This Day In History – May 5, 1985

5/5/1985 President Reagan during his trip to the Federal Republic of Germany and a visit to the Bitburg Kolmeshohe Cemetery with Helmut Kohl

President Reagan’s Address at Bitburg

In May of 1985 in the first months of his second term President Reagan visited West Germany to take part in the G-7 Economic Summit.  Because the visit occurred just before the 40th anniversary of “V-E Day” President Reagan and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl scheduled several events to mark that occasion.  V-E Day, May 8, 1945, is also known as Victory in Europe Day and was the day when the Allies accepted the surrender of Nazi Germany in World War II.

After World War II the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union agreed during the Yalta Conference, February 4-11, 1945, to divide Germany into four zones which each of them would occupy.  The Soviet-occupied eastern zone became East Germany from 1949-1989, while the French, British, and American zones became West Germany 1949-1989.  During the Cold War this division of Germany often became a rhetorical battleground in conflicts between the Soviet Union and NATO states.  Before German Reunification in 1989 the United States developed close economic and political ties to West Germany.

The 11th G-7 Economic Summit was a meeting in Bonn, West Germany May2-4, 1985 with the heads of state of France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and the President of the European Commission.  The stated purpose of the G-7 Summit was an opportunity for the member states to coordinate and negotiate policies on domestic and international economics and trade.  The member states were, at the time, the wealthiest industrialized nations.

After this summit, President Reagan and Chancellor Kohl planned several public appearances in order to demonstrate the strength of the diplomatic ties between the United States and West Germany.  On May 5, 1985 the two heads of state visited the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, where a mass-grave marker declares that 50,000 victims of the Holocaust were buried, before visiting Bitburg Cemetery where 2,000 German World War II soldiers were buried.  While many in the American public protested the visit when it was announced ahead of time, the German public was strongly in favor of the visit and Chancellor Kohl was under intense domestic pressure to bring President Reagan to the cemetery.


Reagan’s “Remarks at a Joint German-American Military Ceremony at Bitburg Air Base in the Federal Republic of Germany.”

1. To whom is President Reagan addressing his speech?
2. Which countries does President Reagan mention after invoking President Kennedy’s “I am a Berliner” quote?
3. What does President Reagan say is “our duty today”?

In-Depth Questions:
1. Analyze how President Reagan addresses the controversy in this speech.  Note at least three tactics he uses to discuss and frame the controversy.
2. President Reagan’s speech includes several stories of reconciliation between individuals or groups of Germans and Americans who were on opposite sides in World War II.  Discuss these stories and analyze why the President included them in this particular speech.
3. Formulate an alternative strategy for addressing the controversy from the perspective of an advisor to President Reagan.  How should the President address the controversy?  Should the President mention the SS soldiers buried in Bitburg or not?
4. What role does protest play in an open society?  Do President Reagan’s remarks indicate that he supports or opposes the right of those who disagree with his visit to express their opinions?
5. President Reagan was under pressure to continue with the scheduled event from the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl because the West German people strongly favored the visit.  Why would the West German public want the American President to visit the Bitburg Cemetary after visiting the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp?  Why did President Reagan choose not to blame the visit on Chancellor Kohl in order to deflect the controversy from himself?

Key Terms:
V-E Day
G-7 Summit
Cold War
West Germany
East Germany
German Reunification
SS (Schultzstaffel)/Waffen-SS
Yalta Conference
industrialized nation
Bar and Bat Mitzvah
freedom of speech
international relations

Further Reading:

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