The U.S. and West German governments are considering addition of a ceremony at the Remagen Bridge to honor the exploits of American war veterans in an attempt to defuse the controversy over President Reagan's planned visit to the Bitburg military cemetery.
Bonn government spokesman Peter Boenisch said the idea for Reagan to stop at the Remagen Bridge was proposed by American Jewish groups and was being studied by both governments.
But Boenisch ruled out a last-minute cancellation of the Bitburg ceremony, where Reagan and Chancellor Helmut Kohl are expected to lay a wreath in homage to the 2,000 German soldiers, including 49 SS members, buried there.
"We are going to complete what we said we would do in the first place," Boenisch said.
Reagan plans to arrive in Bonn Wednesday for a six-day visit that will include participation at the seven-nation economic summit here Thursday through Saturday.
The presence of the SS graves at the Bitburg cemetery Reagan intends to visit Sunday has provoked criticism from Jewish groups and American war veterans. But Kohl insists that the ceremony is meant to symbolize U.S.-German reconciliation and that canceling the visit will touch off a new political furor in West Germany.
In response to Jewish protests, Reagan added a trip to the Bergen-Belsen former concentration camp to his itinerary to pay tribute to victims of the Nazis. The consideration of a stop at Remagen appears to be a gesture to appease critical U.S. war veterans.
U.S. soldiers captured the Remagen Bridge on March 7, 1945, and veterans of both sides marked the anniversary there this year. The span was left damaged but standing by the retreating Germans, helping the Americans push 25,000 troops across the Rhine and establish the first Allied bridgehead in the German heartland. Ten days later the bridge collapsed. The Germans surrendered May 8.
The embarrassment over the Bitburg ceremony reportedly has induced U.S. and West German officials to abbreviate the program at the cemetery. The national hymns of the two countries are not to be played, and there is speculation that Reagan may avoid laying a wreath.
Boenisch declined to give details on the purported alterations in the program, saying only "You can't measure reconciliation with a stop watch." He castigated coverage of the planned Bitburg visit by the American news media as scandalous because some reports had depicted the town as a haven for Nazi sympathizers.
The mayor of Bitburg, Theo Hallet, and the head of the Rhineland-Palatinate state, Bernhard Vogel, asked Kohl in a letter to emphasize that Bitburg had resisted the Nazis more than other German towns. While the town was in "deep shock" over the controversy, the letter said, "we are still expecting the visit of the U.S. president."
Boenisch explained that the Bonn government had selected the Bitburg site because of the town's reputation for harmonious relations between the native population and the 12,000 U.S. servicemen stationed at a nearby military base.
Boenisch denied reports that the White House tried last week to persuade Bonn to drop the Bitburg visit in favor of a less controversial ceremony elsewhere. He said there had been no intervention from Washington since Kohl and Reagan spoke on the telephone 11 days ago.
Following resolutions passed by the U.S. Senate and House calling for the Bitburg visit to be canceled, Kohl has come under increasing pressure to back down in order to prevent further damage to U.S.-West German relations.
"Considering the fabric of German history and today's world, Mr. Reagan's proposed visit to the Bitburg military cemetery cannot possibly express reconciliation; it will only exacerbate alienation and aggravate bitterness," said an editorial in the independent daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
Willy Brandt, the chairman of the opposition Social Democrats, deplored the handling of Reagan's visit as "irresponsible and historically inappropriate."
"I have doubts about the value of repeated reconciliation gestures," said Brandt, who as chancellor in 1970 provoked an uproar in West Germany when he knelt in atonement at a Warsaw memorial.