In a revealing gaffe, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday denied then defended Hitler's gas chamber genocide to highlight the claim that Syria used chemical weapons, justifying recent missile attacks on the country.
But while Spicer’s Holocaust denial was in words, it was former U.S. President Ronald Reagan who had expedited this denial into action at the presidential level. During the Bitburg Controversy of 1985, Reagan claimed Nazis were victims, deemed it “unnecessary” to visit concentration camps on his trip to Germany and declared that Germans have had “guilt imposed upon them."
At the height of the Cold War, in his revisionist efforts of currying favour with the right-wing reactionaries of the West German electorate, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl invited Reagan to visit the the Bitburg Military Cemetery, a site that contained the graves of 49 Waffen-SS members, the armed wing of the Nazi Party's SS organization.
On the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, Reagan and Kohl would lay a wreath there "in a spirit of reconciliation, in a spirit of forty years of peace, in a spirit of economic and military compatibility."
Almost immediately, the visit drew a firestorm of controversy, most notably from Jewish citizens in the United States, many who questioned why Reagan would not instead be visiting a concentration camp. Responding to the fury at a press conference on March 21, 1985, Reagan explained that "since the German people have very few alive that remember even the war, and certainly none of them who were adults and participating in any way … they have a feeling and a guilt feeling that's been imposed upon them." Thus, he considered a visit to a concentration camp "unnecessary."
A month later at yet another press conference on April 18, Reagan justified his visit to the Nazi burial site — by equating Nazi soldiers with the victims of the Holocaust.
"They were victims," he said of the soldiers buried at Bitburg, "just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps."
Spicer, listen up: Anne Frank and millions of other Jews weren't killed in "Holocaust Centers." Most offensive press sec ever. #FireSpicer— AnneFrankCenter(US) (@AnneFrankCenter) April 12, 2017
Castigated by the public, including many notable Jewish U.S. citizens, the White House announced they were adding a visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to the trip. But critics slammed the addition as offensive and trivial.
"President Reagan and Chancellor Kohl have embarked on a macabre tour, an obscene package deal, of Bergen-Belsen and Bitburg," declared Menachem Rosensaft, a New York attorney, at a protest demonstration at Bergen-Belsen on May 5, just shortly after the two leaders had left for Bitburg. "Today we say to them that they can either honor the memory of the victims of Belsen, or they can honor the SS. They cannot do both. And by entering Bitburg, they desecrate the memory of all those who were murdered by the SS, and of all those whom they pretended to commemorate here at Belsen."
Still, Reagan’s Bitburg visit was welcomed by former President Richard M. Nixon, as well as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in addition to 48 percent of U.S. citizens.
For Reagan, the Nazi soldier cemetery visit was protocol — in line with things like his aiding and abetting of right-wing death squads throughout Latin America, outright support for the apartheid regime of South Africa and slashing of funding to AIDs research at the height of the AIDS crisis.
While Spicer’s comments justifiably drew public acrimony, they are just the latest in the trajectory of Holocaust denial in the White House. Back in January, President Donald Trump's statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day — marking the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by Soviet troops — made no reference to Jews.
He also attracted scorn for denying the legitimacy of recent attacks against Jews in the country, saying last month that things like the bomb threats issued at more than 60 Jewish institutions since his inauguration or the destruction of more than 100 tombstones at the Mount Carmel Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia in March, could have been done in "the reverse” to “make others look bad."