The Department of Veterans Affairs has reversed course and agreed to remove three gravestones in veterans cemeteries that are engraved with swastikas and other Nazi references.
The headstones are in the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio and the Fort Douglas Post Cemetery in Salt Lake City. The cemeteries were under the control of the Army when the interments occurred in the 1940s and were subsequently transferred to VA's National Cemetery Administration.
The gravestones belong to World War II-era German POWs who died on U.S. soil. Each shows a swastika. Two have an inscription that says in German: "He died far from his home, for the Führer, people and fatherland."
The stones have been there more than 70 years, nestled among the white marble markers of American servicemembers. Though they have been the subject of occasional news stories, they went mostly unnoticed until May, when the Military Religious Freedom Foundation threatened legal action.
"We want the de-Nazification," said Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force veteran and lawyer for the advocacy organization. "Get rid of the swastika. Get rid of the homages to Hitler, the Third Reich, and the German people that supported them."
It's not unusual for German soldiers to be buried in U.S. cemeteries, especially those graveyards that were near POW camps in World War II. But their gravestones usually only include names and dates of death. It's not clear why these are different.
Weinstein acknowledges POWs should be honorably buried, but he takes exception to display of the swastika, which is now illegal in Germany.
"Even if we have to provide them a burial with some sort of marker, that is light years, galaxies away from putting up the swastika symbol itself," he said.
The VA initially resisted the change, citing precedent and restrictions under the National Historic Preservation Act. In May, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie told the House Armed Services Committee that he didn't want to erase the Holocaust from memory by removing the stones.
"Anti-Semitism is rearing its head all over Europe as we speak, and we've even seen it some places in the country," he said. "The last thing we need to do is not remind Americans of the horrors of Antisemitism and the horrors of the Nazi cult."
Instead, he said, he'd look at ways of putting them into historical context.
"I happen to think that making sure that, when people visit our cemeteries, they are educated and informed of the horror is an incredibly important thing to do," Wilkie said.
But by June, under increasing pressure from lawmakers and others, the VA reversed course, saying it would start the process required by law to replace the stones. Wilkie said in a statement that it is "understandably upsetting" for veterans and their families to see Nazi inscriptions near the graves of American service members.
The VA also said it would propose keeping the old headstones in the National Cemetery Administration's History Collection.
The VA hasn't responded to inquiries about what caused Wilkie to change course.
"Per federal law, VA must consult with stakeholders and seek public input on the proposed action concerning the headstones," VA spokeswoman Christina Noel said in a statement. "In this case, stakeholders would include the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), state historic preservation officers, local governments, the National Park Service in the case of the headstone at Fort Douglas, the Department of Defense, and other interested parties, such as Veterans Service Organizations."
Once stakeholder consultation is completed, Noel said, the VA can proceed with replacing the headstones. But, she added, VA is "in the early stages of coordinating these actions, and the timeline is dependent on the feedback we receive from all of the above organizations."
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation said it's pleased with the decision, but will continue to press the VA for quick action ... and an apology.
"It's incredibly cowardly of the VA Secretary to suddenly develop this tremendous zeal to protect people from the Nazi headstones," said Mikey Weinstein. "He testified just a few days ago, before the United States Congress, with a pretty strong degree of resolution to keep them there."
This isn't the first time the U.S. has confronted the question of how to appropriately treat the graves of enemy servicemembers. In Hampton, Virginia, dozens of German soldiers and sailors are buried at the National Cemetery, including many crewmembers of sunken U-boats from World War II.
Each year, American and German service members and community members gather there for memorial services.
Franz-Josef Paulus, a former German Army colonel and a longtime liaison between the U.S. and German militaries, has taken part in a few of the ceremonies. He said a spirit of reconciliation and kinship often exists between service members who once opposed each other. He added that conscription into the German armed forces didn't necessarily imply agreement with Nazi ideology.
"It's really very important that if somebody has paid the ultimate sacrifice that their families, loved ones, and friends honor the graves," he said.
Paulus said it's possible to honor German servicemembers without elevating Nazism and the swastika.
"The guy who is buried there, he has to be honored. But not the symbol. I would like to differentiate between that," Paulus said.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2020 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.