Declaring that “the final word has been spoken as far as I am concerned,” President Reagan defended his planned visit Sunday to the German military cemetery at Bitburg, telling foreign reporters yesterday that “I think it is morally right to do what I am doing and I am not going to change my mind about that.”
Vice President George Bush, meanwhile, who has refrained from public statements on the Bitburg controversy, told a United States Chamber of Commerce meeting in Washington yesterday that “Ronald Reagan has not changed on his abhorrence of the Holocaust — he never will. But the time has come for understanding and support for the President.”
Secretary of State George Shultz also defended Reagan’s visit to Bitburg. In a satellite news conference from Washington to Bonn today, he brushed aside criticism and predicted that the critics “in the end may wind up admiring the person who has stood by his decision.” Asked if Reagan would not pay a political price for his decision, Shultz said, “The political price would be heavier if he didn’t.”
Nevertheless, opposition continued to mount as members of Congress and Jewish organizations scheduled a variety of counter-actions in protest of Reagan’s scheduled 15 minute stop at the German military cemetery where at least 47 SS soldiers are buried among the some 2,000 German war dead.
REAGAN BLAMES MEDIA FOR THE CONTROVERSY
Reagan defended his planned visit to the Bitburg military cemetery on the eve of his departure to West Germany in a television interview with reporters from six nations participating in this week’s Bonn economic summit. He blamed the controversy surrounding the planned visit on the media, saying “they’ve gotten hold of something, and like a dog worrying a bone, they’re going to keep on chewing on it.” He said American journalists haven’t “been quite fair” in the Bitburg dispute.
The President was asked about reports published Sunday that some of those SS soldiers buried in the cemetery at Bitburg were members of the Waffen SS Panzer division that massacred 642 men, women and children in the French village of Oradour sur Glane in 1943. Reagan responded:
“I know all the bad things that happened in that war. I was in uniform for four years myself. And again, all of those — you’re asking with reference to people who are in the cemetery — were buried there. Well I’ve said to some of my friends about that, all of those in that cemetery have long since met the supreme judge of right and wrong. And whatever punishment or justice was needed has been rendered by one who is above us all.”
“And it isn’t going there to honor anyone.” Reagan continued. “It’s going there simply to, in that surrounding, more visibly bring to the people an awareness of the great reconciliation that has taken place and as I’ve said before, too many times I guess, the need to remember in the sense of being pledged to never letting it happen again.”
The President also said he did not believe the visit “has affected a majority of people here.” He obliquely referred to a survey conducted last week for the Administration by pollster Richard Wirthlin showing public opinion equally divided on whether Reagan should go to Bitburg.
Reagan also said in the interview: “Shouldn’t we look at this (visit) and recognize that the unusual thing that has happened, that in these 40 years since the end of the war, the end of the tragedy of the Holocaust, we have become the friends that we are, and use this occasion to make it plain that never again must we find ourselves enemies, and never again must there be anything like the Holocaust. And if that is what we can bring out of this trip that has been planned, then I think everything we’re doing is very worthwhile.”
EUROPEAN OPPOSITION TO THE VISIT
Meanwhile, nearly 100 members of the Liberal, Labor and Social Democratic parties of the British Parliament signed a motion calling the cemetery visit “an offense to the memories of Jews and so many others persecuted and murdered by the Nazis.” The motion was sponsored by Laborite member Greville Janner, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and chairman of the World Jewish Congress-European Branch.
Reagan was also asked to cancel the Bitburg visit by the leader of one of Belgium’s ruling coalition parties, Gerard Deprez of the Social Christians. “In contrast to the Wehrmacht, the SS were the very symbol of Nazi ideology and institutionalized racism,” Deprez said in a letter to Reagan.
In the House of Representatives today, debate continued on a non-binding resolution calling on Reagan to cancel the Bitburg visit. The resolution, expected to be approved overwhelmingly, calls the visit to Bitburg “inappropriate” and asks him to “reconsider.” (See separate story.)
JEWISH DELEGATIONS TO TRAVEL TO EUROPE
In addition, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center announced that a delegation of 35 Jewish leaders from the U.S. and Canada will travel to Europe for a series of commemorative events to observe the 40th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany and the liberation of the concentration camps.
On May 5, when Reagan is scheduled to visit the Bitburg cemetery, the delegation will be joined by former resistance fighters and European Jewish leaders at the Luxembourg American Cemetery where a memorial service will be held to honor the American soldiers and others who died while combatting the Nazis.
The delegation will later visit the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; the site of the Wannsee conference where German officials decided the fate of European Jewry and formalized the implementation of the final solution; and Babi Yar near Kiev to commemorate the massacre of Jews there.
The World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) announced today that some 500 Jewish students representing West Germany and 17 other West European countries and Israel will gather outside the Bitburg military cemetery on Sunday. The students group is expected to be the only international Jewish group at Bitburg to protest the visit by Reagan.
OTHER DEVELOPMENTS TAKING PLACE
At the Isaiah Wall, across from the United Nations yesterday, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R. N. Y) joined Mayor Edward Koch and some 50 officials urging that Reagan cancel his planned Bitburg visit. A text of a telegram sent to Reagan and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was read. It asked the two leaders to “please, find another way.”
In other developments, a group of New York State legislators will follow Reagan to the gates of the cemetery and will reportedly carry a sign saying: “Mr. President. Please do not desecrate the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.” The protest is being organized by Assemblyman Alan Hevesi (D. Forest Hills.).
In Chicago, meanwhile, the Public Affairs Committee of the Jewish United Fund, a coalition of 34 Jewish organizations in the Chicago vicinity, adopted a statement saying, in part, that “as Americans and Jews, we strongly urge and implore President Reagan to cancel his scheduled visit to the Bitburg cemetery.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.