To the Editor:
It may well be a commonplace for letter writers to express the hope that one COMMENTARY article or another will become required reading for politicians, pollsters, and other molders of public opinion. What greater tribute can I pay to Midge Decter’s brilliant analysis, “Bitburg: Who Forgot What” [August], than to wish it that same well-deserved fate?
It is difficult to select for special commendation from the many illuminating insights in her article: the trivialization of both the special (Jewish) and the general significance of the Holocaust, of which the President’s incredible remarks concerning “victims” was only the latest and perhaps most puerile example; the unique import, in a world not wanting in examples of man’s inhumanity to man, of the horror erupting in that vanguard of enlightenment, Western Europe; the exposure of President Reagan’s talents as a communicator (and what it is he does communicate); the shameless reduction of the vexing moral and political dilemmas posed by his visit to an “ethnic” issue; the politically motivated cynicism of some of the President’s detractors, and the moral obtuseness it reveals.
I could go on. And I shall, if only to mention two more: first, Miss Decter’s questioning of the motives for and the meaning of Helmut Kohl’s invitation and what it consciously or unconsciously expressed: that “in the end” the Nazis had been “just plain Germans like everyone else”—and the very different sense in which that telling phrase can and undoubtedly will be understood by the victims and the victimizers and their progeny. Second, her denunciation of that primal sin of current so-called liberalism: the refusal to name names, and the feckless recourse to pious generalities in the face of concrete and discrete fact.
My only cavil with Miss Decter: it was not only Jody Powell and George F. Will (an otherwise thoughtful and eloquent columnist who appeared to have temporarily lost his eminently good sense) who defended the President. William F. Buckley wrote: “Reagan did the right thing. He performed splendidly. And he is owed apologies he will never get.” From whom, I wonder.
Theodore S. Hamerow, in “The Hidden Holocaust” [COMMENTARY, March], has sketched the appalling dimensions of the complicity of the peoples of the German-occupied lands in the destruction of European Jewry Edward Alexander, in “Operation Moses” [COMMENTARY, July], informed us of the “moral obscenity” of those on the Left and in mainstream Germany who, in a frenzy of anti-Semitism bordering on the hallucinatory, have found in the airlift of the Ethiopian Jews an astonishing occasion to equate the Israelis with the Nazis, no less, for “kidnapping” their black brethren. Perhaps one day COMMENTARY will explore in depth the reasons for the deadly persistence and widespread diffusion of the virus of anti-Semitism. In the meantime, we have Messrs. Hamerow and Alexander, as well as Midge Decter, to thank for reminding us of what Bitburg revealed that too many have already forgotten.
New York City
To the Editor:
When Midge Decter gets through analyzing President Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery, her conclusions seem inescapable. How could anyone have believed anything else? She has that rare combination: a first-rate mind and a sense of priorities.
Before reading Miss Decter’s analysis, I was exposed to thousands of words about Bitburg on television and in the newspapers. Yet I did not understand how President Reagan and Chancellor Kohl, despite hard-working and intelligent staffs, could have gotten into such a mess. Now I see how democratic leaders can fail to grasp the implications of their own actions. Issues confuse them, as they do the rest of us. The late Fiorello LaGuardia said, “When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut.”
One of the strengths of our democratic society is that Midge Decter is free to give a candid appraisal of what went wrong.
New Brunswick, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Midge Decter asks a key question: “What does it mean to ‘remember’ the Holocaust?” A resolve to prevent future Holocausts is a vital first step, but it is only a first step. The wherewithal to carry out that resolve is equally necessary.
Some of the politicians and others who most vociferously criticized the President’s visit to Bitburg are the very ones who oppose virtually every defense appropriation and foreign involvement. They are the spiritual heirs of Chamberlain, not Churchill; of the isolationists, not Roosevelt. The policies they espouse helped pave the way for Nazism in the 1930′s and are now paving the way for other forms of totalitarianism, which so easily lead to horrors such as genocide. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, desperately needed military supplies were ordered to Israel by President Nixon, whom these same people reviled as a warmonger; the supplies were flown in C5A’s (planes they opposed as expensive and unreliable), which made refueling stops in Portugal (a country then deemed too undemocratic to be our ally). Direct intervention of Soviet forces was prevented by a worldwide alert of U.S. forces, which was derided as an attempt to distract attention from Watergate. In short, “Never again”—which such people fervently proclaim—was made real by policies which they fervently oppose. . . .
