PRESIDENT REAGAN has taught this country a valuable lesson in these last two weeks. He has said that the spirit motivating his official visit to West Germany next month is that of reconciliation--and that it was this spirit that prompted his wish "to put the past behind us." In the last two weeks, and particularly since last Thursday, the President has managed in fact to demonstrate that no sentiment could be more misguided. He has shown us the danger of such forgetting, for it is impossible to forget what one never knew, never understood, never grasped. He has only underscored the vital need for remembrance--accurate remembrance.
Holocaust survivor and historian Elic Wiesel was not afraid to tell Reagan of his disappointment as he accepted the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement on Friday. His words explained eloquently the mistake of forgetting, which is analogous to the U.S.'s failure to act when it knew what was happening in 1941: "in extreme situations when human lives and dignity are at stake, neutrality is a sin. It helps the killers, not the victims." To put the past behind us is to negate its impact, to assume neutrality.
WHAT THE PRESIDENT has failed to grasp is the difference between reconciliation and memory; the former does not preclude the latter. Our responsibility to remember the victims of the atrocities transcends any state of diplomatic relations between nations. It is not, as Reagan seems to believe, a choice between memory and good relations with Germany. It is not the President's responsibility to decide whether to view them either as allies or as descendants of the Nazis. They are both. And Reagan will visit as an ally.
Although Reagan, has agreed to stop at the site of Bergen-Belsen in addition to the Bitburg cemetery, nevertheless his staunch refusal to reconsider the Bitburg visit rightfully has provoked dismay about the President's grasp of the gravity of his action. His outrageous remarks last Thursday, in which he called the suffering of the Nazi soldiers comparable to that of murdered victims, shows an astonishing lack of comprehension and sensitivity which is appalling and frightening.
It is reconciliation with Kohl and the present West German state that Reagan intendate achieve, and this is indeed an important and worthy goal, because that government, is a key U.S. ally. But what Reagan clearly does not comprehend is that there is a vast difference between reconciliation with Germany today and reconciliation with Nazi history.
While Kohl would indeed be embarrassed if at this point Reagan were to canceled any cemetery visit, nevertheless Reagan should have made a more intelligent and sensitive choice than to stop at Bitburg, and it is still not too late for him to change his mind. Reagan's omission of Bitburg itself would only indicate his faith in the ability of West Germany to deal with its own past and get beyond it. Instead, because Reagan will honor German war dead, he should find a cemetery or site without SS members.
AS HOLOCAUST survivor Elie Wiesel so eloquently told him directly on Saturday, Reagan has made many mistakes this week. And his statement last week that he cannot change plans now because he would lose face is absurd. The President in fact missed the ideal opportunity to gain tremendous approval from Americans and others, when Wiesel appealed to him publicly to alter his plans, and on humanitarian grounds avoid Bitburg. Rather than seeming weak, he would in fact have hammered home one of his most cherished points: that he is a President with compassion, a human being with a real respect for the deepest human concerns--dignity and life itself. But unfortunately the lesson he has taught us has been lost only on the Great Communicator himself.