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.
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.
Until this spring the topics of the expellees and the division of Germany have been much stronger leitmotifs than the victimization of Jews in Kohl's discussions of the legacy of Hitler. They still are the preferred themes of conservative Kohl allies like Bundestag majority leader Alfred Dregger and Bavarian premier Franz Josef Strauss.
Characteristically, Mr. Strauss stayed away this week from the 40th anniversary celebration of the freeing of the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich.
Oddly, all the furor over historic responsibility and Reagan's visit to Bitburg has stimulated no retrospective reevaluation here of the tragic German-Jewish relationship. At Bergen-Belsen Kohl cited this relationship and announced the founding of a research institute to explore Jewish history in Germany. But so far little real thought seems to have gone into this subject.
The encounter of Germans and Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries was enormously creative. It produced such giants as Heinrich Heine, Moses Mendelssohn, Karl Marx, and Albert Einstein. Anti-Semitism existed in the Second Reich, but it was too weak politically to have a major impact on any of the parties. Bismarck promulgated civil emancipation of the Jews in 1871. The Dreyfus trial took place in France, not Germany.
Hitler incited anti-Semitism, however, and made a grisly attempt to annihilate the Jews. An unbelievable 3 million of Poland's 3.3 million Jews were murdered in Auschwitz and other extermination camps in Central Europe. Some 900,000 of the Ukraine's 1.5 million Jews were similarly murdered. Ninety percent of the 700,000 Jews in Germany, Austria, and the Baltic countries were killed. An estimated total of 6 million out of Europe's 9 million Jews were gassed, shot, hanged, or starved or worked to death.
After Germany was defeated, there was no way for the Germans ever to make amends for this inhumanity. For six years after the war the horror was still so close that neither Germans nor Jews wanted to speak about it with each other. The silence was broken in 1951, when the first West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, began talking about a moral responsibility of Germans at least to pay indemnity to Jews, individually and collectively in the new state of Israel.
At that point Germans like Erich L"uth formed the Peace with Israel Movement. Jews like Nahum Gold-mann preached reconciliation. And in 1952 Bonn and Tel Aviv signed the Luxembourg Reparations Agreement. Under the terms of this understanding Bonn has paid more than $1 billion in monetary compensation to Israel and to survivors of the Holocaust. West Germany became the largest donor of capital to Israel, until Washington surpassed Bonn in 1965. West Germany also developed a ``special relationship'' politically with Israel and has championed such causes as preferential tariff treatment for Israel in the European Community and a blocking of a French-led swing toward the Arabs within the European Community after the oil crisis of the 1970s.
East Germany, which has stoutly maintained that all the bad Germans went to West Germany and only the good, anti-Hitler Germans stayed in the East, has never accepted any comparable moral responsibility to ease the lot of Jewish survivors.