Was Reagan Wrong When He Visited Bitburg? by Gregory Hilton

President Ronald Reagan visited Germany in 1985 for the 40th anniversary of V-E Day and an economic summit. At the invitation of Chancellor Helmut Kohl he visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and the closest military cemetery at Bitburg. All German military cemeteries contain at least a few SS graves.
When the press revealed the existence of the SS graves there was considerable pressure to cancel the visit. Chancellor Kohl said, “I will not give up this idea. If we don’t go to Bitburg, if we don’t do what we jointly planned, we will deeply offend the feelings of my people.” A poll demonstrated that 72% of West Germans thought the visit should go forward as planned.
Kohl said rarely had German-American relations been so strained. Reagan’s National Security Adviser, Robert McFarlane, wrote: “Once Reagan learned that Kohl would really be badly damaged by a withdrawal, he said ‘We can’t do that; I owe him for the deployment of the Pershing II missile.'” Reagan told his deputy chief of staff, Michael Deaver: “I know you and Nancy don’t want me to go through with this, but we have to reconcile.”
I do not believe Reagan was insensitive toward Jews. In “The Reagan Diaries” edited by Douglas Brinkley, the late President demonstrates impressive compassion for Jewish causes.
In his first personal communication with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, for example, Reagan requests that Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky be released from the gulag and permitted to join his wife in Israel. In another episode, after addressing an audience of Holocaust survivors and their children, Reagan remarks: “It was an emotional experience for them & for us. I know I choked up a couple of times.” And even when confronting Jewish groups opposing the sale of the AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia, Reagan strongly affirms his support for Israel: “… it must be plain to them, they’ve never had a better friend of Israel in the W.H. than they have now.”
Elie Wiesel was among the many people who urged Reagan to skip the Bitburg visit. It was Reagan who presented the Congressional Gold Medal to Wiesel that year and they both made long speeches in the East Room of the White House. Wiesel did not want Reagan to go to Bitburg, but he would never accuse the former President of anti-Semitism.
Reagan was not insensitive to Jews and said: “We pledge that he will never forget that in many places of the world, the cancer of anti-Semitism still exists. We must not forget our duty to those who perished, our duty to bring justice to those who perpetrated unspeakable deeds. And we must take action to root out the vestiges of anti-Semitism in America, to quash the violence-prone or hate groups even before they can spread their venom and destruction. And let all of us, Jew and non-Jew alike, pledge ourselves today to the life of the Jewish dream: to a time when war is no more, when all nations live in peace, when each man, woman, and child lives in the dignity that God intended.”

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