We cannot remember the Holocaust in any meaningful way if at the same time we reduce our defenses below a safe level; if we castigate minor imperfections in our friends while ignoring the major defects of our enemies; or if we turn a deaf ear to the cries of the Cambodians, the Vietnamese boat people, the Afghans, or the Miskito Indians. If remembering the Holocaust does not make us more sensitive to these cries, of what use is the memory? . . .
David C. Stolinsky
Los Angeles, California
To the Editor:
. . . As one who had written the President angrily prior to his visit to Bitburg, who had struggled previously, and unsuccessfully, to feel comfortable with German acquaintances, . . . I ended up feeling liberated by the President’s visit to Bitburg and by the way he handled it.
There were several outgrowths of the visit that should be emphasized. The speech by Chancellor Kohl at Bergen-Belsen, mentioned by Midge Decter, and another he delivered there a week or so previously were widely reported in West Germany but not in the United States. These speeches avowed the eternal responsibility that Germans, collectively and as a nation, must bear for the horror of the Holocaust. Since then, President Weizäcker has spoken several times publicly in the same vein. These statements have been far more explicit and sensitive than any made previously, including any by the revered Konrad Adenauer.
Calling for notice as well were the statements by many young West Germans acknowledging a sense of horror at their national past, and a sense of bewilderment at the complicity of their elders. . . .
American Jews would be wise to direct their vigilance toward anti-Semitic acts now being committed in Nicaragua, Cuba, the Soviet Union, and, of course, throughout the Soviet puppet regimes in Eastern Europe. The threat to Jewry does not lie in the Federal Republic of Germany where, by a strange irony, the bungled visit by our President has evoked, at last, a clear, unequivocal avowal by the West German people and its leaders of their past and of their responsibility for that past.
New York City
To the Editor:
Midge Decter does her usual superb job in analyzing the American and Jewish angles of the Bitburg imbroglio. But she fails to give a convincing answer as to why Chancellor Kohl would lead his “good friend,” Ronald Reagan, up the graveyard path in the first place, and then insist on Bitburg and only Bitburg while a storm of indignation all but engulfed the President.
Having lived in postwar Germany for almost four years, I can assure Miss Decter that the answer is not the one she suggests: that there is a deep need in the German psyche finally to lay to rest the guilt arising from the crimes committed during the Nazi era. The two generations that have grown up since the collapse of the Third Reich have long since dissociated themselves from these atrocities. Educated by teachers who were themselves former Nazi sympathizers (there were none other available at war’s end), they learned precious little in school about Auschwitz and Buchenwald. I have raised these taboo subjects with literally hundreds of Germans. With few exceptions, the pat response was “we were not aware,” or simply annoyance.
If there were some profound guilt or remorse about the Nazis latent in postwar Germany, it would be manifested in a special relationship to Jewish survivors, particularly as regards the security of Israel, or in works of literature and art. But West German policy toward Israel is now consistently pro-Arab. . . . And as far as literature or art is concerned, all the works of permanent value—including documentation of the Holocaust itself—have their origins in other countries.
The psychological need for Bitburg thus scarcely lies in the sins of the past, but rather in the political exigencies of the present. The key to the significance of Bitburg is to be found in the self-Finlandization process now well under way in Western Europe, which Walter Laqueur, among others, has brilliantly depicted in the pages of COMMENTARY. West Germany, with one out of five industrial jobs now dependent on exports to the Soviet Union and its satellites, and unwilling to pay for a credible defense against a conventional Soviet invasion, is economically and strategically constrained to maintain a neutralist foreign policy. The difference between a Helmut Kohl and a Helmut Schmidt in this regard is solely one of style, not deeds.
The moral dilemma for the West Germans is how to justify neutralism, since they patently owe their freedom and prosperity to the United States, while their less fortunate brethren on the other side of the wall owe their penury and vassalage to the Soviets. The answer is, of course, to bring the White House to the same low level of respectability as the Kremlin. After so much money and good will have been lavished on the reconstruction and protection of a democratic West Germany, most Americans—including Miss Decter—cannot fully comprehend that an enormous gulf now separates Western Europe from ourselves, despite almost daily confirmation of this basic and painful fact. In 1981, for example, 300,000 German youths took to the streets of Bonn to protest alleged American atrocities in El Salvador. I asked a leading West German politician how it was possible that the largest demonstration in the history of his country could be focused on the activities of perhaps 55 American military advisers in El Salvador. His answer was uncharacteristically candid: “We Germans need El Salvador as the moral equivalent of Afghanistan.”
