|• Mayor||Joachim Kandels|
|• Total||47.54 km2 (18.36 sq mi)|
|Elevation||320 m (1,050 ft)|
|• Density||280/km2 (730/sq mi)|
|Time zone||CET/CEST (UTC+1/+2)|
Bitburg originated approximately 2000 years ago as a stopover for traffic from Lyon, through Metz and Trier to Cologne. The first mentioned name was “Vicus Beda”. Emperor Constantine the Great expanded the settlement to a road castle around 330, the central part of which forms the town centre to the present day. Bitburg is first documented only after the end of the Roman Empire around 715 as “castrum bedense”. It subsequently became part of Franconia.
In 1262, the castle gained municipal rights. In the middle of the 10th century the city came under the county of Luxembourg (later duchy), and in 1443 under the county of Burgundy. After 1506 the place belonged first to the Spanish Netherlands, and from 1714 to the Austrian Netherlands. In 1794 the city came under French administration, and in 1798 became the principal place of a canton of the newly created Département des Forêts. This led to a short lived economic upturn, and Bitburg received among other things a court and a land registry.
In 1815 by the resolution of the Congress of Vienna, Bitburg was transferred to the Kingdom of Prussia, where until 1822 it belonged administratively as district town to the province of Niederrhein, and afterwards to the Rhine province.
Like the remaining parts of Eifel, Bitburg was very poor. Economic ascent began again with the seizure of power of Adolf Hitler and the measures for the creation of infrastructure that was important for war, particularly the Westwall, new armed forces barracks, and the development of the Kylltal railway. It is said that the building used as the post office at Bitburg Annex (what is left of Bitburg Air Base) was the headquarters building for Hitler when he was in the city.
On 24 December 1944, Bitburg was 85% destroyed by air raids, and later officially designated by the Americans as a “dead city”. Subsequently, Luxembourg soldiers occupied the city, replaced by the French from 1955. In 1952 a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) base was opened under American leadership. At the end of the 1980s, the French withdrew their last troops and NATO took over the former French barracks. After the First Gulf War large parts of the USAF 53rd were moved into the larger Spangdahlem base. In 1994, NATO finally quit most of Bitburg for the airport.
Reagan visit controversy
The proposed visit began as part of a plan to observe the 40th anniversary of V-E Day. As U.S. President Ronald Reagan was scheduled to attend a G7 economic summit in Bonn that week in 1985, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl saw an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the friendship that existed between Germany and its former foe. During a November 1984 visit to the White House, Kohl appealed to Reagan to join him in symbolizing the reconciliation of their two countries at a German military cemetery. It was suggested that the Kolmeshöhe Cemetery near Bitburg was both suitably close and relevant, as 11,000 Americans attached to a nearby airbase lived in harmony with the same number of Germans. Reagan agreed, and later told an aide he felt he owed Kohl, who despite considerable public and political opposition had stood steadfast with Reagan on the deployment of Pershing II missiles in West Germany, when Reagan had been determined to respond to the placement of Soviet missiles that threatened Europe.
In February 1985, then White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver made a planning visit to Bitburg. The 32 rows of headstones were covered with snow. Deaver was usually very skillful in carrying out his role as public relations director for Reagan, but this time he and his team failed to discover that 49 members of the Waffen-SS were buried at Kolmeshöhe. A decision was made by the Reagan team not to include a visit to a concentration camp, as had been previously suggested by Kohl. The President said he didn't want to risk "reawakening the passions of the time" or offend his hosts by visiting a concentration camp.
On 11 April 1985, then White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes informed the media of the planned visit to Bitburg. When asked who was buried at Kolmeshöhe, Speakes said he thought both American and German soldiers were there. Reporters soon discovered that no American servicemen were in the cemetery (in fact, the remains of all U.S. soldiers had long since been removed from German soil) and that Waffen-SS graves were located close to the proposed ceremony. When questioned, Bitburg Mayor Theo Hallet pointed out, all German military cemeteries were likely to contain at least a few SS graves. Such distinctions, though, failed to placate those who were opposed to Reagan's visit on moral and political grounds. Decorations and memorials on the Waffen-SS graves were removed just prior to Reagan's visit, and replaced right after.
