Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Reagan Intends to Visit Bitburg Cemetery but May Not Lay a Wreath on the Graves of the German Soldie

April 29, 1985
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

President Reagan, who leaves for Bonn on Tuesday, intends to go through with his visit to a German military cemetery on May 5 but it is doubtful now that he will lay a wreath on the graves of the German soldiers as originally planned.

This was confirmed by White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan in an appearance on CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation” today. He said that “the details are still being worked out exactly what happens” when Reagan goes to the Bitburg military cemetery where some 2,000 German soldiers, including 47 members of the Waffen SS, are buried.

But Reagan stressed that the cemetery visit will be only 10 to 15 minutes while Reagan will spend more than an hour the same day at the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.


The White House aide said that the President feels “anguish” over the strong controversy that the cemetery visit has raised since the President “feels that he has been a friend, as he is, to Jews everywhere.” He said Reagan has been “a staunch friend of Israel, probably the staunchest of many Presidents” and helped bring Ethiopian Jews out of the Sudan and has been working for the emigration of Soviet Jews.

Reagan is “wounded in his heart” also by the charges of “insensitivity when he is a very sensitive person,” Regan said.

But he stressed that Reagan cannot cancel the visit which he said is part of a 10-day trip to Europe because he made a promise to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and he will “carry out his word that he will go there with an ally.”

Regan denied that the White House had been privately encouraging Republicans in Congress to support resolutions urging Reagan to cancel the visit as a means of pressuring Kohl to withdraw the invitation.


The Senate on Friday adopted a resolution by voice vote introduced by Sens. Howard Metzenbaum (D. Ohio) and Arlen Specter (R.Pa.) and co-sponsored by 80 other Senators urging the President to “reassess his planned itinerary” and “visit a symbol of German democracy.”

The resolution did not mention Bitburg directly but Metzenbaum said it was clear that was what it meant. It was supported by Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (R.Kan.). The resolution came a day after 257 Congressmen signed a letter urging Kohl to withdraw the cemetery invitation.

But West German Deputy Foreign Minister Alois Mertes, who also appeared on the CBS program today, said he had spoken to Kohl earlier and there was “no change” in the Chancellor’s position.

Also appearing on the program, Specter said that “I think there is a way” that Reagan can keep from going to the cemetery. He noted that the action in the House and Senate reflects a “very strong feeling of the American people.”

Specter said that he is still hopeful that Kohl will withdraw the invitation. If not, the Senator suggested the President can cancel the visit on the grounds that the President was given the wrong information about the cemetery. He said a White House official had told him that the West German government had assured them that there were no SS troopers buried at Bitburg.

But Mertes said that when he represented the Bitburg area in Parliament he had not known that the SS members were buried there. At the same time, he said Waffen SS soldiers were buried in all German cemeteries and it was wrong to find them all “collectively guilty.” Mertes said the Senate resolution was an “insult against all former German soldiers of the second World War” since it implied all were Nazis.

Specter replied no insult was intended but the cemetery visit would be “an affront” to all American World War II veterans, American Jews and Holocaust survivors and victims.


Mertes said that if the cemetery visit is cancelled it would upset the German people because they would feel they are being charged with “collective guilt” for the Nazi era and “the past is more important than the last 40 years.”

He said the cemetery visit is “not glorifying” the deeds of the Nazi regime or even military matters. He said its purpose is to demonstrate that “during the years after the war we do everything that never again there will be dictatorship in Germany, that never again there will be a war coming from German soil.”

Mertes stressed that in Germany today there is “full understanding for the victims of the Holocaust particularly the Jews who were not killed as soldiers. They were simply slaughtered, murdered because they were Jews. They cannot be compared with victims of the war on the military side.”


In other developments, the Administration has reportedly asked at least two prominent Jews — Elie Wiesel and Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal — to go along with Reagan when he goes to the military cemetery at Bitburg. Both declined the invitation. Other Holocaust survivors have reportedly been sought to accompany the President. They, too, have reportedly declined.

Meanwhile, four prominent Republican Jewish leaders — Max Fisher, Richard Fox, Gordan Zachs and George Klein — have met in recent weeks with Chief of Staff Regan and other White House officials on the Bitburg controversy. The four led the Republican National Jewish Coalition.

Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and a strong supporter of Reagan, added his name to the chorus of opposition to the Bitburg visit. Saying he believed the President “and/or his staff made an honest mistake, “Falwell told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in a telephone message that “I think the President should admit he was wrong — and I don’t think it would be an indication of weakness for him to do so.”

The Jewish War Veterans’ national commander Samuel Greenberg has appealed to all Americans to wear a red armband on May 5 to remind “us of the precious lives lost in World War II” and to protest Reagan’s cemetery visit.

Leaders of the United Synagogue and the Rabbinical Assembly said they would observe May 5 as a “day of mourning, prayer and fasting.”

The Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada has urged Reagan to cancel his planned visit. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, president of the Union, called the proposed visit an “obscenity for the victims and martyrs of various countries.”

New York City Council president Carol Bellamy told some 200 women at the Bnai Zion Women’s League Annual luncheon in New York that “we must demand that our President heed the call to a higher moral value than even the values of reconciliation and friendship with a former enemy.”

Recommended from JTA