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Bitter Debate in German Parliament over Reagan’s Visit to Bitburg

April 26, 1985
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President Reagan’s fiercely controversial plan to visit the Bitburg military cemetery where the graves of some 47 members of the notorious Waffen SS are among the 2,000 Wehrmacht soldiers buried there, triggered a bitter debate in the Bundestag today.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its coalition partners mustered their majority to defeat a motion by the pacifist Green Party to cancel the Bitburg visit. It also rejected a motion by the much larger opposition faction, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which held Kohl to blame for the mishandling of Reagan’s visit and consequent damage to West Germany’s image and German-American relations.

Kohl heatedly defended the scheduled visit to Bitburg and insisted that it was justified as “a gesture of reconciliation and a recognition of Germany’s peaceful policies.” According to chief government spokesman Peter Boenisch, German-American relations would be severely damaged if Reagan were to cancel his visit to Bitburg.

Boenisch spoke in response to suggestions that the government offer an alternative site where the President could pay tribute to post-war German democracy without appearing to honor the Nazis of whom the SS, both in symbol and fact, were the most fanatic killers.

So far the Kohl government is standing tough. Officials insist that a change in Reagan’s itinerary is neither desirable nor necessary. Last week Boenisch went on television to declare that Bonn would oppose any attempts to start a process of “de-Nazification of dead soldiers.”

But the opposition has been equally relentless. Peter Glotz, Secretary General of the SPD, continued to denounce Alfred Dregger, leader of the CDU Bundestag faction, for having sent a letter of protest to 53 U.S. Senators who spoke out against Reagan’s visit to Bitburg.

According to Glotz, Dregger is trying to appeal to a constituency of “incorrigibles” who pass off the Nazi era as an accident of history with no lasting consequences. He said Dregger was seeking to create the impression that a small minority of Nazis once succeeded in imposing their rule on the German people as a whole.

Another government politician, Deputy Foreign Minister Alois Mertes, suggested that Jews are really not so upset over Reagan’s plans. Speaking of signs of “hope and encouragement”, he referred to an invitation he received from the American Jewish Committee to participate in their 79th annual meeting in New York from May 1-5. An aide to Mertes said this was the first time the AJCommittee had invited a German politician to address its annual conference. He said the invitation came from the organization’s president, Howard Friedman.

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