In the mind of Ronald Reagan, there seems to be a place where war is thought of as a movie. In that place, the dead get up, dust themselves off and go off to lunch in the commissary with those who have killed them. This seems to be true even of World War II, called a "Great War" by White House spokesman Larry Speakes. He sounded like Ed Sullivan describing an upcoming show.
Maybe that explains why the president decided it was a good idea to lay a wreath at Bitburg, a German military cemetery. The White House initially defended its decision by saying incorrectly that some Americans were buried there, and then explained that it was only doing what Chancellor Helmut Kohl suggested. The moralists in the White House then characterized the fuss as a political dilemma and said they would await further reaction before deciding right from wrong. As with the policy pertaining to summit conferences, this one could be changed at any moment.
You can understand what motivates Kohl. It has been 40 years since the end of World War II. Generations of Germans have come of age with no firsthand knowledge of what transpired in the Hitler years, who cannot be accused of any crime -- not of commission or of omission. Time and time again Kohl has pleaded in their name that the past at last be buried and not be thrown up in Germany's face at every occasion. Surely to condemn a generation for the sins of a previous one is as illogical as Nazi race hatred itself. The chancellor has a case -- a case made all the more compelling because Germany is our ally.
But the cemetery at Bitburg contains the bodies of people who were SS members, the killers and race haters who, among other things, ran the concentration and extermination camps. It is an obscenity even to suggest that a president of the United States honor those men. You do not honor the present generation of Germans by ignoring the crimes of the previous one. You merely pander to it.
But what of your average German soldier -- your basic draftee? What about him? Can he be honored by an American president? This is obviously a harder question -- and in time the answer will be yes. But those ordinary soldiers made possible the work of the SS. Their victims, ironically called survivors, are still among us.
How can an American president honor the invaders of France, the occupiers of Belgium -- the ones who carried Nazism into the farthest reaches of Europe and then, ferociously, defended it until there was, literally, nothing left to defend? What, aside from amorality and blind obedience, is this country honoring?However, there are Germans worthy of honor. There were people who asserted their conscience over the demands of the state, who, in a sense, chose to die in the extermination camps along with those who had no choice in the matter -- Jews and others. Some, like the brave idealists of the White Rose movement, died on the guillotine. Others, like the clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were hanged in concentration camps for fighting Nazism.
To honor the ordinary soldier who died in the unthinking service of evil, is to mock those who died fighting that evil -- just as to suggest that a visit to Dachau would balance one to Bitburg. There is a moral difference between the victim and his killer, between the American soldier and the German soldier, just as there is a moral difference -- a vast one -- between those Germans who fought Nazism and those who did nothing but drink the wines of occupied Paris. To honor the latter is to honor moral vacuity.
There is a sense you get sometimes with Ronald Reagan that he sees history as individual movie scenes he can compartmentalize. He can cry at tales of the Holocaust and then later permit his aides to announce he will lay a wreath at the graves of those who made the Holocaust possible. It is as if one has nothing to do with the latter -- as if history can be edited.
World War II had a moral component that cannot be overlooked. It is not yet some distant contest in which we can trot out clich,es about the "honored dead" -- as if the honor is in dying and not the reason for it. The dead at Bitburg died defending Nazism. To honor them does not dishonor their victims -- nothing can do that. It merely dishonors us.