Editorial: Ich Bin Ein Bitburger

President Reagan’s visit to the military cemetery at Bitburg where the bodies of fallen German soldiers lie buried provided the occasion for extraordinary reactions, not only on the part of the President’s natural enemies, the Democrats and the bulk of the press, but also and most unwisely on the part of Jews.

The partisan effort to portray the President’s gesture of reconciliation as the moral equivalent of leading three cheers for Hitler is, of course, beneath contempt. But then the party that blundered into Vietnam and after electoral defeat turned it into Nixon’s War must never be underestimated. The presumed nadir always conceals a subbasement where profounder perfidies dwell.

For the Jews to lead or abet the assault on the President for visiting the Bitburg cemetery was unwise on two levels, one political, the other religious.

Many Jewish neoconservatives are such because they could see the consequences for Israel of the masochistic pacifism that is called “the lesson of Vietnam.” It has been said that a neoconservative is a liberal with a teenage daughter. But liberals who fear the application to Israel and now El Salvador of the “lesson of Vietnam” are also joining the ranks of the neoconservatives. Jews who recognize in the United States Israel’s staunchest ally—and of course the reverse is also true—must contemplate the first effects of the spoiling of Reagan’s German trip with dismay. Not only will the orchestrated outrage by professional exploiters of the Holocaust not translate into wider support for Israel. It has bloodied a president who is trying to restore the national backbone without which Israel will be left naked to her enemies. The regional elections in early May gave a resounding defeat to the Christian Democrats and a stunning victory to the Social Democrats. One does not have to be a practised geopolitician to see the effects of such a trend on our Central American policy. Willy Brandt could sit comfortably with the Democratic majority in the Congress, a majority that seemingly sees no problem at all in the Marxist state in Nicaragua. Will a country that will not worry about its own southern border long care for distant troubles in the Middle East?

The political fact seems to be that President Reagan needs Israel and Israel needs President Reagan. In the oblique ways mentioned above, this natural alliance was weakened.

Flow unseemly from a religious point of view was the vindictiveness expressed by many Jews toward the buried German soldiers at Bitburg. Even if there were among them Nazis who had served in the death camps—and there were not—the reaction was far from edifying. President Reagan represented our religious tradition more truly when he said that these dead had long since appeared before the ultimate judge.

That surely was not meant to suggest that, unlike us, those Bitburg dead deserved harsh judgment. Who, after all, is so innocent that he can call down divine wrath on others? Who can throw the first stone? It was shameless to suggest that Ronald Reagan was somehow retroactively endorsing death camps or Hitler or Nazism. But it was irreligious to portray oneself, or one’s people, as wholly innocent and without fault.

Millions upon millions of innocent people died during World War II, innocent in the sense of noncombatants. But in a deeper sense there are no innocent victims.

Is it a shocking thought that we should pray for the fallen soldiers buried at Bitburg?

Is it a relevant criticism, religiously, to say that some among them are sinners? After all, buried or unburied, we are all Bitburgers in that sense.

  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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