Sunday, May 22, 2016

Bitburg Revisited

Excuse the mixed metaphor, but I've seen some pretty spectacular straw-grasping in my day, but the random rationalizations Confederate apologists often concoct take the cake. Maybe it's straw cake.

In my previous post, I analyzed their most plausible argument against removing Confederate monuments and found it wanting. I looked at a few ludicrous ones too, but I held back my favorite moment:

At one point, one opponent actually claimed that the local Confederate monument was built to honor fallen soldiers on both sides of the U.S. Civil War. As is so often the case with the Dunning-Kruger effect, he was as wrong as he was certain - and he was absolutely certain.

It reminded me of a moment in Paul Slansky's book, The Clothes Have No Emperor: A Chronicle of the American 80s. In it, Slansky gives a nearly day-by-day account of the Reagan Era and Administration. Of interest here is Ronald Reagan's infamous 1985 Bitburg cemetery visit fiasco:
4/11 The White house announces that President Reagan will lay a wreath at the Bitburg, West Germany, military cemetery housing the graves of both American and Nazi soldiers. Oops! Correction: no Americans are buried there.
That clarification was significant. For Reagan's aides, the situation only deteriorated from there. It was not because Reagan's White House Communications Director was fascist apologist Pat Buchanan - most Americans probably did not know this about him at the time. Nor was it those nine Bush Senior campaign officers that were outed as fascists in 1988. That came later. No, it was because everything President Reagan said made the approaching photo-op both comedic and horrific
4/18 Michael Deaver - who somehow failed to notice Nazi gravestones last time he was there - is back in West Germany searching for an appropriate concentration camp to add to the President's itinerary. Asks Rep. Pat Schroeder, "What are they looking for? The right light angle?" Meanwhile, Reagan defends his visit to Bitburg by claiming the German soldiers "were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps." Says an aide,"Oh my God!"
4/19 Elie Wiesel - fortunate enough to be accepting a medal from the President on the same day The New York Times carries the headline "Reagan Likens Nazi War Dead to Concentration Camp Victims" - tells his host, "That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS." Reagan puts on his sad face.
4/29 President Reagan defends the Bitburg visit as "morally right," adding, I know all the bad things that happened in that war. I was in uniform for four years myself." He does not claim to have filmed the death camps.(1)
5/5 Having atoned in advance with a visit to the Bergen-Belsen death camp, President Reagan spends eight minutes at Bitburg, where cameras are forced to shoot the ceremony from poor angles. He cites a letter from 13-year old Beth Flom who, he claims, "urged me to lay the wreath at Bitburg cemetery in honor of the future of Germany." In fact, she urged him not to go at all. Summing things up, he says, "It's been a wonderful day."
The parallels with Confederate apologists grow with scrutiny. There are the awkward false equivalencies, of course. There's the reflexive lying as well.

But there is also an attempt to woo a particular ethnic demographic. As Russ Bellant explained in the link above and in his book, Old Nazis, the New Right, and the Republican Party, some Eastern Europeans were enthusiastic Nazi collaborators in WWII - hands-on accomplices in the Holocaust. They had formed their own fascist parties before the war and fought alongside the Nazis during it. But after the war, they found it easier to slip into the U.S. because they were not Germans and therefore, technically, not Nazis. No, they were members of the Latvian Legion, the Baltic Legion, the Belarus Brigade, the Romanian Iron Guard, or the Hungarian Arrow Cross. All formed SS-linked Waffen combat units.

Once here, they took over many leadership positions in immigrant communities; occasionally, strong-arming their way in. Then they became formally involved in Republican Party politics within the National Republican Heritage Groups Council. These were the type of white ethnics that Pat Buchanan advocating catering to - not just Southern whites.(2)

Like white Southerners, many in these minorities were/are opposed to these fascist groups and their goals. But the fascists controlled a big enough chunk that they had some clout. They knew how to manipulate group pride, bully, and blur crucial distinctions. And they were also aided by the ignorance or denial of others. All too often the desire to feel good about your group prevents you from hearing anything bad about it and nationalists always take advantage of that. People are people and that is my point.

But in both cases, there are also people like Beth Flom urging us to face the past honestly and carefully choose who we honor. We should follow her example.


(1) Reagan had made that claim on two previous occasions. As Slansky wrote: "12/6 [1983] The Israeli newspaper Maariv reports that during a meeting with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, President Reagan - who spent World War II making training films in Hollywood - claimed to have served as a photographer in an army unit filming the horrors of Nazi death camps." Two months later: "2/16 [1984] Welcoming Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and Rabbi Marvin Hier to the White House, President Reagan again claims, according to Hier, to have 'photographed Nazi atrocities while he was with the Signal Corps.' When reporters question this account, James Baker elicits from Reagan the clarification that he 'never left the country' during the war and 'never told anyone that he did.' As to how Shamir and Hier - in two separate meetings - could have come away with the same wrong story, Baker has no explanation."

(2) The Bitburg visit might not have been a dog whistle like then candidate Ronald Reagan's 1980 Philadelphia, Mississippi speech. It could have been an honest error compounded by the Gipper's gaffes. You can be an anti-communist without being an anti-semite. But much of the leadership of the RNC's Heritage Groups Council were both and Reagan was trying to encourage their support. Reagan spoke at a luncheon for them two weeks after his Bitburg visit. As Russ Bellant wrote in the introduction of his book: "If President Reagan needed a boost after the Bitburg fiasco, this was the crowd to supply it. To the assembled media, Reagan's visit that afternoon appeared as a routine stop, perhaps paying a re-election debt. The Republican Heritage Groups Council did, in fact, help elect Reagan. And they gave him a long standing ovation that afternoon at the Shoreham [Hotel]. To some of those attending the 1985 Council meeting, Reagan's rehabilitation of the Waffen SS must have offered a sense of personal and historic vindication." Vindication. That is what we are trying to avoid.

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