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The story of a tone-deaf Reagan’s visit to a cemetery

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In the current debate over U.S.-Israel relations, the name of Ronald Reagan is invoked by all sides in the controversy, which brings to mind a mostly-forgotten story I’ve shared here previously.

This episode occurred nearly 32 years ago, when Reagan, who was in his second term as U.S. president, made a visit to Germany to mark the 40th anniversary of V-E Day, the end of World War II in Europe.

At the request of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Reagan participated in memorial services at a military cemetery near the town of Bitburg. Among the thousands of graves of German soldiers at Kolmeshohe Cemetery are those of 49 members of the Waffen-SS, an elite armed wing of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party. None of the graves are those of Americans.

Kohl had suggested the visit to Kolmeshohe as a symbol of the post-war reconciliation of the United States and Germany, and Reagan had readily acceded to the request, thereby touching off a huge uproar among Americans.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel implored Reagan not to visit the cemetery, and to find, instead, some other site to symbolize German-American friendship. “That place, Mr. President, is not your place,” said Wiesel.

Ninety-five Republican members of Congress objected to the Bitburg visit, as did countless other Americans. Former U.S. Army Sgt. Jim Hively mailed his World War II decorations, including a silver star and a bronze star, to Reagan in protest.

In response to the uproar, Kohl told The New York Times: “I will not give up the idea. If we don’t go to Bitburg, if we don’t do what we jointly planned, we will deeply offend the feelings of [my] people.”

The hubbub had the opposite effect of what had been intended. The Bitburg controversy strained German-American relations. White House officials said their German counterparts had assured them that nothing in the cemetery visit would embarrass Reagan. For their part, Chancellery officials said the way Reagan’s people handled the controversy “was not very intelligent.”

Reagan defended himself by saying:

“These [SS troops] were the villains, as we know, that conducted the persecutions and all. But there are 2,000 graves there, and most of those, the average age is about 18. I think that there’s nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis. They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.”

The president’s statement, with its equating of Nazi soldiers with Holocaust victims, only heightened the controversy. Even Reagan’s wife Nancy was said to be opposed to the cemetery visit.

Robert McFarlane, an aide to the president, later said this: “Once Reagan learned that Kohl would really be badly damaged by a withdrawal, he said ‘We can’t do that; I owe him.’”

Reagan’s visit to the cemetery lasted only eight minutes, during which time he laid a wreath at a wall of remembrance and stood at attention as a short trumpet salute was sounded.

The fuss over Bitburg gradually faded and today is only barely remembered, if at all, by most Americans.

But there should be no doubt that if Barack Obama had done anything like what Ronald Reagan did on that day in May 1985, his detractors would have gone ballistic.

 

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