COMMENTARY Obama at Buchenwald buries Reagan past

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President Obama is back from his trip abroad. It was a remarkable tour, during which he spoke of peace, democracy and progress, and then, in Germany, he confronted some of the greatest crimes against humanity ever perpetrated, crimes that were the direct result of fascism and war.

During his visit to the remnants of the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, President Obama stood with conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor whose oft-translated writings on the Holocaust, have earned him the Nobel Prize.

Twenty-four years ago President Ronald Reagan stood with another conservative Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Helmut Kohl, at a cemetery in Bitberg, Germany. Even before Reagan’s visit, the trip had stirred enormous controversy.

For Reagan, then deep into the largest military buildup in history, the trip was planned as a gesture to the Kohl government which had supported his Cold War revival policies. In essence, it was a not-so-subtle hint to the German and European right wing that we could completely forget about World War II in order to prepare to fight World War III against the Soviet Union.

The Reagan administration’s ‘official’ explanation for the visit to Bitberg was that both German and American troops were buried at the Bitberg cemetery, and Reagan would come to remember and honor them both. Even if that explanation were true, Reagan apparently had forgotten entirely what they were fighting for. His amnesia was not unlike those conservative politicians in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century who proclaimed the Civil War a ‘brothers’ war’ and sought to honor equally Union and Confederate dead, forgetting the causes of the war and winking at segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans in the former Confederate states.

Reagan’s explanation rang false, however. There were no American dead buried at Bitberg. Also, there were Waffen SS troops buried there – Nazi special forces who had committed atrocities throughout Europe and the Soviet Union, including in the last months of the war they murdered captured American POWs.

White House Director of Communications Patrick Buchanan responded angrily when Elie Wiesel called on Reagan publicly to stay away from Bitberg.

Reagan did go to Bitberg, tacking on a brief visit to a concentration camp as a cover. The Ramones, a progressive punk group, recorded a song, ‘My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitberg),’ alluding to the film that marked the zenith of Reagan’s acting career, ‘Bedtime for Bonzo.’ Frank Zappa even recorded a song, ‘Reagan at Bitberg,’ as artists used satire to express their anger.

What Reagan said about his trip to Bitberg wasn’t funny. For anti-fascists, it bordered on being obscene. After criticizing the Waffen SS as ‘villains’ who ‘conducted the persecutions and all,’ Reagan went on to say, ‘I don’t think there is anything wrong with visiting a cemetery where those young men (the soldiers buried) are victims of Nazism even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis. They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.’

If everybody is a victim, then no one is guilty of anything, except Hitler and a few top leaders. In Reagan’s logic, one can return to business as usual. This distorted system of justice probably helped Reagan to justify his ‘contra’ wars in Nicaragua and Afghanistan, while supporting regimes in Chile and South Africa which at the time had much more in common with Hitler fascism than anything else.

Obama at Buchenwald spoke to and for a different world and reflected a different moral universe. Obama remembered his uncle who had helped to liberate the camp and ‘the painful memories that would not leave his head’ from that experience.’ He told the people of the world that Buchenwald was ‘the ultimate rebuke’ to those fascists and racists who have sought to deny that the Holocaust happened. He invoked the spirit of internationalism as he said ‘we must reject the false comfort that others suffering is not our problem and commit ourselves to resisting those who subjugate others to serve their own interests.’

Most of all, he suggested the trauma that the Holocaust represents especially for Jewish people through the world should increase Israel’s capacity to empathize with the suffering of others and those achieve a just and lasting peace with the Palestinian people.

President Obama increased respect for the U.S. through the world with this trip. He spoke in and for the best anti-fascist, anti-racist traditions of the American people. And he went a long way to expunge what Reagan and his handlers did at Bitberg.

Hopefully, Israel will respond and express the empathy that he spoke of toward the Palestinian people, which is not only in its best interests as a nation but also the best way to honor all of the victims of fascism in World War II.

Norman Markowitz is a contributing editor of Political Affairs.


Norman Markowitz
Norman Markowitz

Norman Markowitz is a Professor of History. He writes and teaches from a Marxist perspective, and has written many articles on a variety of topics, including biographical entries on Jimmy Hoffa, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Civil Rights movement, 1930-1953, and poor peoples movements in American History.