ON THE opposite page today, the German writer and editor, Christoph Bertram, expresses his outrage at the way in which his government and ours, displaying monumental insensitivity, created the present turmoil over Ronald Reagan's prospective visit to West Germany. There is really no accounting for how Mr. Reagan could have decided to visit the Bitburg cemetery after having rejected -- publicly -- a visit to a concentration camp site. Now he has decided to go to the site of such a camp, hoping that will make things right. But as Mr. Bertram observes, the episode in a sense can't be made right anymore -- no matter what the president decides. There is no way he can at once pursue his effort at reconciliation with the German people, having made his visit to Bitburg the symbol of that effort, without profoundly offending not just the survivors but also the memory of the Holocaust dead. What has been said along the way from the White House has made the whole thing worse.
There is no place the eye can rest in this whole affair that is not awful. We call attention to one such vista today that has not received the attention it sadly deserves: it is the cheapening effect of the hasty attempt to patch things up by arranging a concentration camp visit and the generally squalid, trivial and cynical character of the domestic political conversation that has attended this attempt.
The usual glee that accompanies hot political controversies is present. So are other features: the usual preoccupation with who in a very small circle in Washington wins and who loses, the usual giving over of all the thought available for a subject to a controversy over what might make one of our political leaders look good or bad, the usual reduction, that is, of a large subject to a tiny area of concern.
Did we say a "large subject?" We meant a towering, all but incalculable one. It is difficult to remember when you hear the endless speculation on the political impact of what has occurred that we are talking about the Holocaust victims here, that the subject is the unfathomable human evil and human suffering that we mean when we speak of the Holocaust.
The gigantic, breathing sorrow that heaves out of the very land Mr. Reagan will visit is neither sensed nor seen by those who have been arguing about finding a suitable site for him to go to. Would it be Dachau? Or would Dachau be wrong because it would seem, politically unwisely, to concede a change of mind under pressure? Then what about Bergen-Belsen? The envelope please.
Some things, of course, cannot be cheapened. They are, by their very size and consequence, beyond being affected by petty concerns. So finally the horror of what was done in Europe 40 years ago cannot be cheapened either. It mocks the vanities and political preoccupations of the moment. It will mock our president, too, unless he is now able to articulate true American feeling on the subject, unless he is able to meet the challenge to demonstrate clearly that we in America respect the Holocaust dead, that we do not regard them as props for our own politics.