Thus the basic equation is set: the worse the Soviets behave internationally, the more the United States must be criticized and demeaned. While German youths are more prone to overt acts of anti-Americanism, the philosophy of moral equivalance has permeated every fiber of society, including most particularly the media. The most blatant example occurred in the wake of the Soviet dismemberment of the Solidarity movement in Poland, when the United States feebly protested the West German start-up on the Siberian gas pipeline, the biggest East-West trade deal ever. At the time, the two leading weeklies, Stern and Spiegel, published identical lead editorials, accusing the United States of hypocrisy; in their view the Soviets were merely doing in their sphere of influence what the United States would do to West Germany if the political situation got out of hand. . . .
The only example that Miss Decter gives—or anyone can give—of exactly how Helmut Kohl is supporting his “friend” Ronald Reagan is his running some political risk by accepting deployment of the Pershing missiles. It should be remembered, however, that it was Helmut Schmidt who demanded these missiles in 1979, over grave U.S. objections, on the ground that the United States could not be trusted to react with strategic weapons if the Soviets invaded Germany. Far from being a symbol of NATO-alliance unity, the Pershing missiles represent a profound malaise. That their deployment should be considered a “favor” to the United States demonstrates clearly that whatever course the United States chooses must be morally questionable. Now the argument runs that the United States is foisting the missiles on Europe because it thereby hopes to escape a direct nuclear exchange with the Soviets.
While the current moral-equivalence formula can now be maintained by referring to El Salvador, Grenada, or any other action—however mild—that the United States undertakes to fend off Soviet expansionism, there is still the outstanding question of how to square neutralism with past American behavior. After all, it is still within the living memory of many Germans that American GI’s were handing out Hershey bars behind their lines while the Soviets raped and pillaged to the East. Here is where Bitburg fills a crucial void. In forcing the genial and unsuspecting Ronald Reagan to pay homage to buried SS men, Helmut Kohl brought America to its Canossa: the moral superiority of the American cause in World War II is thereby erased. The Americans won, and the Soviets won, because they had the stronger armies. That is the only lesson the war teaches.
The wreath an American President laid at Bitburg, forty years after the death camps, must take its place alongside Chamberlain’s umbrella in the grim annals of European appeasement and defeatism. In Western Europe, the sands of democracy and decency have little time to run.
To the Editor:
In her article, Midge Decter writes:
That no one in all the hundreds of thousands of words devoted to the controversy in the press and on the air saw fit to question the curious role of Helmut Kohl and what it might mean is a tribute to the massive moral and political confusion engendered by Bitburg.
No one? The Washington Post of April 23 carried a column entitled “Two Who Bumbled.” The two, of course, were Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl. Of Mr. Kohl the column said:
Chancellor Kohl, after all, was the main actor. He insisted that the Bonn economic summit be joined with the ceremony of reconciliation. He proposed the visit to the Bitburg cemetery. He proposed—or at least said he proposed, for the evidence seems far from clear—that Reagan visit Dachau. He accepted, or said he accepted, a turndown of that suggestion by the President.
. . . Kohl could easily have saved Reagan from his lack of seriousness. . . . But he is a provincial—a pure product of Rhineland Pfalz. . . . He lacks the experience and vision to be a statesman of world class.
His great quality is his great weakness—mindless optimism. So he did not see that the visit, and its chosen motif of reconciliation, was running into trouble. He simply plunged forward.
I am familiar with those words because I wrote them. But the column was not exactly obscure. It led the op-ed page of the Washington Post. It was syndicated to, and reprinted in, over a hundred papers in this country. It was extensively cited in the German press.
The point is that media criticism—even by people as intelligent and discriminating as Midge Decter—is highly impressionistic, not systematic. Phrases like “no one in all the hundreds of thousands of words” usually amount to a certificate of error.
To the Editor:
Though I found the usual liberal-baiting rhetoric and facile denunciations of the so-called Left that I have come to expect from Midge Decter, I was sufficiently impressed and moved after reading her article on Bitburg to laud her performance. One strong rebuke, however, is in order.
I cannot imagine even so voracious a reader and listener to news programs as I imagine Miss Decter to be making so unqualified a statement as the declaration that “no one . . . in the press and on the air saw fit to question the curious role of Helmut Kohl.” My own sense of professional integrity compels me to respond to such an absurd generalization.
