Forgiving, But Not Forgetting


EVERY RED-BLOODED and not-so-red-blooded American boy is brought up to hate the Germany of World War II. From Superman comic books to John Wayne movies to "games" of war (you remember--running around with a whiffle bat pretending it was a submachine gun), the German is always the had guy and the American is always the good one. World War II really satisfies the American need to classify things in terms of black and white because, unlike most wars, it really was black and white No one can really deny that the Nazis were evil, aggressive totalitarians and the Americans benevolent, democratic liberators.

So President Reagan should not have been surprised when he stirred up a wasps next by deciding to visit the German military cemetery at Babure and not initially planning to visit a concentration camp. He thought he'd heal old wounds, not open them team. Just spread a little Reagan charm, and everyone in NATO will love each other. It's not too hard to see where Reagan was coming from--he wanted a happy ending, just as in his movies.

Well, it's pretty much agreed that Reagan should have Gosen a concentration camp from the start, no matter how much he wanted to bury the hatchet. The wounds of the death camps should be opened again and again, because only by making us wince repeatedly will we come closer to preventing something like that from happening again. There is no happy ending to the Holocaust. And if Reagan didn't know that before, he probably knows it by now.

But the German military cemetery visit wasn't a bad first. Anyone who has torn his eyes away from a Superman comic book to see the film Das Boot (The Boat) knows that German, yes German, can be sympathetic character. The him is about a German submarine crew and the fighting they have to endure-both against the enemy and against themselves. There are bad Nazis on board, but most of the crew are apolitical, beer-guzzling men of integnily who destroy boats because they are told to destroy boats. They don't enjoy it, and are just as atraid of being killed as the people they are trying to kill. When I saw the film last year, the tragic ending left the audience silem. The film added a corollary to Sherman's famous "War is hell" -it should be changed to "War is hell for both sides."

Sure, World War II was to ordinary war. And I am not about to say, as Reagan did, that German soldiers were just as much victims of the war as the jews. But they were just as much victims of World War II as Vietnam veterans were 30 years later. Both were involved in aggressive, immoral wars because they were either drafted or left it was their duty. But for some reason we can only sympathize with our own victims, not others. It seems that Reagan was giving it a try, even if his ultimate aim was to solidify the NATO alliance at least the symbolism was there.


WHAT DID Reagan in were those damned graves of SS men, who were certainly not victims, and were in fact evil men that Superman justly eliminated numerous times. No matter how many "regular" German are buried there, those few SS graves can't be ignored. Added to Reagan's initial reluctance to visit a concentration camp, it was the gaffe to end all gaffes.

The problem is that there it probably not one German military cemetery from World War II that doesn't have some SS troops buried there. So Reagan is stymied in trying to make a noble gesture for at least giving the impression that he is making a noble gesture) without at the same time commemorating Nazis.

But there is a way around this morality trap, and I'm surprised that no one has thought of it sooner. If Reagan really wants to remember those Germans who died in the war, and wants to demonstrate how much of a hell war can be for both sides, then the choice is obvious.

Dresden was a beautiful city on the Elbe, 98 miles south of Berlin. Dresden was called "the German Florence" because of its magnificent rococo art collections and baroque buildings. It had very little strategic value, especially that late in the war, and had escaped Allied bombing attacks until 1945. But for very dubious reasons, the Allies ruthlessly fire-bombed the refuges-packed city on February 13-14, 1945, creating a firestorm that could be seen for 200 miles. Though the numbers of deaths have been disputed, the figure quoted by historian David Irving, author of "The Destruction of Dresden," is 135,000--64,400 more than the death toll at Hiroshima a few months later.

Since then, the bombing has been denounced as an Allied atrocity that resulted from human beings getting too caught up in destruction, Irving writes.

It was one of these terrible things that sometimes happen in wartime, brought about by an unfortunate combination of circumstances. Those who approved it were neither wicked nor cruel, though it may well be that they were too remote from the harsh realities of war to understand fully the appalling destructive power of air bombing in the spring of 1945.

Probably everyone, if he thought about it, would agree that a Reagan visit to Dresden would be the most fitting commemoration to the end of that war. Not only would it drive home the point that there are victims on both sides, but that there are also acts of monstrosity on both sides. If Reagan and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl-really want to heal old wounds, the best way to do it would not be by glorifying the actions of Germans and Americans who were killing each other bravely, but by mutual apology.