President Reagan paid homage to the victims of the Holocaust today and decried their Nazi tormentors on a day in which he also carried out a controversial wreath-laying ceremony at the German military cemetery here.
"No one could visit there without deep and conflicting emotions," Reagan said afterward in a speech to 10,000 Americans and Germans at Bitburg Air Base, flanked by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. "Some old wounds have been reopened, and this I regret very much, because this should be a time of healing."
Reagan touched the wreath ever so slightly and stood grimly in the hilltop graveyard where 49 Nazi SS soldiers are buried among 2,000 German war dead. Their tombs are marked by flat stones in the grass, covered today by tulips and pansies.
The eight-minute ceremony at Bitburg came on a day that Reagan recalled the terrors of the Third Reich, celebrated modern West German democracy and strove to quiet a storm of criticism from Jews and veterans and end a political crisis in his presidency.
Some Jewish leaders in the United States said they remained disappointed with the Bitburg visit, but they praised Reagan for his remarks earlier in the day at the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Kenneth J. Bialkin, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Jewish leaders are seeking a meeting with Reagan in the next few weeks.
Tonight, Reagan attended a state dinner in Bonn, where he described his Strategic Defense Initiative space defense project as "a technological path into the sunshine" and urged West Germany to support it.
Monday he leaves for Spain, the second stop in his 10-day, four-nation trip. He also will address the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday, the 40th anniversary of V-E Day, and visit Portugal before returning to Washington Friday.
This day began in a chill morning mist when Reagan climbed a hill on the banks of the Rhine near Bonn to honor Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's first post-World War II chancellor, who symbolized the nation's return to democracy and prosperity.
He later walked somberly amid the heather-covered mass graves of Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp where 64,000 Jews and others died, including diarist Anne Frank, before it was liberated by British forces in April 1945.
He saw the vast graves of the anonymous at Bergen-Belsen and then, at the Bitburg cemetery, the hundreds of tombstones, each marked with the name of a German soldier.
Looking out over rolling hills and pine forests of Bergen-Belsen, in rural northeastern West Germany, Reagan talked in muted tones:
"All of these children of God, under bleak and lifeless mounds, the plainness of which does not even hint at the unspeakable acts that created them -- here they lie. Never to hope. Never to pray. Never to love. Never to heal. Never to laugh. Never to cry."
Survivors of Hitler's death camps "carry a memory beyond anything that we can comprehend," he said. "The awful evil started by one man -- an evil that victimized all the world with its destruction -- was uniquely destructive to the millions forced into the grim abyss of these camps."
"Here lie people -- Jews -- whose death was inflicted for no reason other than their very existence," he said afer viewing the mass graves.
He laid a wreath marked "The People of the United States of America" at the foot of an obelisk at Bergen-Belsen. The wreath he laid at Bitburg said: "President of the United States of America."
Reagan's voice grew thick with emotion in recalling Anne Frank's writings as she and her family hid from the Nazis in the Netherlands before being sent to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, where she died three weeks before the camp was liberated. Nancy Reagan, dressed in black, dabbed tears with a handkerchief. She and the president later clasped hands tightly as they walked from the scene.
Reagan was met today by groups of protesters, many of them West German peace activists, others representing Jewish groups.
But it was also a day of carefully planned White House imagery intended to calm the political uproar of recent weeks.
At the Kolmeshoehe cemetery overlooking Bitburg, Reagan was met by retired U.S. Gen. Matthew Ridgway, 90, a hero of World War II and the Korean War.
Reagan asked Ridgway last Monday to join him at Bitburg, aides said. Kohl was greeted by retired German Air Force Gen. Johannes Steinhoff, 71, who shook hands with Ridgway in a gesture of reconciliation.
Then, in a scene choreographed in advance for television, the generals walked shoulder to shoulder with their leaders down the cemetery path. All were then photographed in a wreath-laying ceremony facing a tower built in 1934 to honor those killed in World War I.
After the Bitburg ceremony, Reagan and Kohl shook hands with relatives of anti-Nazi resistance fighters, including West German Army Col. Berthold von Stauffenberg, whose father, Claus, was executed by the Nazis for his role in a 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler.
Yet another gesture came when Reagan decided to visit Adenauer's grave in Rhoendorf after evangelist Billy Graham suggested it would be a powerful symbol of his recognition of West Germany's rebirth.
But there were other signs suggesting the depth of emotional divisions that have erupted over Reagan's decision to go ahead with his visit to the Bitburg cemetery.
At Bergen-Belsen, which Reagan added to his itinerary in response to protests over the Bitburg visit, invocations were delivered by Tielko Tielemann, Lutheran bishop of Lueneburg, and Josef Homeyer, Roman Catholic bishop of Hildesheim. There was no rabbi; White House officials had tried in vain to persuade one to come.
German Jewish organizations boycotted the event to protest the Bitburg visit, but Israel's ambassador to Bonn, Yitzhak Ben Ari, came. "It is the right thing to give a sign and Bergen-Belsen is the right sign," he said.
Reagan reached back to John F. Kennedy's famous 1961 speech in West Berlin in addressing the flag-waving Bitburg crowd. Recalling that Kennedy "went to the Berlin Wall and proclaimed that he, too, was a Berliner," Reagan said:
"Today, freedom-loving people around the world must say, I am a Berliner, I am a Jew in a world still threatened by anti-Semitism, I am an Afghan, and I am a prisoner of the Gulag, I am a refugee in a crowded boat foundering off the coast of Vietnam, I am a Laotian, a Cambodian, a Cuban and a Miskito Indian in Nicaragua. I too am a potential victim of totalitarianism."
Reagan used his speeches at Bergen-Belsen and Bitburg to describe the stark contrasts between the old and new Germany.
"Here, death ruled," he said at Bergen-Belsen. "But we have learned something as well. Because of what happened, we found that death cannot rule forever. And that is why we are here today."
Reagan praised Kohl for being "strong and resolute in your willingness to confront and condemn the acts of a hated regime of the past."
Kohl responded by saying, "Our visit to the soldiers' graves here in Bitburg was not an easy one."
"It could not help but arouse deep feelings," he added. "For me it means first and foremost deep sorrow and grief and the infinite suffering that the war and totalitarianism inflicted on nations, sorrow and grief that will never cease."
Reagan stirred intense controversy when he suggested recently that the SS soldiers at Bitburg were victims of Hitler "just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps." Today, he offered a somewhat different view in a speech to the cheering U.S. military families at the Bitburg Air Base.
"The war against one man's totalitarian dictatorship was not like other wars," he said. "The evil world of Nazism turned all values upside down. Nevertheless, we can mourn the German war dead today as human beings, crushed by a vicious ideology."
The SS crimes "must rank among the most heinous in human history," he said. But others buried at Bitburg "were simply soldiers in the German Army," he added.
In Bitburg, Reagan told a story of how American soldiers lost behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge were taken in by a mother and her son who also took in a group of German soldiers, sharing food and "their own private armistice." The next day a German corporal showed the Americans how to get back behind their lines.
"They all shook hands and went their separate ways," Reagan said. "Those boys reconciled briefly in the midst of war."
A White House official said Reagan got the story from a January 1973 article in Reader's Digest magazine based on interviews with the participants.