The Holocaust Historiography Project

Secretary Shultz and the Bitburg Uproar

  • Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State, by George P. Shultz. New York: Scribner's, 1993. Hardcover. 1,184 pages. Photographs. Index. $30.00. ISBN 0-684-19325-6.

Reviewed by Andrew Gray

A hefty tome, but after all, George Shultz is an ex-professor, and obviously does not wish to be outdone by Dr. Kissinger. Buried in this long and discursive text, however, is a nugget for revisionists — 20 pages devoted to the story of President Reagan’s much-criticized May 1985 visit to the German military cemetery at Bitburg. Candor on this subject was not to be expected from ex-President Reagan, and this account by the former Secretary of State is the most accurate we have been accorded to date from any of the principal figures in the drama. All of which isn’t saying very much — we will no doubt have to wait for Patrick Buchanan to tell the tale as he experienced it for a remotely adequate version.

At any rate, the Bitburg crisis remains a central event of the time — an embarrassment to those who raised the uproar against the Presidential visit to the Bitburg cemetery and a salutary lesson for them and for everyone else. At issue was a specifically Jewish bid for veto power in government-to-government relations between the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany. Had this been granted at Bitburg, the World Jewish Congress would no doubt have demanded and received a seat at the table at which German reunification was negotiated five years later, though in such a case, there would probably have been no German statesman on the scene with sufficient prestige to negotiate the matter in the first place. We could only sense it at the time, but the prospects for German reunification were at stake in the concerted Jewish assault on Helmut Kohl. World leaders live by and on prestige.

If Ronald Reagan had deserted the German chancellor, Kohl would have been revealed as a Gummilöwe, a “rubber lion,” like his predecessor Ludwig Erhard, a man without clout when push came to shove. Instead — after facing down combined Jewish power and hysteria — the chancellor emerged as a man who could later negotiate the withdrawal of the Soviets from Central Europe with Mikhail Gorbachev one-on-one, that is, with barely a nod to the president of the United States, whom he considered an interested bystander in the transaction.

Of course George Shultz doesn’t say any of this. At the height of the uproar, he admits joining the chorus of those advising the President to cancel the Bitburg visit. Shultz is an ex-Marine, who has seen first-hand the most brutal forms of combat the Pacific War produced, but he proves predictably incapable or unwilling to draw even the most obvious parallels with the Waffen SS. No, his is the same old litany, compete with ignorant reference to the Oradour tragedy, with is regularly served up in the propaganda-tinted history we receive from official sources as a “massacre” supposedly typical of Waffen SS units in action. Well, there were no doubt some Abolitionists who spat on the graves of Confederate dead, but by and large Confederate cemeteries have been honored even by the most convinced Unionists as symbolizing the bravery and spirit of self-sacrifice of those lying buried within them. One would think George Shultz of all people might accord such dignity to the German dead at Bitburg, but not at all — “Hitler is laughing in hell right now,” he recalls telling his subordinates before leaving for Germany to accompany the President. “The idea of the visit, reconciliation, had been destroyed. Kohl has butchered it. He told us there were no SS buried at Bitburg. Teltschik said there were none.”

It gets worse. “Just before leaving for Bergen-Belsen,” Shultz writes, “I pulled out of my pocket a small lapel pin with a German emblem on it. It symbolized a decoration, the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit, that I had received in 1974 from the German government … I asked Rick Burt, Bernie Kalb and Charlie Hill whether I should wear this little button on my lapel. Immediately a fierce debate erupted … I sighed and put the little pin away.” If this were typical of the Marines, we would still be fighting on Guadalcanal.

At all events, the eight minutes Ronald Reagan spent at the Bitburg cemetery were arguably the apogee of his presidency. It was not merely a lesson for Jewish organizations alone — no, it was a demonstration to the combined power of the American media that they, too, could not command and control the American state on a fundamental German-American issue. This obviously came as a great surprise to many people, some of whom have not recovered from it yet. Perhaps this accounts in part for the pusillanimity of the Shultz version of this crisis, and for the remarkable fact that the German Chancellor himself declined to permit the author to quote in full his confidential message to President Reagan of April 15, 1985, in which Kohl made the visit an Existenzfrage for himself and his administration. There is much more to come on this subject, and it is likely to be tasty for revisionists.

From the Journal of Historical Review, July/August, 1994; vol. 14 no. 4: p. 45.