I am a university professor who does a nightly news commentary program that goes all over the West, into Canada, and down to Mexico on KGO radio, an ABC affiliate in San Francisco. East Coast chauvinism notwithstanding, this is a fairly wide geographic range, and the program reaches hundreds of thousands of listeners. I am certain that other outraged commentators must have voiced sentiments similar to those I put out on the airwaves. I not only consistently and heatedly questioned Helmut Kohl’s role throughout the entire fiasco of Ronald Reagan’s going to Bitburg—I made certain my audience realized that Mr. Kohl’s erroneous instincts for his own political future and his need for the exoneration of the German people from collective guilt were indeed responsible for making our foolish President tender a promise he subsequently felt obliged to keep. German support for “Star Wars” and the placement of nuclear arms on German soil were enough of a tradeoff here, but I let my listeners know that Mr. Reagan’s initial remarks to the press about the German people feeling an ample quantity of guilt and his later muddle-headed and idiotic comparison of young Hitler soldiers to the Holocaust dead were both almost certainly a reflection of Mr. Kohl’s thinking—they were, I imagine, taken from conversations between the two men with the kind of deftness with which Mr. Reagan manages to cull snippets of thought from the Reader’s Digest.
Moreover, what I made abundantly clear to my listeners, and what I am relatively certain must have been evident to other commentators, was the strange behavior of Mr. Kohl as he attempted on the one hand to memorialize the Jewish dead while on the other forcing the Bitburg issue on the Jewish living despite their nearly unanimous pleas that the placing of a wreath at the headstones of members of the SS was a defilement of their dead.
As I saw it and said it, Mr. Kohl was reenacting the greatest of German sins against the Jewish people—he was imposing on them an abstraction. In this case his notion of reconciliation. And he brooked no compromise, showed no mercy, and thus obstinately refused to let our President off the hook.
One can reasonably conclude that Mr. Kohl sought to exculpate himself and his fellow Germans at whatever cost, even including the nearly collective will of the Jewish people. The subsequent forbidding of Jews to enter the grounds of Bergen-Belsen was as revealing as it was damnable—revealing of the vestigial anti-Semitism which continues to haunt Mr. Kohl and the so-called new Germany. It is difficult for me to believe that I was the one voice offering such conclusions, since they seem so abundantly clear.
Michael J. Krasny
San Francisco, California
To the Editor:
In her article on Bitburg in which she—wrongly in my opinion—relates that unfortunate event to historical problems as far removed from each other as Munich and the future of the West Bank, Midge Decter raises the issue of Helmut Kohl’s emotional stake in seeing the affair through to the bitter end. . . .
Miss Decter argues that a need to redo or undo German history was the reason behind Chancellor Kohl’s stubborn refusal to modify President Reagan’s visit. The difficulty with this is that “history” is not a personal category. People, Helmut Kohl no less than others, do not live in “history.” They live in little versions of it, in a word, personal history, and Mr. Kohl made his plain enough. He constantly invoked the fact that he had been fifteen years old at the end of the war, too young to be responsible in any way for what had happened; indeed, not at all unlike those innocent teen-agers President Reagan mourned in Bitburg who were as much the victims of Nazism as the murdered Jews.
One need not be a psychiatrist or even a psychohistorian to note that repetition means something of great importance to the speaker, positive or negative. Mr. Kohl’s constant invocation of his age of innocence is the clear and simple key. He desired personal absolution for himself and for the majority of present-day Germans who were either teen-agers or not yet born in May 1945. His invariable repetition of this theme probably was the genesis of Mr. Reagan’s gesture and the hapless rationale that hardly any Germans are alive who remember. One can almost sense Mr. Reagan gleaning the phrase from Mr. Kohl. . . .
To the Editor:
Midge Decter has offered us relief from the barrage of lies that we have been treated to concerning President Reagan’s visit to Bitburg. But she has not gone far enough.
Many of the issues she brings up are real but secondary. Yes, Ronald Reagan was confused on this issue—so what else is new? It might be regarded as “strange” for a country to celebrate the anniversary of its own defeat, but only if that country’s basic political system had not drastically altered in the meantime. . . . Talk of “black holes” yawning in “German consciousness” might be poetic, but it is hardly objective. And the statements of various Jewish leaders and veterans implying that the visit could be construed as implicitly honoring the Nazis only show the degree to which some people can be caught in a time warp, mindlessly repeating outworn slogans as if they were the latest word on present realities. . . .
