Government Says It Not Trying to Hide Nazi War Crimes
BONN, West Germany (AP) _ The West German government, holding firm on its plan to have President Reagan visit a German military cemetery next month, said Saturday the visit is meant to encourage peace, not ″to whitewash the Nazis.″
″Too many Americans and politicans in Washington still think we are trying to whitewash the Nazis, or detract from their crimes. But this was never our intent,″ government spokesman Peter Boenisch said in a television interview.
″Our intent was ... to remember the victims of war without considering their nationality, and to pray for peace,″ he said.
He said the government had not been swayed by a U.S. Senate vote Friday calling on Reagan to cancel the May 5 visit to the Bitburg cemetery where 49 members of the Nazi SS are buried along with about 2,000 other German soldiers.
SS duties included guarding Nazi death camps and carrying out the extermination of millions of Jews and other victims of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
Boenisch would not say whether Reagan would lay a wreath at the cemetery. ″For my taste there has been too much talk for days over protocol details, and the real sense of the visit has been pushed into forgetfulness,″ he said.
″The president comes as our friend and he comes to make a gesture of reconciliation. I am sure the Germans will understand it, and that especially the Bitburgers will understand it. They will give the president a friendly and hearty welcome,″ he said.
Earlier, the Welt am Sonntag (World on Sunday) newspaper quoted a top official of Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s political party as syaing he did not believe ″that we in West Germany need another de-Nazification program including soldiers’ graves after 40 years of democratic growth and in the face of the current threat to our freedom from the totalitarian Soviet system.″
The official, Heiner Geissler, is general secretary of Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union.
After World War II, the victorious allies conducted a ″de-Nazification″ program in occupied Germany, aimed at removing former Nazis from prominent positions in society.
Excerpts from the interview with the Hamburg newspaper were released Saturday to news organizations in Bonn.
On Friday a spokesman said the government would not be swayed by a bipartisan appeal from 257 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, who asked Kohl to cancel the invitation for Reagan to visit the cemetery.
Government officials and city fathers in Bitburg were irritated by the controversy. Bitburg Mayor Theo Hallet said representatives of the U.S. military have taken part in wreath-laying ceremonies at the cemetery every year since 1959.
Another leader in Kohl’s party, parliamentary floor leader Alfred Dregger, also defended the Bitburg visit Saturday.
″The current controversy in West Germany and the United States shows that such ceremonies (as the Bitburg trip), and the discussions that surround them, are necessary,″ Dregger said in an interview with Hesse Radio.
″When one views the U.S. television films that ridicule German and Japanese soldiers, for example, one must conclude such films do not serve as an accurate historical source,″ he said. ″They serve neither truth, nor reconciliation. (Therefore) we Germans should enter such discussions with directness.″
Earlier in the week Dregger wrote to Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, who initiated a petition signed by 53 senators asking Reagan not to go to Bitburg.
In his letter, Dregger said his brother died fighting the Soviet Red Army during World War II, and that the senators’ demand that Reagan cancel his Bitburg trip was ″an insult to my brother and his fallen comrades.″
The opposition Social Democratic Party meanwhile also stepped up its criticism.
The original plan - for Reagan to stop at Bitburg cemetery but not the site of a former Nazi concentration camp - was ″an attempt to play down a piece of German history,″ Peter Glotz, the Social Democrats’ general secretary, said in a television interview. ″I am ashamed for my government.″
Reagan added a stop at the former Bergen-Belsen camp to his West German itinery in response to the controversy over Bitburg.