PRESIDENT REAGAN'S plan to visit a German military cemetery next month and lay a wreath there is a mistake -- and an odd one. It shows an ineptitude that is altogether uncharacteristic of both Mr. Reagan and his German hosts, who usually thread their way through the symbolism of German history with great sensitivity and tact. Mr. Reagan's purpose is evident. The Germans were offended last year when the wartime Allies excluded them from the ceremonies at the 40th anniversary of the Normandy landings. The economic summit meeting in Bonn will bring the president to West Germany a few days before the 40th anniversary of V-E Day, the end of World War II in Europe. He wishes to use the occasion to make a gesture of reconciliation on an occasion heavily freighted with emotion and memory. It's the right impulse -- but the wrong gesture. The White House says that the visit to the cemetery is "under review." That's wise.

A few weeks ago, in planning this trip, Mr. Reagan decided not to visit the concentration camp at Dachau because, he suggested, it might seem to imply that he was blaming the Germans of 1985. But if he is going to pay respect to German soldiers who died in the war by going to the cemetery at Bitburg, he might well offer similar respect to those other Germans, most of them Jews, who perished in Dachau at the hands of a monstrous and vindictive government. And if he is not going to Dachau, then he ought not to go to Bitburg, either. Somebody at the White House needs to give a few minutes' hard thought to precisely what's being commemorated. It isn't the Nazi movement, or the armies that fought for it. It is the victory, won at immense cost, that liberated all Europeans -- Germans as well as the others -- from a malignant domination.

If Mr. Reagan has a wreath to lay, he might more justly put it on the grave of Konrad Adenauer, a sturdy democrat who built a party and a government amidst the wreckage of defeat and who evoked in his people an older German patriotism that is both decent and honorable. The German army that is entitled to Mr. Reagan's regard is not the one that fought the Allies in France and the Lowlands, but the very different German army that guards its country, and its NATO allies, today.

The German soldiers who lie at Bitburg -- most of them, at any rate -- can be counted among the innocent victims of a terrible war. But there were many other innocent victims more deserving of an American president's remembrance. If Mr. Reagan does not wish to choose among them, he would do better to redirect his visit to the celebration of another Germany that is liberal, democratic and dedicated to the rule of law.