On May 5, 1985, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, in Bonn for an economic summit, made an eight-minute visit to the military cemetery outside the West German city of Bitburg. There, he paid his respects to Germany’s war dead, on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. His gesture would become one of the most controversial actions of Reagan’s two terms in the White House, sparking a bitter battle with the organized American Jewish community, after it became known that the cemetery held the remains of 49 men who had served in the Waffen-SS. 

Members of this military wing of the SS, all of whom were volunteers up until 1943, had been judged by the Nuremberg tribunal to be war criminals, participants in the Holocaust. 

For reconciliation's sake

The original plan had seemed innocent enough. During a November 1984 visit to Washington, Helmut Kohl, the West German chancellor and a close ally of Reagan’s, had proposed that the president visit a war cemetery during his anticipated planned trip to Germany the following spring. Kohl envisioned the call serving as a sign of American-German reconciliation, four decades after the war, and suggested the Kolmeshoehe Cemetery, near Bitburg. 

As Reagan wrote in his diary at the time, the Germans “suffer a great guilt complex over the Nazi period. I’m suggesting including them this time & making the occasion one of celebrating when the hatred stopped & peace & friendship began which has continued for 40 yrs.” 

In February 1985, the president’s deputy chief of staff, Michael Deaver, paid an advance visit to Bitburg, near Germany’s border with Luxembourg, and gave the idea a green light. Apparently, the 32 rows of graves were covered with snow at the time, and Deaver didn’t see the 49 headstones belonging to Waffen-SS casualties. 

The fireworks began when White House spokesman Larry Speakes announced the plan at an April 11 press conference. In answer to a journalist’s question, Speakes said that Bitburg held the graves of both U.S. and German soldiers. 

After a bit of (figurative) digging, the press corps discovered not only that there were no American soldiers buried in Germany, but also that the Bitburg dead included members of the dreaded Waffen-SS, which was associated with the Nazi Party, and whom post-war Germany had denied the benefits accorded to other World War II veterans. 

Reagan refuses to duck 

Reagan was pressured to cancel the visit to Bitburg, but he refused to give in. “There is no way I’ll back down & run for cover,” he wrote in his diary at the time. He then added rhetorically, revealing his lack of comprehension of the issue involved, “Would Helmut [Kohl] be wrong if he visited Arlington Cemetery on one of his U.S. visits?” Later, Reagan suggested publicly that most of the German soldiers buried at Bitburg were themselves “victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” 

In his diary, Reagan also characterized the affair as his very own “Dreyfus case.” 

Jewish leaders criticized the president, and pushed for him to change his itinerary, as did a majority of both U.S. senators and congressmen, in separate letters to Reagan. Finally, during an unrelated public visit to the White House on April 19, Holocaust symbol par excellence Elie Wiesel challenged the president publicly, saying, "I... implore you to do something else, to find another way, another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS." 

Chancellor Kohl, other German political figures, and opinion polling in West Germany made it clear to Reagan that bilateral relations would be damaged if he cancelled the Bitburg drop-by. So, instead, he announced a last-minute plan to add a stopover at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. 

American Holocaust survivors responded to that attempt at “evenhandedness” by mounting a demonstration at the camp just after the two leaders departed for Bitburg. As Menachem Rosensaft, a spokesman of children of survivors, said at the time, “by entering Bitburg, they desecrate the memory of all those who were murdered by the SS, and of all those whom they pretended to commemorate here at Belsen."