This planned visit caused a great deal of anger outside of Germany. Many prominent government officials, U.S. Army officers, and celebrities, protested the planned visit. Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel spoke out on the topic at an unrelated White House ceremony, saying, "I... implore you to do something else, to find another way, another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place." 53 senators (including 11 Republicans), signed a letter asking the president to cancel, and 257 representatives (including 84 Republicans) signed a letter urging Chancellor Kohl to withdraw the invitation. Former Army S/Sgt. Jim Hively mailed his World War II decorations, including a Silver Star and a Bronze Star, to Reagan in protest. The Ramones recorded the song "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)," which alludes to Bedtime for Bonzo, a movie from Reagan's film career that co-starred a chimpanzee, and Frank Zappa recorded "Reagan At Bitburg". Robyn Hitchcock's song "The President" from his album Element of Light also makes reference to the incident.
Chancellor Kohl responded in an interview with The New York Times: "I will not give up the idea. If we don't go to Bitburg, if we don't do what we jointly planned, we will deeply offend the feelings of [my] people." A poll revealed that 72% of West Germans thought the visit should go forward as planned. Kohl admitted that rarely had German-American relations been so strained, and in the days leading up to the visit, the White House and the Chancellery were each blaming the other. The White House claimed that the Germans had given assurances that nothing in the Bitburg visit would be an "embarrassment" for the President: "As clumsily as we handled it, Kohl &. Co. have surpassed us in spades." A German official said: "The Americans also have a responsibility toward the president. They must also check on the history that is beneath the ground. It was not very intelligent." Reagan defended himself by saying:
"These [SS troops] were the villains, as we know, that conducted the persecutions and all. But there are 2,000 graves there, and most of those, the average age is about 18. I think that there's nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis. They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps"
Reagan was criticized for this statement by opponents of the visit. Equating Nazi soldiers with Holocaust victims, responded Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, was "a callous offense for the Jewish people." Some critics claimed that Communications Director Pat Buchanan wrote the statement, which he denies. Kohl confirmed an earlier press comment that in the last days of the war he was able to avoid service in the SS because he was only 15, "but they hanged a boy from a tree who was perhaps only two years older with a sign saying "traitor" because he had tried to run away rather than serve."
Kohl made a call to the White House days before Reagan's visit to make sure the President was not wavering in the face of criticism, not to mention pressure from wife, Nancy. The Chancellor's aide, Horst Teltschik later said: "Once we knew about the SS dead at Bitburg - knowing that these SS people were seventeen to eighteen years of age, and knowing that some Germans were forced to become members of the SS, having no alternative - the question was, Should this be a reason to cancel?" Reagan aide Robert McFarlane later said: "Once Reagan learned that Kohl would really be badly damaged by a withdrawal, he said 'We can't do that; I owe him.'" Prior to sending Deaver back to West Germany for the third time, just two days before the scheduled visit, Reagan told his deputy chief of staff: "I know you and Nancy don't want me to go through with this, but I don't want you to change anything when you get over there, because history will prove I'm right. If we can't reconcile after forty years, we are never going to be able to do it."
There was one announced change: an added visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to itinerary.
The men buried in the Bitburg cemetery were part of Hitler's Waffen-SS. At the Nuremberg Trials the Waffen-SS was declared a criminal organization with an exception only being made for those who were forced to join after 1943.
On Sunday 5 May, Reagan and Kohl appeared at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The U.S. President's speech there, according to Time, was a "skillful exercise in both the art of eulogy and political damage control." Reagan said:
"All these children of God, under bleak and lifeless mounds, the plainness of which does not even hint at the unspeakable acts that created them. Here they lie, never to hope, never to pray, never to live, never to heal, never to laugh, never to cry.... And then, rising above all this cruelty, out of this tragic and nightmarish time, beyond the anguish, the pain and suffering, and for all time, we can and must pledge: never again."
Reagan spent only eight minutes at the Kolmeshöhe Cemetery. Along with Kohl, 90-year-old General Matthew Ridgway, who had commanded the 82nd Airborne in World War II, and Luftwaffe ace and former head of NATO, General Johannes Steinhoff, Reagan placed a wreath at a wall of remembrance. After placing the wreath, and standing at attention in honour while a short trumpet salute sounded Steinhoff, in an unscripted act, turned and shook hands with Ridgway. Reagan smiled, and firmly shook General Steinhoff's hand. Kohl later thanked Steinhoff for his actions.
Security was heavy for the three-mile route from the NATO airbase at Kolmeshohe, lined with 2,000 policemen - one posted every twelve feet: few protesters showed up. When Reagan arrived at the cemetery, Michael Moore and a Jewish friend of his whose parents were at Auschwitz were there with a banner that read "We came from Michigan: they killed my family". They were shown live on TV networks across the country. Reagan made one last appearance with Kohl at the airbase, before 7,500 spectators waving American and West German flags. Kohl thanked the President for staying the course: "This walk... over the graves of soldiers was not an easy walk. I thank you personally as a friend that you undertook this walk with me." Reagan responded candidly: "This visit has stirred many emotions in the American and German people too. Some old wounds have been reopened, and this I regret very much, because this should be a time of healing."
Today Bitburg is a city in the Eifel, near Trier. Bitburg's Mayor, Joachim Kandels is a member of the Christian Democratic Union. Bitburg has about 12,700 citizens. The biggest company is the Bitburger brewery, one of the largest beer manufacturers in the world. Bitburger Bier is a major sponsor of the German national soccer team. Bitburg hosts the annual European Festival of Folklore.
Bitburg had a military airbase that is not active but still houses American troops and civilians. Today only parts of the barracks are left in Bitburg by NATO in requirement, and it is now considered part of Spangdahlem Air Base. At 31 December 2005, 3,210 American soldiers and their dependents live in the city.
- Bitburg-Erdorf (train-station)
Economics and industry
The most well-known enterprise and landmark of the city is the Bitburger brewery.
In 1995, the former NATO base was designated the Bitburg Airfield Trade Area, providing 5 km² and at present a home where 180 enterprises have established themselves.
Bitburg station is part of the Eifel line (KBS 474). Trains that pass through include:
- The Eifel Mosel express (RH 12) - Cologne, Euskirchen, Gerolstein, Trier
- The Eifel line (RB 83) - Gerolstein, Trier
The Nims Sauertalbahn branch accesses Bitburg (city), which originally crossed the Irrel. The trackage was shut down in several sections, with the last section to Wolsfeld shut from 1997. The remaining six kilometres were removed in 2006, and re-designed to a large extent to a cycle track.
Bitburg is partnered or twinned with:
- Arlon, Belgium since 1965
- Bad Köstritz (Thuringia), Germany since 1992
- Diekirch, Luxembourg since 1962
- Rethel, France since 1965
- Shelbyville (Kentucky), United States since 1962
- "Bevölkerung der Gemeinden am 31.12.2012". Statistisches Bundesamt (in German). 2013.
- William L. Shirer (1990). 20th Century Journey: A Native's Return. Little Brown.
- Robins, Wayne (1998-02-07). "Robyn Hitchcock: A View From Rock's Underground". Newsday.
- Pat Buchanan'S Response To Norman Podhoretz'S Op-Ed - Buchanan Campaign Press Releases - T H E I N T E R N E T B R I G A D E - Official Web Site
- Ronald Reagan: Remarks at a Joint German-American Military Ceremony at Bitburg Air Base in the Federal Republic of Germany; May 5, 1985
- "Interactive City Directory". Sister Cities International. Retrieved 12 March 2014.
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