President Reagan laying a wreath at Kolmeshohe Cemetery, Bitburg, West Germany, 5 May 1985
It began as part of a well-intentioned plan to observe the 40th anniversary of V-E Day -- May 8, 1945, the day Hitler's Third Reich collapsed and Europe was freed from Nazi tyranny. Since President Ronald Reagan was scheduled to attend an economic summit in Bonn that week in 1985, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl saw an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the friendship that existed between his nation and its former foe, the United States. During a November 1984 visit to the White House, Kohl appealed to Reagan to join him in appearing at a German military cemetery to symbolize the reconciliation of their two countries, once mortal enemies and now staunch allies. Kohl suggested the Kolmeshohe Cemetery at Bitburg, a quaint town in the Eifel hills where nearly 11,000 Americans attached to a nearby airbase lived in harmony with the same number of Germans. Approximately 2,000 German servicemen were interred at Kolmeshohe. Reagan agreed. As he later told an aide, he felt he owed Helmut Kohl, who despite considerable public and political opposition had stood steadfast with Reagan on the deployment of Pershing missiles in West Germany a few years earlier, when Reagan had been determined to respond to the placement of Soviet missiles that threatened Europe.
In February 1985, the White House deputy chief of staff, Michael Deaver, made an advance-planning visit to Bitburg. The 32 rows of headstones were covered with snow. Deaver was usually very skillful in carrying out his role as public relations maestro for Reagan, but this time he grew careless. He and his team failed to discover that 49 members of the Waffen SS were buried at Kolmeshohe -- and West German officials didn't mention the fact. A decision was made by the Reagan team not to include a visit to a concentration camp, as had been previously suggested by Kohl. The president said he didn't want to risk "reawakening the passions of the time" or offend his hosts by visiting a death camp, and his aides would later contend that the West Germans were privately pleased with this decision, implying that Kohl had made the offer only as a courtesy. Nonetheless, Reagan would soon learn he was about to reawaken passions that would place his administration in the center of a political firestorm.
In mid-April, White House press secretary Larry Speakes informed the media of the planned visit to Bitburg. When asked who was buried at Kolmeshohe, Speakes said he thought both American and German soldiers were there. Reporters soon discovered, however, that no American servicemen were in the cemetery; in fact, the remains of all U.S. soldiers had long since been removed from German soil. They also learned that a handful of the notorious SS were among the Germans interred at Kolmeshohe. The Waffen SS had been the combat branch of the Third Reich's elite guard, the Schutzstaffel. Created in 1923 to serve as Hitler's bodyguards, and expanded by Heinrich Himmler in the 1930s -- nearly one million men had served in the SS by the end of the war -- the Schutzstaffel included the Totenkopf, or "Death's Head" division, the men who had served as guards at the concentration camps. And a Waffen SS First Division battle group was responsible for the massacre of 71 American POWs at Malmedy, Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. It wasn't clear if any of the SS troops buried at Kolmeshohe had participated in that or any other atrocity and, as Bitburg Mayor Theo Hallet pointed out, all German military cemeteries were likely to contain at least a few SS graves. Such distinctions, though, 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 Chancellor Kohl to withdraw the invitation.
But Reagan would not budge, and neither would Kohl. "I will not give up the idea," said the West German leader in an interview with Time's Bonn bureau chief. "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." A poll revealed that 72% of West Germans thought the visit should go forward as planned. Kohl admitted that rarely had German-American relations been so strained. Indeed, it seemed that in the days leading up to the presidential visit, the White House and the Chancellery were pitted one against the other in the blame game. A top Reagan aide claimed the Germans had given assurances that nothing in the Bitburg visit would be an "embarrassment" for the president. "As clumsily as we handled it," said another U.S. official, "Kohl &. Co. have surpassed us in spades." A German official responded: "The Americans also have a responsibility toward the president. They must also check on the history that is beneath the ground. It was not very intelligent."
Reagan didn't help matters when he announced that he saw nothing wrong with visiting the cemetery because the German soldiers buried there were "victims of Nazism also . . . drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis." Equating Nazi soldiers with Holocaust victims, responded Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, was "a callous offense for the Jewish people." Many questioned Reagan's claim that most of the SS soldiers at Kolmeshohe had been teenagers drafted against their will into serving the Third Reich. But further research revealed that, indeed, most of the 49 SS dead were between the ages of 17 and 20. Kohl confirmed that in the last days of the war he was able to avoid service in the SS because he was only 15, "but they hanged a boy from a tree who was perhaps only two years older with a sign saying TRAITOR" because he had tried to run away rather than serve.
