President Reagan, who earlier declined to visit the site of a Nazi concentration camp during his visit to Germany next month because he said it would be "out of line," has decided to lay a wreath at a German war cemetery where many Nazi soldiers were buried after the Battle of the Bulge, the White House announced today.
Outlining the itinerary for Reagan's European trip from April 30 to May 10, the White House said the president is to visit the German Military Cemetery at Bitburg May 5 as part of an official visit to West Germany. The ceremony at the cemetery is scheduled to take place after Reagan attends the seven-nation economic summit in Bonn May 3-4.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said the theme of the trip is "the American commitment to the world's most compelling human idea -- individual freedom."
"The rationale is that . . . he is there in a spirit of reconciliation, in a spirit of 40 years of peace, in a spirit of economic and military compatibility of the European community together with its specific allies," Speakes said.
Reaction from the Jewish community was tempered but angry. Nathan Perlmutter, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, said, "I think his visit to the cemetery of German soldiers is an act of grace because it is good to express friendship to a former enemy. But the asymmetry of doing that while choosing not to visit the graves of that enemy's victims is insensitive, and it is not a healing act."
Mark Talisman, Washington director of the Council of Jewish Federations and vice chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Counsel, said he believes that the president is aware of the "need to remember," but that the trip "does not show that."
"Obviously any decent person deplores any form of death, whether it be of the victims, those who died in concentration camps or those who were our adversaries at the time," Talisman said. "We know how President Reagan feels about the need to remember the Holocaust. I only hope he would demonstrate it personally for all the world to see."
Phil Baum, associate executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said, "We are saddened that the president of the United States should decide against commemorating those European Jewish communities destroyed in concentration camps and decide instead to pay homage to the very soldiers who fought a war in defense of a regime that engineered their destruction and indeed, who killed thousands of American young men."
Reagan earlier stirred the ire of the American Jewish community when he said at a news conference that he had decided not to visit the Nazi concentration camp Dachau because of the guilt that he said had been imposed on today's German population for the Holocaust. Reagan said in a later interview with The Washington Post that "we must never forget" the Nazi killings of 6 million Jews, but "it just seemed to me that it would be out of line to emphasize that when I was there, as a visitor in their country."
The White House did not release further details of the Bitburg ceremony except to say that Reagan is to be accompanied by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
There was criticism last year in the German press of the decision to leave Germany out of the 40th anniversary observances at Normandy; Reagan's visit to Germany, marking 40 years since the end of World War II, is designed partially in response to that. Speakes said the visit is to stress the economic cooperation between one-time enemies.
Bitburg was a Nazi staging area for the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 at Bastogne. On Christmas Day, American forces battling the German offensive wiped out the Belgian town with a heavy bombing attack.
After the cemetery visit, Reagan also is to visit Bitburg Air Base, reportedly a site for future cruise missile deployments.