THIS was to have been a happy state visit by Mr. Reagan, coming as it does on the 40th anniversary of the end of the Nazi tyranny, to celebrate the rebirth of democracy and freedom in at least the western half of Germany and to embrace the spirit of youth and peaceful endeavor. Alas, things aren't working out as planned. Instead of good feelings, there are recriminations; instead of joy, unhappiness.
Some well-meaning people misread the meaning of symbols. They thought a visit by Mr. Reagan to a German World War II cemetery could parallel in meaning the linking of hands last September between the French President and the German Chancellor at Verdun.
History and symbols do not repeat themselves. There are differences between World War I and World War II. No Holocaust was committed behind the front lines of World War I.
Since the end of World War II much has happened to rehabilitate West Germany and reintegrate it safely into the family of man.
Yet frustration lingered in Bonn: It was readily recognized in Paris. So President Mitterrand, by his September visit to Verdun, meant to soothe any ill feelings that last year's D-Day celebration -- to which German officials were not invited -- might have left in Germany, a country whose equilibrium, for obvious reasons, is very dear to the French.
During World War II German soldiers, the great majority of them, fought valiantly and with deep commitment to country. The killing of 31/2 million of these soldiers in the service of Hitler's ideology was a special waste. Can one not honor the dead who were doubly betrayed in their youth and patriotism?
One can, and one should. Germans do it on Remem- berance Day.
But the annals of World War II were written with an even greater loss. Humanity was browbeaten and trampled upon in acts of unspeakable shamefulness. The common German fighting man, unwittingly and unknow- ingly, helped sustain this heinous crime.
It is this side of the coin one wishes the German and American organizers had kept in focus more clearly. To demonstrate the blossomed friendship and freedom, and the return of West Germany into civilization's fold, one need not risk the unhappiness that Mr. Reagan's visit to the Bitburg site is bound to stir. That issue remains even if no single grave at Kolveshoehe/Bitburg had carried the inscription: ``Waffen SS.''
For President Ronald Reagan to withdraw from a cemetery visit would only get him from the frying pan into the fire, substituting the animosity of a not-insignificant part of the German population for the wrath of many Americans.
Let no one misread the mood in Germany: It is not belligerent, it is not vindictive, it is not oblivious of the Nazi past. But it has acquired the frail props of strength that must buttress any nation that wants to develop a modicum of self-respect.
The German public understands rather too much than too little. It perceives the misstep of the original plan, it is fully cognizant of the protest in the United States, and it readily accepts President Reagan's visit to a concentration camp memorial as a must for any high visitor coming to Germany at such a momentous time. That is precisely why Chancellor Helmut Kohl had suggested the Dachau visit in the first place.
But it is one thing for the modern German to understand a problem and quite another to swallow his honor.
Once again Mr. Reagan's renowned ability to walk where angels fear to tread is to be tested. No doubt he will succeed.
But would that his visit had been freer of controversy, and that the symbols chosen for reconciliation had not touched upon such pain.
Thomas Kielinger is the capital bureau chief of Die Welt, the West German national daily, in Bonn.