans that exists in few other places in Germany," Kohl said. "I wanted consciously to make a gesture to the people, the German people."
He also noted that there were few war cemeteries in West Germany without some SS dead.
"Peace over the graves means peace over the graves that exist," he said. "I'm not going to whitewash German history. I don't want to whitewash it."
Stalin's 1952 Proposal
At one point, he pulled out a 1952 proposal written by Soviet leader Josef Stalin, which offered a reunited, neutral Germany, and amnesty to all former Nazis and veterans, including general grade officers.
"That is the incentive held before us at the time," he said. "Adenauer refused, with good reason. We are a part of the West."
Konrad Adenauer, a staunchly anti-Communist conservative, was West Germany's first postwar chancellor.
Although some leading West German newspapers have called for the cancellation of the cemetery visit because of the uproar in the United States, Kohl maintained he had received an avalanche of mail in favor of the gesture. Many letters related personal accounts of sons and brothers drafted into the SS, he said.
He noted a letter he received Tuesday from a woman in Hamburg whose brother was drafted at age 16.
"In December, 1944, he and his entire class of 16-year-olds were sent to the Eastern Front in SS uniforms," Kohl stated. "Very few survived. Many of them were shot immediately (after capture) because they wore SS uniforms. That was all 40 years ago."
He added: "Naturally, there were 17-year-old idealists who were captivated (by Nazi ideology), but now, after 40 years, do you want to pronounce judgment on them?"
A public opinion poll published Tuesday in the news weekly Stern, showed that a vast majority of West Germans favored the Bitburg cemetery visit. Even among the anti-Establishment Greens, more favored than opposed it.
Camp Visit Favored
Kohl also noted that a similar majority of West Germans favored Reagan's trip to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp memorial, added to the President's itinerary to help dampen the protest against the cemetery visit.