The Nazis are dead. They represent no threat to anyone. But . . . the fact that every sort of leftist, liberal, and Communist . . . around the world, including many virulent enemies of the Jews and Israel, also crusaded against this visit is not insignificant. It is in this outpouring of hatred that we see the real source of the opposition to Bitburg. . . .
As I said above, the Nazis are dead. But their spiritual successors, the Communists, are very much alive, and in keeping with the bloodthirsty traditions of Hitler, are continuing the same horrors with a vengeance. They are a threat—to everyone. The West German military no longer fights for Nazism: it stands as a military bulwark for freedom and against . . . Communism.
The Communists do not want to confront this military machine, and the NATO forces behind it, directly. Rather, they want to discredit and demoralize it from within. And that is what Bitburg was all about—an attempt to smear the current German military and undermine our alliance with it and the free German people it defends. . . .
To the Editor:
. . . It has always been my impression that the reason we remember the Holocaust is so that no one will ever again attempt genocide. Unhappily, postwar history indicates that we have not yet achieved that end. Nevertheless, despite lack of success, it has always seemed to me that remembrance of the Holocaust is a noble task.
During the Bitburg controversy, many Jews lost sight of this purpose. The Jewish community seemed to have forgotten its message of “Never Again” and traded it in for a less appealing slogan: “Never Forgive.” Although it may be a heretical position for a Jew to take in 1985, I submit that Ronald Reagan was correct in his assertion that even members of the SS were victims of the Nazi regime. During World War II, the German people suffered a unique loss. That loss is more difficult to explain than the loss suffered by the Jewish people. The experiences of the Germans and the Jews during World War II are not comparable, but they each must be recognized. I do not pretend to understand what it must have been like to be in a concentration camp, but it does seem to me that we Jews emerged from the Holocaust with our humanity intact. Not so the Germans. German behavior during World War II was subhuman. It is horrible to think that someone once tried to exterminate my family from the face of the earth. I have to live with that fact. Nevertheless, it would be even more difficult to live with the fact that my father had tried to commit genocide.
During the Bitburg debate, many Jews lost sight of the awful past which the German people must deal with every day. The German reaction to last year’s ceremonies in Normandy should have demonstrated that there is still a festering wound in Germany. We should care for that wound, not rub salt in it. The Bitburg visit should have been part of the healing process. Families of German war dead must not be continually excoriated for the sins of their fathers and husbands. If the Bitburg visit had been cancelled, German humanity would have been questioned to a greater degree than it was by the gruesome debate. Such conduct reinforces a historical predilection to hate Jews. President Reagan’s handling of the Bitburg situation was far from perfect. He should have gone to Bitburg and announced with much more vigor than he did that the acts of the Third Reich were despicable, abominable, repugnant, hateful, odious, abhorrent, loathsome, disgusting, and aberrant; but that we grieve for all people who died and who were victims of that time. . . .
There is one question to which I haved heard no satisfactory response: how can forgiveness be wrong?
Douglas L. Furth
Salt Lake City, Utah
To the Editor:
Ronald Reagan’s reluctance to offend the sensibilities of postwar Germany with unpleasant memories on V-E day stands in striking contrast to the victorious posturing of Vice President Bush and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger at the more recent ceremony marking Japan’s capitulation at the end of the Pacific war. Understating the historical significance of the Holocaust was not an isolated mistake related to the Bitburg incident. It reflects a wholesale revisionism concerning the Nazi regime that seems increasingly widespread on the Right in this country. Consider the case of White House Communications Director Patrick Buchanan who, in a column last February, called the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigation (the agency responsible for investigating Nazi war criminals) a “dim-witted instrument of Soviet disinformation,” which displays inordinate “zealotry to punish naturalized American citizens who collaborated in the Holocaust forty years ago.” Buchanan concedes that “Perhaps this endless search for Nazi war criminals, these endless reenactments, on stage and screen, of Hitler’s concentration camps are good for the soul,” but nevertheless questions “to what end all this wallowing in the atrocities of a dead regime when there is scarcely a peep of protest over the prison camps, the labor camps, the concentration camps operating now in China, Siberia, in Cuba or Vietnam?” . . .
Midge Decter, I believe, misses the point by arguing that President Reagan’s Bitburg error was a conservative reapplication of the “rankest of the rank habits of present-day liberalism.” Bitburg reflected, knowingly or unknowingly, the rankest of Gentile habits: anti-Semitism, a phenomenon shared by all political tendencies, hovering just below the surface of our political culture. . . . In fact, aside from the American labor movement (and, as Miss Decter correctly points out, the American Legion), no other non-Jewish institution in this country has both consistently opposed Communist totalitarianism and condemned President Reagan’s Bitburg stupidity. For the American Jewish community, salvation comes from neither the Right nor the Left. We are strangers in a foreign land.
