Initially Chancellor Helmut Kohl wanted to be the West German leader who would finally bury the agonies and divisions inherited from the Nazi past. But by Sunday, when he paid his respects to victims of the Holocaust at Bergen-Belsen, he would have settled for just burying the brouhaha of the past week.
On commemorating the 40th anniversary of the British liberation of the inmates of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp Sunday, Dr. Kohl said, ``Reconciliation with the survivors and the offspring of the victims is only possible when we accept our history as it really was, when we as Germans confess our shame, our responsibility before history.''
In a personal message conspicuously inserted at the last minute into a program for Germans and Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, President Reagan said that ``the frightening lesson of this [Hitler] period must forever make us uncomfortable with ourselves and determined to bear witness.''
The solemn words of Mr. Reagan and Kohl, however, were eclipsed by the continuing storm over just which dead should and should not be honored by Reagan when he makes his official visit to West Germany in two weeks.
Thus, Jewish spokesmen in West Germany welcomed the news that Reagan has belatedly scheduled his own visit to Bergen-Belsen following criticism by Jews and World War II veterans in the United States of his omission of such a tribute.
But Jewish leaders here, as in the US, are still distressed by Reagan's adherence to his original plan to visit as well a cemetery for German war dead, including not only soldiers from Hitler's army but also members of the SS elite that ran the infamous concentration camps.
At the other end of the spectrum, conservative Bundestag majority leader Alfred Dregger has just written a letter to 53 United States senators expressing his distress over their demand that Reagan cancel his visit to the Bitburg military cemetery.
Such a move would insult his own fallen brother, Dr. Dregger said, and play into the hands of those who would like to damage American-West German relations.
For Kohl as for Reagan this painful affair has become a no-win situation. Whatever they do at this point is going to offend large numbers of citizens and burden US-German relations.
The episode began a year ago with the 40-year anniversary of the Allied landing in Normandy that, along with the Soviet stand at Stalingrad, turned the tide of World War II.
Kohl was excluded from the French-British-American-Canadian ceremony in Normandy -- and resented the exclusion. He wanted the commemoration of World War II anniversaries to make clear that West Germany has become a fully reconciled member of the Western alliance, and that today's Germans should not be held perpetually guilty for the crimes of an earlier generation of Germans.
Kohl himself is too young to have served in Hitler's army, he points out repeatedly, and more than half of the present West German population was born after 1945. Today's Germans should therefore not be blamed for the past.
Kohl's point was accepted by Bonn's allies.
Last September French President Franois Mitterrand conducted a joint observance with Kohl at a World War I cemetery at Verdun for both French and German soldiers.
At the site the two men grasped hands, self-consciously but effectively. It seemed an easy symbolism to repeat this year with Reagan -- not only to show full German-American reconciliation, but also to help counter any anti-German overtones in combined Soviet-Western celebrations of the end of World War II.
Kohl therefore proposed that Reagan join him in May in visiting both a World War II cemetery here and a concentration camp site.
Reagan's advance men accepted the first, but declined the second.
Unfortunately for the symbolism, however, there were no cemeteries here with both German and American war dead. And the Bitburg cemetery that was so well placed for ensuring security turned out to have SS officers as well as ordinary Germans buried in it.
Americans reacted in disbelief to what is being called Reagan's worst political mistake, and Reagan compounded the misjudgment by publicly equating fallen German soliders and those murdered in concentration camps as all victims of Adolf Hitler.
In the resulting furor -- after a phone call with his friend Kohl -- Reagan revised his itinerary to include Bergen-Belsen. At Kohl's request, though, he did not cancel his appearance at the Bitburg cemetery.
The net result is that Kohl, far from burying the past, has exhumed it.
Dregger maintains that if Reagan now drops his Bitburg visit, this will hurt US-German relations.
Clearly it would at least leave scars on the West German parliamentary majority -- on an issue that divides rather than unites US and German conservatives despite their many affinities.
To German conservatives, including Kohl, it is a point of honor that Germans not suffer eternal blame for Hitler and that German soldiers at least be honored again.
On the other hand, if Reagan does go to Bitburg he risks political damage not only in the US but also among those Germans who think that West Germany has never repudiated Hitler as fully as it must.
The impact on US-German relations of the anti-Hitler commentary that is already appearing in the US -- and will continue so long as Reagan sticks to his original plan -- is souring US public opinion on today's Germans.