Kohl made a call to the White House just days before Reagan's visit to make sure the president wasn't wavering in the face of withering criticism, not to mention pressure from many quarters (including from the First Lady, Nancy Reagan) to cancel the Bitburg ceremony. The Chancellor's aide, Horst Teltschik said: "Once we knew about the SS dead at Bitburg -- knowing that these SS people were seventeen to eighteen years of age, and knowing that some Germans were forced to become members of the SS, having no alternative -- the question was, Should this be a reason to cancel?" Reagan aide Robert McFarlane said: "Once Reagan learned that Kohl would really be badly damaged by a withdrawal, he said 'We can't do that; I owe him.'" Prior to sending Deaver back to West Germany for the third time, just two days before the scheduled visit, Reagan told his deputy chief of staff: "I know you and Nancy don't want me to go through with this, but I don't want you to change anything when you get over there, because history will prove I'm right. If we can't reconcile after forty years, we are never going to be able to do it."
There was one change; Reagan opted to visit a concentration camp, after all. This gesture failed to placate some of his critics; at an annual Holocaust service held in Madison Square Garden's Felt Forum, Yeshiva University's Norman Lamm said: "A courtesy call at a conveniently located concentration camp cannot compensate for the callous and obscene scandal of honoring Nazi killers." But before visiting Bitburg on Sunday, May 5th, Reagan and Kohl appeared at the Bergen-Belsen death camp. The president's speech there, according to Time, was a "skillful exercise in both the art of eulogy and political damage control." "All these children of God," said Reagan, "under bleak and lifeless mounds, the plainness of which does not even hint at the unspeakable acts that created them. Here they lie, never to hope, never to pray, never to live, never to heal, never to laugh, never to cry. . . . And then, rising above all this cruelty, out of this tragic and nightmarish time, beyond the anguish, the pain and suffering, and for all time, we can and must pledge: Never again."
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. Reagan then made one last appearance with Kohl, at the airbase, before 7,500 spectators waving American and West German flags. Kohl thanked the president for staying the course; "This walk . . . over the graves of soldiers was not an easy walk. I thank you personally as a friend that you undertook this walk with me." Reagan responded candidly: "This visit has stirred many emotions in the American and German people too. Some old wounds have been reopened, and this I regret very much, because this should be a time of healing."
The political storm caused by the Bitburg visit came at a particularly bad time for the president. Though he had just won a landslide victory in his bid for a second term, Reagan was beset with problems. Despite a hard-sell campaign by the president, Congress rejected any kind of aid to the contra rebels battling Nicaragua's Sandinista regime. The U.S.-USSR arms control talks in Geneva were deadlocked. America's three-year economic expansion showed signs of a slowdown. And Reagan hoped to use the Bonn economic summit to persuade the other G7 nations (Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Japan and West Germany) to negotiate a reduction of trade barriers that posed a grave threat to the world economy. The last thing the administration needed was the distraction caused by the Bitburg fiasco -- a fiasco that had lingering effects, as it left some to wonder whether Reagan, a master of political symbolism endowed with previously impeccable political instincts, was beginning to lose his magic touch.
What the newspapers said about the Bitburg visit:
The Washington Post (23 April 1985): "President Reagan cannot go to Bitburg. It is out of the question for the leader of the Western world to lay a wreath in a war cemetery where Nazi storm troopers are buried. . . . The stated purpose, reconciliation, is being drowned in a rising flood of long-buried passions from the death camp survivors, who feel as betrayed and abandoned as they did 40 years ago."
New York Post (26 April 1985): "[T]hough it will be hard to convince the administration of this, some good has come of the Bitburg business. That good made itself evident in the strong popular reaction against the trip, a reaction which proves that -- though our century's history, and its meaning, may have escaped all concerned at the White House, it has not escaped most Americans."
New York Times (6 May 1985): "It's over, but the Bitburg blunder, too, should not be forgotten. President Reagan's regret at having promised such a cemetery tribute was palpable. He walked through it with dignity but little reverence. He gave the cameras no emotional angles. All day long he talked of Hell and Nazi evil, to submerge the event. . . . Not even Mr. Reagan's eloquent words before the mass graves of Bergen-Belsen could erase the fact that his visit there was an afterthought, to atone for the inadvertent salute to those SS graves."
Newsweek, 29 April 1985
Time, 29 April 1985, 6 May 1985, 13 May 1985
Bitburg and Beyond: Encounters in American, German and Jewish History
Ilya Lenkov, ed. (New York: Shapolsky Publishers, 1987)
Bitburg: In Moral and Political Perspective
Geoffrey Hartman, ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986)
Reagan: The Man and His Presidency
Deborah Hart Strober & Gerald S. Strober (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998)