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Top German Official Defends Reagan’s Visit to Bitburg

May 3, 1985
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A top West German official who represents the Bitburg electoral district in the German Bundestag defended today President Reagan’s visit Sunday to the military cemetery in Bitburg where Waffen SS soldiers are buried and said that had the President decided to withdraw his visit it would be considered by the German people as buckling to domestic pressure.

The official, Dr. Alois Mertes, Minister of State in the Foreign Office of West Germany, referred to the Bitburg visit after he addressed the 79th annual meeting of the American Jewish Committee at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel where more than 250 Jewish leaders participated. The five-day meeting will conclude Sunday.

The German Minister said in reply to a reporter’s question, that the German people view the visit by Reagan to Bitburg as a “mourning ceremony.” He said that the Germans make a distinction between various members of the Waffen SS, suggesting that not all of the Waffen soldiers were Nazis.

“For us this issue (Waffen SS) is more complicated,” he said. But asked why the German government could not transfer the site of Reagan’s visit to another cemetery where no Waffen Ss soldiers were buried, he replied, “There are very few military cemeteries in Germany without Waffen SS.”

Mertes, who was invited to address the AJC annual meeting long before the Bitburg controversy had erupted, did not directly refer to the Bitburg visit in his speech today. But he vowed that the German people “will never forget” the atrocities of the Nazi regime. “Hitler misused our own people in particular the loyalty of the German soldiers toward their country,” he declared.

“We do not want to forget the villainy of the National Socialist dictatorship. This is especially true of the genocide of the Jews which was obviously beyond the rationale of war, victory or defeat. It constituted in itself an exclusively criminal proclivity for annihilation,” Mertes said.

Mertes, who served in the German army during the war, said that the electorate of the Bitburg district voted only in small numbers, about 17 percent of the voters, in the election that elevated Hitler into power in 1932. “If voters in all electoral districts at the time had cast their ballots this way, Hitler would never have come to power,” the German official declared.

Turning to the Middle East, he reiterated his government’s strong support and commitment for the State of Israel. “As a German, I would like to stress that it is essential to us in East and West (Germany) never to forget that Germany’s special responsibility for Israel is an element of credibility and ethics in any good German foreign policy,” he said.

The speech by Mertes was interrupted several times by applause. At the conclusion of his address, he received a standing ovation.

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