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Joan Vignocchi
March 18, 1999

Bitburg: "Normalizing" Germany's Nazi Past

Thesis: Reagan's speeches and public statements before, during, and after his 1985 visit to West Germany demonstrate his misappropriation of the memories of the Holocaust in order to further his political agenda. The events surrounding Bitburg justified survivors' fears that the memory of the Holocaust would be desecrated and distorted after their deaths.


  • Willy Brandt 1970 at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial
  • D-Day commemoration June 1984
  • Mitterand and Kohl
  • Planning Begins: November 30, 1984, Kohl visits Reagan in Washington

Planning and Preparations:

  • January through March 21, 1985 (see quote 1, below)

Opposition and Outcry: April 1985

  1. Issues - SS, American veterans, Holocaust survivors
  2. Elie Wiesel (see quotes 2 and 3)
  3. US Senate and House of Representatives
  4. Adding Bergen-Belsen to itinerary

May 5, 1985: visits Bergen-Belsen and Bitburg

  • Speeches: content, goals, and effects. (See quotes 4 and 5)

Significance of Bitburg:

  1. Survivors: What are their goals?
  2. 1998: West German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder
  3. My research found that Reagan was not an innocent bumbler into Kohl's nasty trap. He deliberately chose to honor German soldiers from World War 2 for specific political reasons, and he chose to ignore the political ramifications of his actions.

Important Quotations
  1. Ronald Reagan, when asked why he decided not to visit a Nazi concentration camp when visiting Germany, March 21, 1985:
    "I feel very strongly that this time, in commemorating the end of that great war, that instead of reawakening the memories and so forth, and the passions of the time, that maybe we should observe this day as the day when, 40 years ago, peace began and friendship, because we now find ourselves allied and friends of the countries that we once fought against, and that we, it'd be almost a celebration of the end of an era and the coming into what has now been some 40 years of peace for us. And I felt that, since the German people have very few alive that remember even the war, and certainly none of them who were alive and participating in any way, and they do, they have a feeling and a guilt feeling that's been imposed upon them. And I just think it's unnecessary. I think they should be recognized for the democracy they've created and the democratic principles they now espouse."
  2. Ronald Reagan at a later press conference, April 18, 1985:
    "I think that there's nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis. They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps."
  3. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel's speech upon receiving the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement at the White House, April 19, 1985:
    " . . . I am convinced, as you have told us earlier when we spoke, that you were not aware of the presence of SS graves in the Bitburg cemetery. Of course you didn't know. But now we all are aware. May I, Mr. President, if it's possible at all, implore you to do something else, to find a way, to find another way, another site? That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS."
  4. Reagan at Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, May 5, 1985:
    "The survivors carry a memory beyond anything that we can comprehend. The awful evil started by one man . . . For year after year, until that man and his evil were destroyed, hell yawned forth its awful contents. People were brought here for no other purpose but to suffer and die . . . because of what happened, death cannot rule forever. We're here to commemorate that life triumphed over the tragedy and the death of the Holocaust - overcame the suffering, the sickness, the testing, and, yes, the gassings . . . We're all witnesses . . . Never again."
  5. Reagan at Bitburg Air Base, May 5, 1985:
    "Twenty-two years ago President John F. Kennedy went to the Berlin Wall and proclaimed that he, too, was a Berliner. Well, 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, an a potential victim of totalitarianism."

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