What is behind it all? Forty years after the defeat of the Third Reich, the Western world is suddenly absorbed in a feverish attempt to unearth old Nazis. President Ronald Reagan, leader of the free world, is the target of criticism from civil libertarians, Jewish groups and even Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for his visit to West Germany’s Bitburg cemetery—because the graveyard includes a few SS soldiers among its 2,000 dead. Does no one see the danger—and irony—of a world that concentrates the blue-white flame of its fine moral intensity upon the faded spectre of nazism?
The danger is grim, most especially for someone like myself—a Jew. In my opinion, the people fussing over the Bitburg visit and those groups spending such energy scenting down old Nazi war criminals are acting in a manner that is highly injurious to Jews today. Some of the people involved know that very well; some do not realize the consequences of their actions. But it is a point that cannot be hammered home too often.
Behind the fuss does lie one central aim that all decent people share—a hope that we can prevent future holocausts from happening. Having agreed with that, surely the question we have to ask ourselves is, what kind of a society creates holocausts? And what kind of a society is most dangerous to the Jews? History answers: from the junta of Argentina to the Politburo of the Soviet Union, it is totalitarianism of the left and the right that is most dangerous. A further look reveals what is by now no surprise to anyone—that right-wing totalitarianism exists in tiny isolated pockets. Chile may be an unpleasant regime; ditto South Africa. But neither one seems bent on exporting its system.
Left-wing totalitarianism is another matter. Who are the people currently oppressing Jews, funding their enemies, imprisoning Jewish dissidents such as Anatoly Shcharansky and pursuing aggressive military adventures? Obviously, it is the Soviets.
This is evident to most people. But what seems more difficult to grasp is the fact that protests against visits to a West German cemetery or the prosecution of old Nazi war criminals helps today’s totalitarians.
Let me explain. The concentrated effort to focus attention on nazism has had several thrusts. One is to get free governments to pass laws that are in-
imical to liberal democracy and which weaken a free society and create dissension in it. Such laws include retroactive legislation which thwarts due process in criminal proceedings in order to make it easier to convict old Nazi war criminals. Other laws include limits on free speech and opinion, such as the hate literature provisions of the criminal codes in Canada and Germany.
Equally serious is the attempt to create dissension between Western democratic allies—specifically between the United States and West Germany, which together are the two staunchest bulwarks against communism. A typical example of this thrust is the hue and cry over the Bitburg cemetery visit.
Bitburg contains a bitter memory of the last major counteroffensive of the Germans against the Allies. In Bitburg cemetery are the graves of those who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in the cold winter months leading up to Janu-
7 have contempt for the politicians who are brave against dead totalitarians and accommodate live ones'
ary, 1945. When it was over, 181,000 men lay dead. The German retreat from the Battle of the Bulge was like Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Descriptions from survivors give frightful accounts of soldiers shuffling through the snow with feet bound in rags, their skin ulcerated, bodies crippled and dismembered—victims all. It was the Americans who took the brunt of that offensive. No doubt when the decision was made to visit Bitburg cemetery on the 40th anniversary of VE-Day,Reagan’s advisers thought that he would be honoring both the American and German soldiers who fought in that last great battle.
In that context, Reagan was simply echoing a decision made by the Allies years ago. Even before the Second World War ended, the Allies abandoned the concept of collective German guilt. They decided that all Germans would not be held accountable for the crimes of the Nazis. There was a practical aspect to their decision. They wanted unconditional surrender and thought the idea of collective guilt would stiffen German resistance. There was probably an additional reason: most people are apolitical;
most soldiers follow orders.
All the same, there is no question that for many people, and especially Jews, Reagan’s visit to Bitburg was a source of pain. It was a foolish, thoughtless act. And to my mind it also showed once again the moral hypocrisy of the world. Western leaders do not lay wreaths in front of Moscow’s Lubyanka prison, where today’s victims of totalitarianism are incarcerated. Instead, they only mourn yesterday’s toll.
Still, while the decision to visit Bitburg may have been stupid, it was not, in itself, a highly important one. The exaggerated significance given to it, however, has created tensions between the United States and the West Germans and has thus helped the Soviets—the only active totalitarians intent on harming the Jews. The Bitburg incident has had one other important effect. It acts as a decoy: it distracts attention from the real beasts actively running concentration camps today.
Of course it cannot be said often enough that nazism was the most horrible regime in history. But to be against nazism today is an easy and inexpensive way to show that one is a moral being. Those people who concentrate their energies on fighting nazism—a system of thought that has been defeated and discredited for 40 years—most often find excuses to accommodate active totalitarians. At best they are finding a cheap, painless way to fight for the principles of liberal democracy. At worst they are actively misdirecting moral outrage in order to undermine our freedom.
I do not believe for a moment that those Jewish organizations who protested the Bitburg visit were trying to help the Soviet Union. But they should understand that that is the consequence of their actions. As for our media and politicians who were so upset at the visit, I have nothing but contempt for them. They are brave in their stand against dead totalitarians—and weak-kneed when faced with live ones.
How cheap it all is. As long as we are nice to the active totalitarians, there are no contracts to lose, no profits to sacrifice, no sticky diplomatic moments, no wheat unsold. Meanwhile, we can spend all our moral indignation on defeated Nazis, and it doesn’t cost a penny. We can sit on a moral high horse. The price tag will only come if ever we get the courage and moral decency to assume the same position vis-à-vis the repressive murderers of today.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.