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Martin Kufus  
Eagle Creek Ranch subdiv., TX  
May 30, 2012 3:54pm
 
Every now and again something occurs on the world's stage that quite unexpectedly backfires and embarrasses a US president. Barack Obama is feeling the sting now after his unfortunate (and historically incorrect) reference to a “Polish death camp” of WWII when he actually meant a Nazi extermination camp located in occupied Poland. Is the outrage in Poland right now an overreaction? Before answering yes, here's some perspective to consider.

A well-intentioned Ronald Reagan suffered a PR blow-up in 1985 over a visit to Bitburg, West Germany. The Commander in Chief had planned to visit a US air base there, and accepted an invitation from Chancellor Helmut Kohl to attend a wreath-laying at a nearby cemetery of German war dead. Reagan and his people then found out the cemetery also held the graves of 49 Nazi Schutzstaffel (“SS”) soldiers. It was too late to back out without embarrassing Kohl, a Cold War ally. It didn't matter that on the same trip Reagan also visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration-camp memorial to pray over the mass grave of its 50,000 victims.

Sometimes, though, an American president (or his staff) just blunders and “the most powerful man in the world” becomes the global butt of jokes for a while: In 1979, an unqualified State Department translator told a Warsaw audience that President Jimmy Carter had just expressed a carnal desire for the Polish.

But there is nothing funny about President Obama's misstatement this week. And here, I think, is why: History is not dead. What Adolf Hitler (an atheist who dabbled in the occult, by the way) and his fascist regime did to Europe and the world was pure evil on a colossal scale. (I toured the Dachau concentration-camp memorial near Munich in 1988. I saw the ovens.)

There are at least three take-away points from Obama's PR blow-up: 1) World War II is not ancient history; the world largely is the way it is today because of the events of 1939-45. 2) Words are very important, and presidential speech-writers should resist shortcut expressions like “Polish death camp” when they actually mean “Nazi extermination camp located in occupied Poland.” 3) The word “Nazi” should be used very carefully in popular discourse.

This is not a defense of Barack Obama, by the way.
     
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