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Germans approve Reagan trip -- including Bitburg. Most Germans see Bitburg as welcome effort at reconciliation

By Elizabeth PondStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 2, 1985


President Ronald Reagan arrived in Bonn May 1 for the economic summit still dogged by the fierce controversy over which graves he should visit. Various Jewish demonstrators are also arriving in the next few days to pay tribute at the alternative memorials they think he should be honoring. And veterans of the infamous Waffen SS Death's Head Division -- the unit responsible for running the concentration camps in which some 6 million Jews were murdered in World War II -- have begun gathering for a reunion in Bavaria.

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That this confrontation should involve a United States president is only a quirk of politics. That it should be played out on German soil, however, is inevitable. Even with only a few tens of thousands of Jews living in Germany today, the intense and catastrophic historical relationship of Germans and Jews has left a heavy legacy.

Awareness of this fueled the extraordinary public clash of the past two weeks over Mr. Reagan's planned visit next Sunday to the Bitburg military cemetery, where not only ordinary German soldiers are buried, but also 49 soldiers from the Waffen SS.

Even after Reagan's repeated declarations that he will go through with this visit out of deference to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the US Congress -- in a resolution passed hours before the President's departure -- urged Reagan to reconsider.

Various Jewish spokesmen in West Germany and in the US have declared that they do not regard the belated insertion into Reagan's schedule of a visit to the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as adequate compensation for the implied honoring of 49 SS men. In protest, the Jewish World Congress and various other Jewish organizations plan to hold their own ceremonies Friday at the Dachau concentration-camp reconstruction and at the graves of members of the anti-Nazi White Rose student group in Munich.

West Germans, by contrast, are grateful for Reagan's holding fast -- despite all the criticism -- to his promise to Dr. Kohl to visit the Bitburg cemetery. On greeting Reagan at the airport Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher pointedly expressed his appreciation for his guest's will to ``reconciliation.''

All parties in the Bundestag except for the Greens have welcomed Reagan's visit to Bitburg. And polls show that a majority of West Germans support the gesture as a signal that West Germans have finally been rehabilitated by their allies and may now mourn ordinary German war dead without reproach.

The whole row has substantially changed the rhetoric of Kohl. When he visited Bergen-Belsen two weeks ago on the 40th anniversary of the camp's liberation in World War II, Kohl spoke of the ``never-ending shame'' Germans bear for Nazi atrocities. His tone was quite different from his previous emphasis that present-day Germans must no longer be burdened by the past -- that he himself is the first chancellor too young to have been drafted into Hitler's armies and that the majority of today's West German population was not even born by war's end 40 years ago.

At Bergen-Belsen Kohl made only passing reference to the revenge expulsion of millions of Germans from Czechoslovakia and Soviet Eastern Europe at war's end. While he alluded to the division of Germany that resulted from its defeat, he made no explicit reference to Soviet imposition of authoritarian rule on East Germany.