New York City
To the Editor:
In lecturing American Jewry on “remembering” the Holocaust, Midge Decter . . . concludes with invective against the “rankest of the rank habits of present-day liberalism,” the “recourse to generality.” But it is exactly her “recourse to generality” which in the end transforms an otherwise instructive article into yet another platform for neoconservative polemics.
What else is one to make of Miss Decter’s political litmus test for remembering? With her disingenuous comparison of Weimar’s instability with purported Jewish neglect of current threats to American democratic institutions; with the pedantic application of the Munich message once again, this time vis-à-vis her dubious questioning of Jewish commitment to the survival of Israel, Miss Decter groups together the gamut of COMMENTARY’s political agenda, domestic and foreign, all under the guise of exhorting American Jews to remember the Holocaust.
At best, in company with the liberals she lambastes, Miss Decter is hypocritically engaging in “rank” generalization. More probably, by battling for the neoconservative agenda ad nauseam, she is exploiting and trivializing the horror of the Holocaust.
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
It was inevitable, I suppose, that Midge Decter would permit her mostly brilliant piece on Reagan and Bitburg to be turned in part into a predictable smear of Jewish liberals. Her retelling of the facts of the Bitburg incident was comprehensive and complete. Her analysis of the strange mind-set and conduct of President Reagan and Chancellor Kohl was fascinating and, considering her rather well-known political views, even surprising. But one had to laugh when, as if on cue, came the assault on “present-day liberalism.” Talk about artful (albeit irrelevant) interpolation!
Miss Decter’s little sermon on the “political and social lessons” of the Holocaust is also off the mark. It is true that some Jews have grown careless in their regard for the institutions of a decent society. Sad to say, that carelessness is often best seen in neoconservative thought. And wouldn’t you just expect a neoconservative to characterize the quest for a genuine and secure peace, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world, as appeasement? As for the dangers to democracy, what could be more dangerous than a mean-spirited citizenry more preoccupied with reverse racism than with feeding the hungry?
As Miss Decter concludes (a conclusion with which I am in complete agreement), the real and never-ending task of Jews is in remembering the Holocaust and keeping faith with our dead. Why then is she so distressed over the fact that in fulfilling that role in the Bitburg controversy, we may have embarrassed the President or annoyed a few of his pals?
Jordan C. Band
To the Editor:
Midge Decter . . . opened some fresh wounds. Time had served to diminish my disappointment with the President’s moral confusion and lapses of conscience . . . in connection with his Bitburg visit. Intervening crises . . . had served to dull my senses after I had come to terms with the President’s speeches in Germany.
Now it occurs to me that I should not have been surprised that an honorary member of the U.S. Holocaust Commission was ill-equipped to distinguish between victims of Nazi tyranny by choice and victims chosen for genocide by Nazi tyranny. Perhaps the President reflects the condition of many among us who, having been weaned on diets of movies, radio, and television, have lost the ability to understand the real meaning of words or the true impact of human events. Admittedly, it takes a strong will not to overidentify with make-believe characters, especially when talented writers, directors, and actors are able to arouse emotions more effectively than straight news reports of genocide, totalitarianism, and man’s inhumanity to man.
Martha S. Cherkis
Brooklyn, New York
To the Editor:
In writing “Bitburg: Who Forgot What” Midge Decter herself apparently forgot that the current consensus among virtually all historians in regard to the German-controlled concentration camps located in the territory of the Old Reich (pre-1939) is that there were no gassings of anybody. Her description of the Dachau camp, built in 1933 upon an abandoned munitions factory eleven miles northwest of Munich, contradicts this consensus to the extent that it implies that there were gassings there. On the other hand, Martin Broszat of the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich came to the conclusion in 1960 that: “The gas chamber in Dachau was never completed and put into operation. . . . The mass extermination of Jews by gassing started in 1941/1942, and took place . . . with the aid of installations technically designed for this purpose, above all in occupied Polish territory . . .” (Die Zeit, August 26, 1960).
