Monday, June 8, 2009

Bitberg and Buchenwald: A Tale of Two Presidencies

by Norman Markowitz

President Obama is back from his trip abroad, a remarkable one where he first spoke of peace, democracy and progress to the people of Egypt (and, by implication, the people of both the Middle East and the larger Islamic world). He then spoke to the people of Germany and the world at Buchenwald, where he confronted some of the greatest crimes against humanity ever perpetrated in history, crimes that were the direct result of fascism and war.

At Buchenwald, President Obama stood with the conservative Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Angela Merkel and called upon Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor whose writings on the Holocaust, translated into many languages have earned him the Nobel Prize

Thirty 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 great 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 a wink to the German and European Right that one could completely forget about WWII in order to prepare to fight WWIII against the Soviet Union. The Reagan administration's "official story" 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 were true, Reagan had of course forgotten entirely what they were fighting for, like 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 while forgetting with they had been fighting for and of course winking at segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans in the former confederate states.

But it wasn't true. 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 the murder of captured American POWs. Patrick Buchanan was White House Director of Communications at the time. When Elie Wiesel, at the White House for a ceremony on a different issue, called publically upon Reagan not to go to Bitberg, Buchanan and Reagan's people were very angry.

Reagan did go to Bitberg, tacking on a brief visit to a concentration camp as a cover. The Ramones, a progressive Rock group recorded a song "My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitberg)" alluding to the film which Reagan's political enemies most remembered, "Bedtime for Bonzo" where he played a professor, of liberal views interestingly enough, raising a chimpanzee. Frank Zappa even recorded a song, "Reagan at Bitberg" as artists used satire to express their anger.

But what Reagan did say 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, as left German intellectuals noted about the conservative argument in Germany after WWII, then no one is guilty of anything (except Hitler and a few top leaders) and one can return to business as usual, which for Reagan in 1985, fighting contra wars in Nicaragua and Afghanistan and supporting regimes in Chile and South Africa which at the time had much more in common with Hitler fascism than his friend Helmut Kohl in the Federal Republic of Germany.

But Obama at Buchenwald was speaking to and for a different world and reflecting 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 used the trauma that the Holocaust represents especially for Jewish people through the world positively by saying, hopefully, that Nazi atrocities against Jewish people should increase Israel's capacity to empathize with the suffering of others and those achieve a just and lasting peace with the Palestinian people.

There are still many in the U.S. for whom Ronald Reagan is a demigod and Patrick Buchanan is still in the business of peddling a kind of generic anti- you fill in the blanks right-wing ideology that some call "paleo-conservatism" (an insult to the people of the Paleolithic Age). But both were as absent from Obama's Buchenwald visit as the fascists who created the camp as they were present when Reagan laid flowers at Bitberg.

President Obama increased respect for the U.S. through the world by his 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 WWII.