- During the week of 5–7 May 1985, President Ronald Reagan planned to observe the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. The president saw an opportunity to demonstrate the friendship between the United States and its former German foe, and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl suggested that they both visit the nearby cemetery at Bitburg, thus symbolizing the reconciliation of both countries. The controversy that ensued resulted from the disclosure that the cemetery included the graves of Waffen-Schutzstaffel (SS). The protest that followed included the impassioned plea made by Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, who, directing his remarks to the president, told him, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place.” Subsequently 53 senators (including 11 Republicans) signed a letter asking the president to cancel, and 257 members of the House of Representatives (including 84 Republicans) signed a letter urging Chancellor Kohl to withdraw the invitation. As relations between both countries became strained, President Reagan defended his decision to visit Bitburg by saying, “ These [SS troops] were villains, as we know, that conducted the persecutions. . . . But there are 2,000 graves there, and most of those, the average age is about 18. . . . There is nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in German uniforms . . . drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis. They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” Reagan was criticized for this statement by opponents because he equated Nazi soldiers with Holocaust victims. Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, chastised the president by calling his statement “a callous offense for the Jewish people.” To try and contain the political uproar, on Sunday, 5 May, Reagan and Kohl appeared at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The president’s speech there, according to Time, was a “skillful exercise in both the art of eulogy and political damage control.”See also Germany.
Historical dictionary of the Holocaust. Jack R. Fischel. 2014.