Indeed, what was at one time identified as gas chambers at Dachau is now identified, for the benefit of tourists visiting the camp, as a disinfecting chamber that was used for delousing clothing. . . . Of course, it is also widely acknowledged that such apparatus utilized the insecticide Zyklon B simply as a disinfectant rather than as a source of gas lethal to humans. The shower bath at Dachau, presumably installed for the same purpose as the ones at other camps in the Old Reich, viz., for disinfecting the camp inmates themselves, is now represented, as it also was immediately after the U.S. Army took over the camp, as a gas chamber. As the shower bath is the only facility at Dachau still identified as a gas chamber, it must be the uncompleted gas chamber which Broszat was referring to in the above-quoted statement. Nevertheless, in agreement with most students of the subject, he assures the reader that this gas chamber, unlike the four gas ovens in the Dachau crematorium, was never used for any purpose.
The generally accepted finding of Broszat not only flies in the face of the picture of Dachau painted by Miss Decter, but also of the testimonies and confessions presented at the infamous postwar Dachau trials as the sole proof of gassings at Dachau. Yet hundreds of individuals at the end of the Dachau trials were sent to the gallows on the basis of this proof. Moreover, similar proof was relied upon in all other war-crimes trials during and after World War II with similar results. The latter, I’m sure, both Miss Decter and Martin Broszat would rather forget.
Carol B. Miller
Midge Decter writes:
To Allen Greenberg: First, my thanks for your interesting, if most depressing, letter. No one who pays close attention to the condition of U.S.-German relations, and to that of the Western alliance generally, can be unaware of the efforts of many influential people—on both sides of the Atlantic, by the way—to establish the idea of moral equivalence between the United States and the Soviet Union. Nor is it difficult to trace the connection between this idea and the implicit advocacy of accommodation with the Soviets. I myself speculated in passing that perhaps what the Germans were really seeking absolution for was not their Nazi past but their neutralist future. On this score, there is little disagreement between us. Still, I would not take at face value any claims or appearances of German feelings of dissociation from Nazi atrocities. In my experience—which has, to be sure, been less continuous than your own—the subject still stirs among Germans of all ages a highly charged response, either positive or negative. Do not listen to the words; look at the faces. And why is it that Hitleriana still sells like hot-cakes in Germany? Without in any way contradicting what you say, I would still insist that Helmut Kohl’s having compelled Ronald Reagan indirectly to pay his respects to the SS contained a very curious message to the world.
To Joseph Kraft: I did of course read your column about Helmut Kohl. Indeed, I am a faithful reader of all your columns. It did not seem to me, however, that calling Mr. Kohl a mindlessly optimistic provincial answered in any way to the issue I was raising. On the contrary, your idea seemed to me precisely to close down on the real question.
To Michael J. Krasny: An effort, covering many pages and thousands of words, to offer a serious analysis of a highly emotional and tangled dispute might in your opinion be wrong-headed or mistaken—I gather you did not find it so, and am pleased—but it is not in any case “baiting.” Nor, if I were you, would I bandy the term “anti-Semitism” quite so freely as you did in connection with Helmut Kohl. Anti-Semitism is gravely important; if you will, a fateful concept. Hitler taught the world what it can mean, which is, after all, exactly what lay at the base of all the passion aroused by Bitburg. Promiscuous use of this term runs the risk of rendering it commonplace.
To Harold Ticktin: I do not know Helmut Kohl and therefore will not presume to judge whether what you say about his private motive is persuasive or not. But to claim that the head of the government of the Federal Republic of Germany—a country particularly crucial to the future fortunes of all of Europe—does not live in history is to offer a rather breathtaking proposition. It is the kind of proposition that allows one to deny the relevance of what happened in the 30′s to what is happening today. I seriously doubt that Mr. Kohl can permit himself such a luxury. I am sure that Jews can’t.
To David Solan: I am not aware of a single voice raised on any side of this issue (except, of course, that of the Soviets and their mouthpieces in the West) in denigration of the current West German military. Nor were only leftist voices raised against Mr. Reagan’s visit to Bitburg. The issue was far from being as simple as you make it. The problem for many people was, would smoothing over the German past help Mr. Reagan to keep us alert to the dangers of the Communist present, or would it both logically and psychologically hinder that effort? It was Helmut Kohl, not the “liberals” you excoriate, who sought by implication to wipe away the distinction between the free German people and the SS. For those of us who, like yourself, wish to keep the anti-totalitarian principle alive and paramount, this was a dangerous and altogether unnecessary thing for him to do.
