IT WAS NOT a satisfactory day nor an edifying one and for many it was very hurtful. Both the rhetoric and the fact of reconciliation between this country and the Federal Republic of Germany are well established; the alliance exists and is strong; the postwar West Germans are a different, democratic people; they have long since conceded their nation's crimes. There was nothing new there. What was new was costly -- to just about everyone involved.
Let us start with the president. We did not think it was a distinguishing day for him. One had been hearing for a while now how Mr. Reagan could not afford to back off the trip to Bitburg because to do so would make him look weak, a man susceptible to pressures, to being pushed around. Yet oddly that is exactly how he looked at Bitburg. The Ronald Reagan who walked stiffly into the cemetery and out again with Chancellor Helmut Kohl seemed almost robot-like, led. Our president was in that eight minutes forever being cued, nudged, positioned -- stage-managed -- by the chancellor. He exuded not wanting to be there. It was not an image of mastery.
Mr. Reagan, in his speeches, said some of the right things. He also resorted to many of those unexceptionable clich,es people fall back on when talking about the meaning of the Holocaust, platitudes and pieties that never seem equal to the enormity of the experience nor a fitting idiom in which to discuss it. And his anecdotes struck us as being off-key. But it was, in fact, in the nature of the visit -- which is why it was such a bad idea -- that no American president could have said what he should have. No such visitor could have spoken raw and relevant truth concerning the systematic starving, maiming, gassing and burning of millions upon millions of defenseless human beings at the hands of the German authorities in World War II. Reconciliation, rehabilitation, ceremony, the political and diplomatic exigencies of 1985 -- all this would weigh against his citing the true moral.
That moral is not contained in exclamations of bewilderment at the "incomprehensible horror," but rather in facing up to the comprehensible result when a nation permits itself to go the way of the Third Reich. You do not have to believe in collective guilt to believe in social responsibility. Nazi Germany was not, as Mr. Reagan seemed to suggest, the handiwork of "one man" and his regime or even of hundreds or thousands. It remains, in the recollection and understanding of those who dare to recollect and understand, a terrifying -- and endlessly instructive -- monument to what can happen when a people, for the most part, let it happen. We should add: and also when the world lets it happen. Resistance when it might have made the difference was just too costly, too inconvenient for almost everybody.
It should come as no surprise that those who were prime victims of the Third Reich cannot support, let alone be enthusiastic about commemorations that necessarily so distort and degrade the terrible truths they know concerning the massive indifference and acquiescence that made their fate possible. There was something anguishing and awful in watching Jewish leaders -- Eli Wiesel, Hyman Bookbinder -- on television yesterday trying not to inflame, not to be spoilsports, not to be disrespectful, not to attract rage or malign attention to the people and the purpose for which they spoke. One of the gratuitous cruelties of this affair has been that it put a burden on Jews yet again to argue their own case for the meaning and magnitude of what happened to them, almost, it sometimes seemed, apologetically, wanting -- it was said again and again -- not to be misunderstood, not to seem vindictive, not to be at odds with the American president or the country itself. This burden could only deepen a sense of isolation, a sense, as Mr. Wiesel put it, of being "excluded."
The president who went to Bitburg on a well- meant but mistaken mission of reconciliation has much reconciling to do at home.