restricted access Chapter 3: Events Leading to Speeches at Bergen-Belsen and Bitburg
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[ ] chapter 3 Events Leading to Speeches at Bergen-Belsen and Bitburg After the positive reception of the speeches at Pointe du Hoc and Omaha Beach in 1984, Reagan seemed more secure in ceremonial speaking situations in Europe.Within a year he returned to Europe for ceremonies celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, but his speeches on that trip were far less successful. The controversy surrounding this trip exposed weaknesses in theWhite House staff in Reagan’s second administration and some of Reagan’s own personality flaws,particularly his stubbornness and unwillingness to alter his itinerary and message even when changing that message might have been wise. The Controversy over Reagan’s Visit On November 30, 1984, Reagan met with Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany in Washington, D.C. At the conclusion of the visit, Reagan accepted an invitation to lay a wreath at a German military cemetery. The White House sent Michael Deaver to Germany in February 1985 to select a site for the ceremony. Deaver was a public relations expert who had found locations for many of Reagan’s most successful speeches. “I was charged with handling the advance work [ ] chapter 3 and planning for the entire trip. Along with our diplomatic team in Bonn, we selected what I thought was the perfect site to lay a wreath to remember the German war dead. The cemetery I reviewed was ideal, beautifully coated with a long winter’s snowfall.”1 The cemetery in Bitburg, called the Kolmeshohe cemetery, was close to a U.S. military base:“After thirty-three years of fraternization and intermarriage, the area was about as Americanized as any in the Federal Republic. Both Reagan and Kohl—who as a boy in 1945 had been rescued from near starvation by U.S. food trucks—would feel comfortable there.”2 The spot seemed to be ideal, but there were problems hidden beneath the snow. Deaver claimed that he did not do his usual thorough job because he was in the process of leaving government and starting his own public relations firm. After making the selection, Deaver instructed the staff at the U.S. embassy in West Germany to make sure there were no hidden embarrassments in the cemetery. He received assurances from German chief of protocol Werner von der Schulenberg that“no war criminals” were buried there.Unfortunately,forty-nineWaffen SS soldiers were buried there.Deaver’s successor,William Henkel,asked about potential problems in a follow-up trip in March but was given no further information that would raise concerns. The trip itinerary was approved by the president and his staff in March. TheplansforthetripwereannouncedbyWhite House spokesperson Larry Speakes in Santa Barbara on April 11. At the press conference, Speakes was asked the identity of the soldiers buried in Bitburg. There had been newspaper reports that the cemetery contained only graves of German soldiers. Speakes did not know the answer but promised to investigate the situation and report his findings to the press. Even though stories about Reagan’s proposed trip did not contain information about the SS soldiers, they caused a furor among veterans of WorldWar II and their families because they believed that only German soldiers would be honored during Reagan’s trip.3 The announcement also offended many Jewish individuals because April 11 came at the height of Passover. Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize– winning author, expressed Jewish frustration: The timing of the an- [ ] events leading to speeches at bergen-bilsen and bitburg nouncement was “so crassly offensive to the feelings of Jews. . . . Rarely have I known such outrage.”4 Wiesel and others thought the announcement at such an important time was the result of incompetent staff work and did not reflect the president’s personal views. Reagan was vacationing at his ranch in the hills above Santa Barbara at the time. The furor only increased when the news about the graves of the Waffen SS soldiers broke during the weekend of April 13–14.TheWaffen SS, or Schutzstaffel, was the combat arm of Hitler’s elite guard and for many Americans represented the most heinous criminals of the Third Reich. The Nuremberg war crimes tribunal had judged the SS guilty of abominations, including exterminating Jews and killing prisoners of war.5 One of the soldiers was SS Sgt. Otto Franz Begel, who had earned the German Cross for killing tenAmericans in one day,on a day when seventy or more captured Americans were executed and buried...


Subject Headings

  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century
  • Communication in politics -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Presidents -- United States -- Language -- History -- 20th century.
  • Reagan, Ronald -- Travel -- Germany -- Bergen Belsen -- Public opinion.
  • Reagan, Ronald -- Travel -- Germany -- Bitburg -- Public opinion.
  • Political oratory -- United States.
  • Reagan, Ronald -- Oratory.
  • Discourse analysis -- United States.
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