Sunday, May 06, 2007

May 5, 1985:

Reagan at Bitburg

Even the most astutely image-conscious presidents miscalculate sometimes, and Ronald Reagan's ceremonial visit to a German military cemetery in the spring of 1985 counts as one of those occasions, though it seems to have caused more consternation at the time than any lasting damage to his presidency. The visit to Kolmeshohe Cemetery near Bitburg, West Germany, might have seemed like at good idea at first -- a demonstration that 40 years after VE Day Germany, at least the western part, was now fully aligned with the United States and its western allies -- but the thing quickly took a life of its own when it was discovered that members of the SS were interred at the cemetery too.

Apparently Reagan's chief of staff, Michael Deaver, planned the visit but didn't notice any SS men in the cemetery, perhaps because the headstones were covered with snow during his February visit. And because the Germans didn't mention it. Oops.

"It wasn't clear if any of the SS troops buried at Kolmeshohe had participated in any atrocity and, as Bitburg Mayor Theo Hallet pointed out, all German military cemeteries were likely to contain at least a few SS graves," notes Jason Manning in The Eighties Club No. 56. "Such distinctions failed to placate those who were opposed to Reagan's visit on moral grounds.

"One of the most eloquent of these opponents was Elie Wiesel, an author and concentration camp survivor to whom Reagan presented the Congressional Medal of Achievement during a White House ceremony just weeks prior to the president's European trip. 'Mr. President,' said Wiesel, in his remarks, 'I am convinced . . . that you were not aware of the presence of SS graves in the Bitburg cemetery. Of course you didn't know. But now we are all aware. May I . . . implore you to do something else, to find another way, another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place.' Wiesel's protest was just one of many. The chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, Menachem Rosensaft, called the proposed visit 'so macabre and so awful that one can only wonder what possessed Reagan.'

"Clarence M. Brown, national commander of the American Legion, warned that it would 'not sit well' with veterans if Reagan were to 'lay a wreath at the graves of Nazi soldiers.' Former Army S/Sgt. Jim Hively mailed his World War II decorations, including a silver star and a bronze star, to Reagan in protest. In the Congress, 53 senators, 11 of them Republicans, signed a letter urging the president to cancel the visit, while 257 representatives, including 84 Republicans, signed a letter asking [West German] Chancellor Kohl to withdraw the invitation.

"But Reagan would not budge, and neither would Kohl... Reagan spent only eight minutes at the Kolmeshohe Cemetery. Along with Kohl, 90-year-old General Matthew Ridgway, who had commanded the 82nd Airborne in World War II, and Luftwaffe ace General Johannes Steinhoff, Reagan placed a wreath at a wall of remembrance. Security was heavy; the three-mile route from the NATO airbase to Kolmeshohe was lined with 2,000 policemen -- one posted every twelve feet. As it turned out, relatively few protesters showed up."

No comments: