At the unassuming Kolmeshöhe cemetery, German and American flags flutter from the tower that overlooks the quaint, newly restored town of Bitburg. The two flags symbolize the friendship that Bitburg's German residents and the 10,600 Americans connected with the U.S. air base there have come to associate with their haven in the Eifel hills near the Luxembourg border. Each year since the cemetery was consecrated in 1959, American and French military officials have joined Germans in a wreath-laying ceremony at Kolmeshöhe. This year Ronald Reagan intends to place a wreath there, and late last week, the cemetery guard had just finished polishing the headstones in anticipation of the President's stop.
The question of who lies beneath those shining headstones has fueled the controversy over the President's visit, making the placid little cemetery the focus of intense international scrutiny. Most of the more than 2,000 soldiers buried at Kolmeshöhe were killed in the German offensive of December 1944- January 1945 known as the Battle of the Bulge, which produced more than 100,000 German and 81,000 Allied casualties, 77,000 of them Americans.
The onslaught was waged in large measure by members of the Waffen (Weapons) SS, the combat branch of the Third Reich's elite guard. Forty-seven of those buried at Bitburg were members of the SS, which is clearly marked on many headstones. Most of those 47 SS casualties were between the ages of 17 and 20 when they died, though some were reportedly over 30.
SS stood for Schutzstaffel, meaning protective echelon, or, as commonly translated, elite guard. The organization grew out of a small group of thugs recruited in 1923 to protect Hitler, and was originally the security arm of the Nazi Party. When it came under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler in 1929, the SS began to expand; by the war's end almost 1 million men had passed through its ranks. The Waffen combat units were formed in the late 1930s. It was members of the Totenkopf ("Death Head") SS who served as guards and executioners at the concentration camps, wearing black caps and skull-and-crossbone insignia on their collars. The double S was rendered in a lightning-bolt design that, along with the swastika, became an emblem of the Nazi regime.
The aim of the SS, said Himmler, was "to find out, to fight and destroy all open and secret enemies of the Führer, the National Socialist movement and our racial resurrection." Two of the guard's most notorious members were Adolf Eichmann, who was later executed for directing the deportation of Jews to concentration camps, and Josef Mengele, the evil Auschwitz doctor who is still thought to be at large. Known for their viciousness and fanaticism, SS squads rounded up Jews and resisters in villages in Germany and throughout the rest of Europe and shot them on the spot.