President Reagan, defending his plans to lay a wreath at a German military cemetery amid intensifying protests from American veteran and Jewish groups, said yesterday that German soldiers buried there were "victims" of the Nazis "just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps."
Reagan said he will not retreat from his scheduled visit to Bitburg cemetery in West Germany May 5 because "I think that it would be very hurtful, and all it would do is leave me looking as if I caved in in the face of some unfavorable attention."
The president said the cemetery is filled with the graves of "young teen-agers" forced into military service "in the closing days of the Third Reich." After the visit to Bitburg was scheduled, he said, "someone dug up the fact that there are about 30 graves of SS troops," Hitler's elite military unit, at the cemetery.
"These were the villains, as we know, that conducted the persecutions and all," Reagan told a White House luncheon for news editors from around the country. "But there are 2,000 graves there, and most of those, the average age is about 18," he said. "I think that there's nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also . . . ."
Reagan's remark that the Nazi soldiers were victims like the millions who died in concentration camps provoked new protests from Jewish organizations. The complaints intensified even as Reagan prepared to announce today his choice of a concentration-camp site to visit in May and was scheduled to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Holocaust author and death-camp survivor Elie Wiesel, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. It was unclear whether Wiesel would attend the White House ceremony.
"Why then should anyone visit, and by doing so, honor their cemetery as though they had been nothing but patriotic soldiers who died for their fatherland?" Wiesel asked at a solemn Capitol ceremony to honor the victims of the Holocaust.
Later, the Holocaust council met and wrote to Reagan: "We were shocked to learn that a president of the United States could utter such a distortion of what took place during the Holocaust. If no immediate correction is offered by you, it will mean you see no difference between war and genocide. The whole meaning of the Holocaust . . . would be corrupted if these words of a president of the United States remain unchallenged and unchanged," the group said.
Two House resolutions asking Reagan not to visit the cemetery were introduced, coming after a similar request Wednesday by 53 senators. "Millions of Americans are unhappy with this decision," said Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one sponsor. Another measure was introduced by Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.).
Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) said, "It is not, nor can it ever be, appropriate for us to pay tribute to the villians whose service to the Nazi regime made it possible."
Secretary of State George P. Shultz said at the Capitol ceremony, "There is no place for understanding for those who took part in the perpetration of the Nazi horror."
The Rev. Billy Graham, a longtime Reagan friend who spoke to the president about the issue a few days ago, said, "Christians and Jews alike should pray for the president because his motives were peaceful motives. He was trying to be a peacemaker. But I don't think that he and his advisers or [West German] Chancellor [Helmut] Kohl and his advisers thought through the implications."
The reaction from leaders of Jewish organizations was sharp. "I am flabbergasted at the continued insensitivity and shocked at the lack of historical perspective," said Abraham H. Foxman, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.
Howard I. Friedman of the American Jewish Committee said, "Soldiers die in all wars. That is always a human tragedy. But there is no parallel in human history for the genocide attempts against the Jewish people."
Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said Reagan "would be well advised, both morally and politically, to tell the American people that upon reflection he has made a terrible mistake . . . . "
The president's remarks yesterday came at the end of a question-and-answer session with about 100 news editors. He said that the Bitburg cemetery contains bodies of soldiers forced into service when the Third Reich was "short of manpower" and that the visit "could be symbolic" if a restatement is made at the graves "that this must never happen again."
Bitburg actually contains the bodies of almost 50 SS members, reports from the site indicate.
Deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver returned yesterday from West Germany where he surveyed possible sites. He is scheduled to meet with Reagan this morning to choose a location.
In defending the decision to visit the Bitburg cemetery, Reagan noted that leaders of the nations that were U.S. enemies in World War II "have come here and visited Arlington" National Cemetery.