Reagan and the Bitburg Incident: A Historiographical View
The historiography presents a largely unified account of why the Reagan administration and Reagan himself (between which there is no effective differentiation) sought to push for ratification of the Genocide convention.
Samantha Power argues in her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide that Reagan sought to appease those who were criticizing him for his Bitburg trip (and the comments he made while there) by pushing the treaty through Congress. According to Power’s account, the Bitburg fiasco was the only reason for Reagan’s change in mind and we are led to conclude that this change took place over night.
The Bitburg controversy began when Chancellor Kohl of West Germany invited Reagan to visit the Bitburg cemetery as part of an official visit and as commemoration of the Victory in Europe during the Second World War; it was later discovered that Nazi SS soldiers were buried there. The trip was scheduled for May 5, 1985. The controversy quickly escalated with major veterans and Jewish Organizations (as the majority of Americans in public opinion polls) indicated their disapproval of the visit.
Reagan eventually added a trip to a concentration camp, after initially refusing, in order to diffuse the impact of the negative publicity. His explanation of the original refusal – “a mistaken impression that such a visit was outside the official agenda” – furthered the protests against the trip. Reagan’s explanations were at times notorious – “I think that there's nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery, where those young men are victims of Nazism also, 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.” In fact, the SS soldiers buried at Bitburg had not been victims but proactive participants in genocide, as were some of the regular German soldiers as well, a point often ignored.
But Reagan also proved to be a master at using the Bitburg trip as part of his cohesive and effective political and ideological rhetoric, one that sought to marshal the forces of anti-Communism. During his speech at the Bitburg cemetery, as Anthony Lewis writing in the Times recounts it, Reagan was intent on noting the egregious rights violations of only Communist regimes, ignoring those of Colombian and Contra paramilitaries, of which Reagan was indirectly supportive. According to Clifford Marks, Reagan's anecdotal rhetoric and the attempt to simplify history in order to strengthen diplomatic relationships manipulated the larger cultural understanding of the Holocaust in favor of a political understanding. It is not difficult to see then the political machinations behind Reagan’s earlier announcement of his support for the Genocide Treaty at a speech before B’nai Brith.