In the midst of the debate over President Reagan's forthcoming visit to Germany, a friend who survived Hitler's concentration camp on May 8, 1945, rang to say how angered he was by the whole undignified prospect. Memories of the unspeakable atrocities suddenly had been reawakened in his mind by the discussion over whether the president should visit a German military cemetery or a former concentration camp or both. "Why can't we pay tribute to all the dead?" he asked.

The sad truth is that the politicians in Bonn and Washington have been unable to come up with the simple answer to this simple question. Instead, they have displayed an unedifying lack of historical understanding.

Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl had in mind to mark the day in a "positive" way -- to look forward, not back, to emphasize what unites and not what separates Americans and Germans. But what they have produced is the exact opposite. Rather than healing old wounds, they have opened them up again.

Rather than increasing understanding, they have increased misunderstanding. And in the process they have failed all those, not only in the United States but in Germany as well, who have tried to meet the challenge of the past by confronting it, not by sweeping it aside.

I was seven years old when the German Reich collapsed on May 8, 1945. I remember the sense of both defeat and liberation at the time. But I also remember, as do many of my generation, the agonizing years later on when we realized that there was no way for any German of any age to start out with a clean slate.

The 12 years of Hitler, and the millions slaughtered, could not be wiped out like an unpleasant memory. Rather, it became clear to us that this is an inescapable part of our existence as Germans. Not by denying but by accepting the past have we been able to become again a member of the community of civilized nations. Not by denying but by accepting the past have we come to accept our own nationality.

The Reagan-Kohl idea of a historic harmony is, therefore, an insult not only to those who suffered and died in the camps. By originally envisaging no more than a visit by the president and the chancellor to the military cemetery of Bitburg, the White House and the chancellery have suggested that May 8, 1945, was just one more of those dates -- of which there are many in European history -- when the successes of victors and vanquished commemorate past victories and defeats in that well-known ritual: politicians depositing wreaths on the tomb of the unknown soldier, a guard of honor marching slowly up and down to the sounds of patriotic music, the flags flying half-mast.

But the mere idea that this could be the way Reagan and Kohl would at in May had it not been for the recent protests demonstrates the very shallowness of the original plans. World War II was not just another European war. It was the darkest hour of European civilization. Its end brought to an end the world's most atrocious regime and the world's hitherto most deadly conflict. It also laid the basis for a democratic West Germany and a united West.

In the need to explain this -- the obvious -- lies the other embarrassment of the whole undignified affair. Why did those responsible for the proceedings fail to grasp the obvious when they sat down to plan the president's visit? The disturbing answer is that 40 years after May 8, 1945, they simply failed to recognize the significance of the anniversary.

The Americans clearly wanted to spare German feelings. The Germans were not too eager to be reminded of the past. And both resented the Soviet efforts to turn the occasion into an anti-German celebration. Neither had enough historical respect and political acumen to recognize that the visit would backfire if it were no more than a public relations exercise.

While the fault for the mess we are in lies with both governments, the German side has to bear the greater responsibility: if Reagan's advisers lack a sense of history, this cannot be an excuse for Kohl's advisers. After all, the lessons of May 1945 applied, above all, to Germany. And even there it seems they have not always been learned.

Now the confusion is complete and there is no way out but to go ahead. To cancel the entire visit, as some in the United States have been demanding, would produce deep bitterness and resentment in West Germany, where people rightly feel that they should not be judged only by the more distant past, but also by the 40 years since then.

To cancel the commemoration of those killed in the field would distort history no less than to deny respect to those killed in the camps. And to add, under pressure, as the president has now done, the visit to Belsen to that of Bitburg, smacks of political maneuvering, not of statesmanship.

Symbols are among the most precious commodities of politics. The president's visit to Germany could have set a convincing symbol, true both to the past and to the present in German-American relations. Both Bonn and Washington, however, have dismally failed in this task -- to the anger and sadness of Americans and Germans alike.