BITBURG, West Germany — When Mayor Theo Hallet first learned of President Reagan's plan to lay a wreath at the local war cemetery, he saw it as a great opportunity to put his town on the map.
Now he's not so sure.
The 12,000 or so citizens of this sleepy garrison town, tucked into a rural backwater near the Luxembourg border, have been left dumbfounded and more than a little resentful by the intensity of the controversy in the United States over Reagan's plans.
It is not difficult to understand why Bitburgers are confused.
After all, every Memorial Day since 1959, they have seen the commander of the U.S. Air Force's 36th Tactical Fighter Wing, which is based nearby, join the mayor in laying a wreath at the same spot where Reagan plans to place one on May 5. In recent years, the commander of a French army contingent has also taken part.
Waffen SS Graves
Some members of the Waffen SS, the elite World War II German combat force that was a part of the much larger SS organization that among other functions supervised Nazi concentration camps, are buried at Bitburg. A U.S. official said the presence of the SS graves was commonly known.
"The thinking was that we are all allies now and we're working together," explained Victoria Bills, an American civil servant in charge of publicity at the Air Force base.
"On this day, we remember those of all nations who died in the war," Mayor Hallet said.
But the intensity of the protest in the United States has shaken the faith of many citizens here, people who are openly proud of the hospitality they offer servicemen from a country they believed was their closest ally.
As emotions rise, what worries Bitburgers is no longer whether Reagan will actually make the visit or what the SS soldiers buried in their cemetery did 40 years ago, but whether relations between the town and the base can survive the controversy intact.
'Leave the Dead in Peace'
"People are angry," Hallet said in an interview. "They are saying, 'Leave the dead in peace.'
"I have a real fear that there could be a chauvinistic reaction, and people will start asking questions about what the Americans did here during the war."
American bombers destroyed Bitburg in a Christmas Eve, 1944, raid so thorough that the town was described in subsequent German army dispatches as administratively dead. Bitburg's official history notes that when the U.S. forces occupied the town two months later, only 60 survivors remained amid the rubble.
In 1952, the U.S. Air Force cleared the debris from a former tank staging area used by the German army during the Battle of the Bulge, made it a major base and helped bring new life to the town.
Along with its Bitburger Pils beer, the town lives mainly off of the 11,000 Air Force personnel and their dependents stationed at the base.
Strong U.S.-German Ties
Virtually all agree that ties between Americans and Germans here are strong.
Air Force volunteer groups help support an old-age home and orphanage in the town. And, each week, Hallet invites newly arrived American servicemen to the Town Hall for a get-acquainted chat.
"No mayor in the world takes time out every week to do that," said Lydie Hengen, the base's community relations adviser.
Just two weeks ago, after learning that outsiders planned to greet Reagan with anti-American protests, a group of prominent town citizens formed an action committee to publicize U.S.-German friendship.
But now, the worried mayor said, "The wind is changing. Our people don't understand the world anymore."
'I'm Too Angry'
Hengen said some members of the action committee failed to turn up for Thursday night's meeting and she voiced concern about its future. One no-show told her, "Today, I'm too angry to attend."
Her job "will be much more difficult now," Hengen acknowledged. "After the last word is said, we will have to work very hard."
Herbert Kranz, who runs the local Volvo automobile dealership and relies on business with Americans to such an extent that his sticker prices are expressed in dollars, not in German marks, was more mystified than angry.
Like many in the town, he endorsed Reagan's decision to visit a concentration camp. But he also believes the President should lay the wreath at Bitburg.
"I can't see why this is all such a sensation," he said. "We should be looking forward, not backward."
A Picture of Tranquility
In contrast to the controversy that surrounds it, the war cemetery remains a picture of tranquility. Only the occasional television team, here to film the SS gravestones, breaks the quiet.
The cemetery sits on the crest of a hill overlooking a small valley, its 1,887 grave stones so flat against the earth that most are obscured by grass only a few inches high. The graves of the SS members--Hallet says there are 47 of them--are scattered among the other dead.