On this day in 1985, President Ronald Reagan angers Jewish leaders and Holocaust survivors by visiting the Bitburg war cemetery in Germany. Then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who suggested the visit, accompanied Reagan to the cemetery, where 2,000 German troops are buried. Reagan laid a wreath at the base of a monument to fallen German soldiers. What he did not know was that the cemetery included the graves of 49 of Hitler’s infamous SS (Schutzstaffel), the paramilitary organization that planned and carried out the massacre of approximately 6 million people in death camps during World War II.
Before going to Bitburg, Reagan had visited the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, in which victims of Nazi persecution, mostly Jews, were exterminated. At Bergen-Belsen, Reagan stood by a marker identifying a mass grave of 50,000 bodies and said solemnly, “here they lie. Never to hope. Never to pray. Never to love. Never to heal. Never to laugh. Never to cry.”
Reagan chose to visit both Bergen-Belsen and Bitburg in an effort to honor all victims of World War II, including German soldiers. He also hoped the tour would acknowledge America’s strong relationship with Germany since the end of the war, saying “we who were enemies are now friends.” Reagan’s visit to Bitburg angered not only Jewish leaders and families of Holocaust victims, but also political leaders and citizens in America, France, Britain, West Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
At an American airbase later that day, after having been told of the SS troops buried at Bitburg, Reagan shared his regret over the visit, saying it had “opened old wounds.” Reagan’s advisors later admitted that the Bitburg visit was a fiasco that had tarnished the president’s image.