Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Reagan Defends His Visit to Bitburg Cemetery but Assures Holocaust Survivors During Bergen-belsen Vi

May 6, 1985
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

President Reagan today continued to defend his decision to visit the military cemetery at Bitburg while at the same time assuring the victims of the Holocaust, “I promise you, we will never forget.”

Reagan, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany, visited the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp this morning where both leaders spoke and then flew by helicopter to Bitburg where 45-50 members of the Waffen SS are buried among some 2,000 German war dead. The two men also made an unscheduled stopover at the grave of Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first post-war Chancellor who is revered as the architect of its democracy.

Reagan and Kohl spent barely three minutes at the cemetery where the President placed a wreath. He then addressed some 11,000 American servicemen and their families at the U.S. Air Force base nearby.

At Bergen-Belsen, Reagan quoted extensively from the diary of Anne Frank, the publication of which more than a generation ago made the Dutchborn Jewish teen-ager who perished there one of the most tragic symbols of the Holocaust. The President was clearly seeking to soften the pain and anguish caused Jews and many non-Jews by his decision, at the insistence of Kohl, to pay homage to dead German soldiers, among them the notorious killers of the SS.


In his speech at the Air Force base, the President again addressed himself to the Holocaust victims and survivors, declaring:

“Your terrible suffering has made you ever vigilant against evil. Many of you are worried that reconciliation means forgetting. I promise you, we will never forget. I have just come this morning from Bergen-Belsen where the horror of that terrible crime, the Holocaust, was forever burned upon my memory. No, we will never forget, and we say with the victims of the Holocaust: Never Again.”

But the main theme of Reagan’s talk to the U.S. Air Force personnel was “reconciliation” with the enemies of 40 years ago. He assured them — and the many American veterans and their families who felt the visit to Bitburg was an insult to Americans who died fighting the Germans in World War II — that “Our gesture of reconciliation with the German people today in no way minimizes our love and honor for those who died for our country. They gave their lives to rescue freedom in its darkest hour ….”

In a reference to the storm of controversy surrounding the Bitburg trip, Reagan said “Old wounds have been reopened, and this I regret very much, because this should be a time of healing.”

But the President persisted in defending his decision to place a wreath at the Bitburg cemetery with the same justifications that he had used in Washington during the past few weeks to deflect criticism. He also appeared to equate the Holocaust and anti-Semitism with far more recent manifestations of inhumane treatment perpetrated by the Soviet Union and other Communist or putatively Communist regimes.


“The war (against Nazism) was not like other wars,” the President stressed at the Air Force base. “Nazis turned all values upside down.” He added, “Nevertheless, we can mourn the German war dead today as human beings crushed by a vicious ideology.”

Reagan stressed further that only 48 of the dead at Bitburg belonged to the SS. “Others buried there were simply soldiers in the German army.” He asked, rhetorically, “How many were fanatical followers of a dictator and wilfully carried out his orders? And how many were conscripts, forced into service during the death throes of the Nazi war machine?

“We shall never know the answer. Many, however, we know from the dates on their tombstones were only teenagers at the time. There is one boy buried there who died a week before his 16th birthday. There were thousands of such soldiers to whom Nazism meant no more than a brutal end to a short life.

“We do not believe in collective guilt. Only God can look into the human heart. All these men have now met their supreme judge, and they have all been judged by him as we shall all be judged.”

Those remarks were an almost word-for-word echo of Reagan’s defense of his Bitburg trip to European journalists at the White House barely a week ago when he claimed that the fallen German soldiers were “surely” no less victims of Nazism than those who perished in the death camps. They also echoed his observation that the dead at Bitburg have long since been judged by God.


Reagan launched into a narrative about how on Christmas night during the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944, two German women sheltered three American soldiers who were lost behind enemy lines, one of them wounded, and also four German soldiers, aged 16-23. He did not reveal the source of that story but named the two women’s sons.

Then the President reminded his servicemen audience that 22 years ago President Kennedy went to the Berlin Wall and proclaimed, in German, “I am a Berliner.”

“Today,” said Reagan, “freedom-loving people around the world must say, ‘I am a Berliner, I am a Jew in a world still threatened by anti-Semitism, I am an Afghan, and I am a prisoner of the Gulag, I am a refugee in a crowded boat foundering off the coast of Vietnam, I am a Laotian, a Cambodian, a Cuban and a Meskito Indian in Nicaragua. I, too, am a potential victim of totalitarianism.'”

Earlier in the day, at Bergen-Belsen where 1,000 police were posted in and around the concentration camp site, having long since removed protestors, Jewish and non-Jewish, from the scene (See separate story), Reagan said:

“This painful walk into the past has done much more than remind us of the war that consumed the European continent. What we have seen makes it unforgettably clear that no one of the rest of us can fully understand the enormity of the feelings carried by the victims of these camps. The survivors carry a memory beyond anything that we can comprehend. Today we have been grimly reminded why the Commandment of this camp was named the ‘Beast of Belsen.’

“Above all, we are struck by the horror of it all–the monstrous, incomprehensible horror. That is what we have seen — but its what we can never understand as the victims did. Nor with all our compassion can we feel what the survivors feel to this day and what they will feel as long as they live.”

Reagan and Kohl were received at Bergen-Belsen by Hans Albrecht, Prime Minister of the Federal State of Lower Saxony. They spent about 10 minutes at the documentation center at the site where a permanent exhibition of Nazi horrors displayed.

From there, the President and Chancellor were driven to the Jewish Memorial where Reagan walked up to the 25-meter-high obelisk overlooking a 50-meter wall with inscriptions in many languages. On his way, Reagan paused at the mass graves where 5,000 of the 50,000 mostly Jewish victims of Bergen-Belsen are buried.

The ceremonials at the memorial had been scheduled to include kaddish service. But no Jew was present. Every rabbi invited had refused to attend in protest against the Bitburg visit which was to follow. A Protestant Minister and a Roman Catholic priest spoke, one of them about the sufferings of the Jews.


After the President placed a wreath at the memorial, Kohl spoke and his remarks were conspicuous for the absence of any direct reference to Jews.

“Mr. President,” said the Chancellor, “you have come here to pay homage to the victims of National Socialist tyranny. Bergen-Belsen was a place of unimaginable atrocities. It was only one of the many sites testifying to a demonic will to destroy.

“At a ceremony here two weeks ago, I, in my capacity as Chancellor, professed our historical responsibility. You, Mr. President, represent a country which played a decisive part in liberating Europe and ultimately the Germans, too, from Hitler’s tyranny. We Germans reverently commemorate the soldiers of your nation who lost their lives in that act of liberation. We bow in sorrow before the victims of murder and genocide.

“The supreme goal of our political efforts is to render impossible any repetition of that systematic destruction of human life and dignity. With their partners and friends, the Americans and Germans therefore stand together as allies in the community of shared values and in the defense alliance in order to safeguard man’s absolute and inviolable dignity in conditions of freedom and peace.”

There were about 350 official guests at the Bergen-Belsen ceremony and about the same number of reporters from the world media. The ranking Jewish dignitaries present — in fact the only Jews — were Israel’s Ambassador to Bonn, Yitzhak Ben Ari, whose attendance apparently was dictated by protocol, and the U.S. Ambassador, Arthur Burns.

Recommended from JTA