The controversy over President Reagan's plans to lay a wreath at a German war cemetery but to bypass the Dachau concentration camp has enmeshed West Germany in the kind of emotional conflict that its government sought to avoid in arranging the visit.
In an effort to quell criticism from Jewish groups and American war veterans before Reagan's arrival here May 1, Chancellor Helmut Kohl has renewed an earlier offer of a ceremony at Dachau, or other sites of former concentration camps, West German officials said. Bonn is also willing to set up a quiet service in a synagogue if the White House finds it preferable, the sources said.
West Germany's desire to defuse the flap over the presidential itinerary reflects sensitivity here over how to mark the 40th anniversary of the Nazi surrender. Germans acknowledge that their defeat ended a dark era of tyranny, but they also realize it caused the division of their nation into communist and capitalist camps.
German anguish over this history has been complicated by more mundane troubles, such as widespread irritation with the original presidential advance team sent to prepare for Reagan's five-day stay. Another team headed by Michael K. Deaver was announced today by the White House.
"I've never seen anything like it; these young, arrogant types come in thinking they can take over our police force," a West German police captain complained to an American diplomat, who says he spends much of his time these days mediating clashes between U.S. and West German officials.
Some Bonn government officials involved in planning the trip contend that sloppy work and errant strategy by the administration's advance team were largely responsible for the disputes over Reagan's itinerary.
"We proposed the Dachau trip because we knew it would be a political necessity, but this [controversy] only shows how some of the people at the White House are not as smart as they think," a chancellery official said.
Some West Germans have been infuriated by what several described as the rude, insensitive behavior of the advance team because the Reagan trip and the seven-nation economic summit here May 2-4 are perceived as important events for political and historical reasons.
An important election in West Germany's most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia, is to take place on May 12, and Kohl's Christian Democrats hope his role as host will boost their fortunes.
After Kohl was embarrassed by being left out of last year's commemoration of the allied Normandy landings, West Germany timed the dates of the economic summit and Reagan's state visit so those events would ease the psychological burden of the May 8 anniversary.
The Soviet Union and other Soviet Bloc states have conducted a persistent propaganda campaign against the Kohl government for nearly a year, accusing the center-right ruling coalition of tolerating forces that seek to regain Eastern European territories lost in the war.
Kohl, who personally has directed preparations for Reagan's stay, has wanted to emphasize the reconciliation of West Germans with their current allies as well as 40 years of peace, freedom and prosperity after the Nazi era.
Senior chancellery aides said Kohl was deeply moved by a ceremony last autumn at Verdun, where he and French President Francois Mitterrand clasped hands in a tribute to their countries' postwar partnership as well as to their compatriots who died on the battlefield.
West German and American diplomats were assigned to find a locale where German and American soldiers might have been buried together. But the hunt quickly ended when the diplomats realized that American war dead were evacuated from German soil.
The German military cemetery at Bitburg was finally chosen because it was located in the Eifel region, where some of the last U.S.-German fighting occurred. Bitburg also plays host to a large U.S. Army community and will become a principal site for cruise missiles.
U.S. diplomats said they were assured that the Bitburg cemetery contained "no unsavory political elements," as one put it, but later they learned that the graves of more than 30 Waffen SS troops are included among those of nearly 2,000 German soldiers. The SS was responsible for many atrocities in occupied Europe.
"We can't start denazification of the cemeteries," explained Bonn government spokesman Peter Boenisch today. "Reagan's visit there is seen as a gesture of reconciliation, and who lies buried there is secondary."
The uproar over the presence of the graves of SS troops, most of whom were probably teen-agers pressed into service at the end of the war, might have blown over if the administration had not cut short Reagan's visit by two days and eliminated the trip to Dachau that Bonn had suggested for the day or eve of the May 8 anniversary.
But Reagan's truncated schedule, dropping Dachau yet keeping a visit to the Bitburg war graves, aroused indignation that a U.S. president would be paying homage to Nazi soldiers yet not to their victims.
Werner Nachmann, chairman of the Central Council of German Jews, said that while Reagan should salute the "democratic development and maturity" of the Federal Republic of Germany, it would only be proper "if the leading representative of the American people would remember Jewish victims during his visit."
Robert Kempner, former U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, appealed to Reagan in a telegram, saying: "Relatives of hundreds of thousands of American citizens were murdered in Nazi concentration camps. Please honor these victims by visiting Dachau, Bergen-Belsen or a similar place."
Kohl intends to speak at a ceremony next Sunday at the Bergen-Belsen camp, near Hanover, that is being organized by Jewish groups in West Germany. U.S. Ambassador Arthur Burns is expected to accompany Kohl in an apparent effort by the administration to mollify criticism of the Dachau cancellation.
Boenisch charged that critics of plans for the presidential visit were unjust, even insulting, toward Reagan by implying that he was insensitive to American war dead. "The president has no need to be reminded of the Americans who fell in the war or of the Jewish victims of Nazism," the spokesman said.
Theo Hallet, the mayor of Bitburg, said in a telephone interview that a cancellation of Reagan's visit to the German war cemetery would be "very disappointing" in a town where the American military community is well liked.
He noted that there is also a Jewish cemetery in Bitburg where Reagan might want to lay a wreath.