To Douglas L. Furth: Bitburg was not about forgiving the German people. That had been done long ago, not only by the United States but by the Jewish communities of the world. Bitburg was about including the SS in a gesture of brotherly commemoration. Why should anyone forgive the SS? To do so is not to express, but rather to make a meaningless thing of, one’s humanity.
To Sam Shube: No doubt there is anti-Semitism to be found in this country—more of it, more openly expressed, than in many years. Is this cause for concern? Yes, and always must be. But I would caution you, as I cautioned Mr. Krasny, to reserve the term for those occasions where it really counts and really threatens. Otherwise, as has become the case with the term “racism” on the lips of certain blacks, it will come to stand, first, for whatever displeases us, and, second, for whatever we disagree with. The passage you quote from Patrick Buchanan, for instance, was an oversimple thought over-hastily articulated, but its real object was not the Jews but the double standard according to which it is okay to hate the Nazis but not okay to hate the Communists. Nor was Mr. Reagan’s decision to go to Bitburg an expression of anti-Semitism—though it did in the end become a decision to “choose” the Germans over the Jews. Nor were the labor movement and the American Legion the only anti-Communist groups to condemn Mr. Reagan’s visit to Bitburg—that is preposterous. On the other side, there were many people acting out of honest considerations of policy, considerations that you or I might deplore but are not entitled to call anti-Semitic. Would you call the labor movement anti-Semitic because it has misguidedly adopted the policy of affirmative action? Surely not. As for being “strangers in a foreign land”—wash out your mouth with soap.
To Philip Rothman: Affixing labels to people’s arguments may be emotionally satisfying, but it does not in any way characterize—let alone begin to answer—them.
To Jordan C. Band: It is certainly permissible for you to dislike, and to oppose with all your might, neoconservative ideas. (It may not have escaped your notice that in this you are not entirely alone.) But I fail to see how, whatever the degree of your hostility, reverse racism or feeding the hungry enters into a discussion about Bitburg. My piece contained no “smear of Jewish liberals” or indeed of any “liberals.” What I was talking about was an age-old and inbuilt tendency, or habit, of liberal thought to turn the specific into the general. And what I pointed out was that it was an especially odd thing for a self-proclaimed, committed conservative like Ronald Reagan to have been speaking in that sense like a liberal. I do, it is true, find this mindset to be the source of many of our difficulties in understanding and dealing with the world, not the least of them being the way it gives rise to other disquieting habits, like assuming that those who do not share your favorable view of this or that policy hold the views they do because they are less moral or “feeling.” This habit of assumption is in fact what led you to remark that I was “distressed” over the fact that the President may have been embarrassed. Nowhere in what I actually said, or suggested, or even just implied, is there warrant for that particular observation. I am in any case grateful to you for providing so vivid an example of what I was trying to describe.
To Martha S. Cherkis: It is true that we are about to be drowned in babble, and that in the deluge, it is hard to hang onto the meaning of both words and events. But surely you cannot believe that President Reagan meant what he said about the SS being victims. He was in a spot, and grabbed for the nearest handy thing to say. As has happened with him more than once, the nearest was also the most unfortunate.
To Carol B. Miller: What I said about Dachau is simply that had the President gone there, he would have seen a gas chamber and an oven or two. Whether they were used at Dachau or only in the Eastern camps is perfectly irrelevant. To see that these instruments of mass death were of human proportion—which was the real point I was making—is to be indelibly reminded that the Holocaust was not some vast abstraction but the actual, intentional murder of millions of individual persons.
If visitors to Dachau are now being informed (I have not been there for some years) that the gas chamber was merely a disinfecting chamber and that Zyklon B was used as a preventive against typhus, then things are worse in Germany than one suspected.
And if I understand the rest of your letter correctly—I sincerely pray that I do not, and that you did not mean quite what you said—I must beg you to bethink yourself. Dachau, to be sure, was not one of the real “killing camps.” Indeed, it was estimated that “only” around 100,000 people died there. One hundred thousand may not in Nazi terms be very impressive; in Baltimore, Maryland, however, it should at least give pause. How many killings would it take to constitute an indictable offense in your eyes? The “would rather forget,” I am afraid, is rather spectacularly and frighteningly on the other foot—that is, if “forget” and not something more sinister is the word for it.
Finally, I am indebted to David C. Stolinsky and Frederic Wile for the added light they have thrown on a messy subject—and to Jackson Toby, not only for his kind words but for his timely reminder to us all of just what made the public quarrel about Bitburg possible in the first place. And to Henry Sherman, what can I offer but my plainest and simplest thanks?