``I hope what comes out of it will be . . . a healing process.'' That was what one United States official said when asked what he thought might be salvaged from the fierce controversy about President Reagan's visit to the German military cemetery at Bitburg. ``The whole visit was conceived with such a high moral purpose!''
On the German side, the purpose -- as West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has said repeatedly -- was to demonstrate that today's Germans are viewed by Americans as allies, and not primarily as the children and grandchildren of Nazis.
Mr. Reagan stressed these themes of healing and partnership in all his official visits Sunday, both in Bitburg and in the former concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen -- a stop that was added to the schedule only after a public outcry at discovery of some 50 graves of Waffen SS soldiers (members of the military arm of Hitler's elite guard) among the 2,000 graves of ordinary German soldiers that Reagan planned to honor.
In Bitburg the President assured the Germans that ``we do not believe in collective guilt.'' He responded to critics by regretting that ``some old wounds have been reopened'' and asserting that ``this should be a time of healing.''
In Bergen-Belsen, after laying a wreath for the victims of the concentration camp, Reagan cited Anne Frank to urge that the terrible memories of the past take us ``where God intended His children to go -- toward learning, toward healing, and, above all, toward redemption.''
He commended the Dutch girl's words three weeks before the capture that would lead to her death as a Jew in Bergen-Belsen: ``It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.''
Reagan admitted indirectly, however, that his own attempts at reconciliation have hardly worked with Jews and US war veterans offended by the priority he gave to the Bitburg cemetery and his afterthought addition of Bergen-Belsen.
He began his remarks at the concentration camp memorial by acknowledging that ``no one of the rest of us can fully understand the enormity of the feelings carried by the victims of these camps.''
Although the Bonn government made strenuous efforts to win participation in the commemoration by at least some German Jews, none joined. Clergymen of the Protestant and Roman Catholic faiths gave the prayers at the ceremony.
According to West German TV reports, the Israeli ambassador did in the end decide to come as one of the 350 invited guests. With the clear disapproval of Bergen-Belsen's most prominent victims, however -- Gypsies as well as Jews boycotted the gathering -- the ceremony could not avoid a certain artificiality. It was obviously an event staged to give Reagan a forum in which to express his sorrow for the past.
Reagan's visit to the Bitburg cemetery was hardly less artificial. At the insistence of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl the President stuck with his original decision to lay a wreath at the military cemetery despite the presence of the SS graves. The Germans point out that the Waffen SS were simply crack combat units and had nothing to do with the SS units that ran the concentration camps. Reagan echoed this theme in distinguishing in his speech at Bitburg Air Base between the ``heinous'' crimes of the SS and young ``conscripts, forced into service during the death throes of the Nazi war machine.''
In deference to his critics Reagan cut his visit to the Bitburg cemetery down to about 10 minutes -- the minimum time he could spend at the site without actually dishonoring the dead he came to pay respects to. The US and West German leaders -- accompanied by two retired generals from their respective armed forces -- observed a moment of silence at the cemetery. There were neither speeches nor audience at the cemetery, however.
Instead, Reagan reserved his major reconciliation speech -- the whole point of the exercise initially -- for a gathering of GIs at the Bitburg airbase.
No one could visit the cemetery of German war dead ``without deep and conflicting emotions,'' Reagan told his listeners. ``But my heart was also lifted,'' he quickly added, ``by the knowledge that from the ashes has come hope, and that from the terrors of the past we have built 40 years of peace and friendship -- and reconciliation among our nations.''