The visit to Bitburg was supposed to be an anticlimax or a recovery. It was neither for President Reagan.
He said the right things at Bergen-Belsen, the death camp he reluctantly added to his schedule for "balance," but he gave a fanciful picture of the Third Reich that diminished his tribute to the Jews who died there.
And what he said at Bitburg Air Base immediately following the grim, almost furtive wreath-laying at the nearby Nazi war cemetery -- where neither he nor his hapless host, Helmut Kohl, seemed to know what to do next -- was vintage Reagan. He told a sticky fable about Christmas Eve brotherhood between German and American soldiers in a cottage during the Battle of the Bulge. It had the ring of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, but was, we were told, from the pages of the Reader's Digest, the bible of banality.
He read from one of those letters he inevitably gets when he is in trouble. In the eloquent absence of Jews from his day, a collaborator was needed, and he found a Jewish girl about to be bat-mitzvahed, who told him he was doing the right thing.
And finally, he threw in some Cold War touches that diluted the unique suffering of the Jews whose sufferings have been revived by his misbegotten pilgrimage. He managed, in short, to add insult to injury.
At Bergen-Belsen, he continued the rewriting of the history that has occupied him ever since the furor began.
"The awful evil started by one man . . . . until that man and his evil were destroyed, hell yawned forth its awful contents," he said. He praised Germany for its courage to "confront and condemn the acts of a hated regime."
"Hated"? By whom? Not by the German people, surely, who hysterically cheered Adolf Hitler on his murderous way as he devoured country after country. A handful of voices were raised against him. Granted, Germans did not know the details of what was done at death camps, but they knew -- and seemingly approved -- his theory of the "master race" and heard him often enough vow to root from society all stain of "non-Aryan" blood.
Reagan's theme was "reconciliation," so ardently stated that you might think the ink on the peace treaty was not dry. Actually, reconciliation was flourishing until he came along to fix it. Lasting emnity was never on. American soldiers married German women. Hardly a harsh word has been spoken.
It may have been cupboard love, inspired by the Soviet menace, but it looked like the real thing to everyone but Reagan. He has felt it his duty to lift the burden of collective guilt from German shoulders. Even Kohl did not excuse himself from visiting a death camp in this season. He went to Bergen-Belsen and spoke of the "never-ending shame" of the Germans.
Reagan's sentimental aside about the SS troops buried in Bitburg -- drafted teen-agers, he speculated -- engendered a recital of atrocities long forgotten.
Reagan loyalists offer data affirming that the American people are sick of the fuss, blame the news media for fanning the blaze and admire Reagan for standing up for his friend Kohl. But from what he has said, it seems that Reagan was being more loyal to his own ideology than to the chancellor.
The best poll-taker cannot assess the psychic damage inflicted by Reagan, not just on Jews and veterans, but on all Americans of his generation who were involved in the last "good war." Those were the years when young men lied and cheated to get taken into the service. Everyone was sure what it was all about -- it was good versus evil -- until Reagan muddied the waters.
Germany was no imaginary enemy. Hitler had a superb war machine. He was out to conquer the world, and we were out to stop him.
He was the head of an evil empire, how evil we knew in full when the concentration camps were liberated. But in his Bitburg speech, Reagan seemed to dilute the hideous fate of the Jews and seized the occasion to condemn the Soviets.
He echoed President John F. Kennedy's famous line, "Ich Bin ein Berliner" and added that all should 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 in a crowded boat foundering off . . . Vietnam. I am a Laotian, I am a Cambodian, a Cuban and a Miskito Indian in Nicaragua."
Except for the Jew, all are victims of communist oppression. Nazism, he says, was one man. But the Soviets have a system of evil that he can never for a moment forgive or forget.
Bitburg is over. What remains is Reagan's ruinous self-portrait of an president in the grip of an obsession about the Soviet Union, a power with whom he will have to negotiate if he cares as much about world peace as he does about the Germans' peace of mind.