With 9/11 coming up, perhaps I can offer a historical reflection on an occasion when international understanding and relationship were reinforced rather than damaged.
I watched a video on a historic meeting for humanity, that took place on April 25, 1945. I was moved to tears watching it.
What happened on that day? Let me defer to Wikipedia:
Elbe Day, April 25, 1945, is the day Soviet and American troops met at the Elbe River, near Torgau in Germany, marking an important step toward the end of World War II in Europe. This contact between the Soviets, advancing from the East, and the Americans, advancing from the West, meant that the two powers had effectively cut Germany in two.
Elbe Day has never been an official holiday in any country, but in the years after 1945 the memory of this friendly encounter gained new significance in the context of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. (1)
I can see why it’s significant.
Watching the video, I wasn’t as impressed with the fact that it was historic for seeing the two forces united and the end of the war approaching, as historic as that is in itself.
I was impressed because it was one of the few times in history that I can think of in which the soldiers of two world superpowers, who were already on a collision course and cold-warring against each other, stopped everything for a moment and really connected.
The nearest related incident was the Xmas Truce of 1914 in World War I. (2)
The video appears to be a translation of a Soviet film. The narration and film quality is not the best.
I’m almost tempted to suggest watching it with the sound off, because Allied and Soviet troops could not understand each other anyways.
You could see soldiers looking at each other and thinking, “You’re not so bad after all” (like Robertson and Silvashko, see fn 3). The languages were different but the looks and gestures were the same.
The people making the video didn’t really focus on the emotional side of things, which I think is too bad.
It’s taken a long time in our social discussions to even recognize that what’s happening at the emotional level has importance.
Moreover, each side was under constraints and restraints from higher up. Soviet disobedience could be costly. The standard against which everything was weighed that day by all higher commands seems to have been its propaganda value.
No one made a mess of themselves. You could see they were watching not to stray over the line. But, after warming up, they seemed to push the limits wherever they could.
The connection between the two sides arose despite the restraints. There were people whose gaze caught each other. There were genuine smiles breaking out here and there. The exchanges of gifts appeared sincere, no matter what the gifts themselves were.
I say the warmth bubbled up and was sincere because it occurred before anyone had raised a glass. So it couldn’t be excused as a lapse of behavior due to drinking.
These may seem modest occurrences, but remember how tight their leash was.
I think it was only a matter of days before the top brass began rattling chains and the two sides settled down into opposition.
Folks who were there looked upon the event as “unreal.” I think events apart from what happened that day on the Elbe are, if we use the term, unreal. What happened that day on the Elbe was real.
It was a moment in which the human spirit broke through between world superpowers, who would soon be opponents. (4) People who had fought and suffered with each other to overcome a common threat let the barriers of war down for a day and just connected. (5)
The impact on everyone who was there is reflected in one American soldier’s dying wish to be taken back to Europe when he died and buried in Torgau village, next to the Elbe bridge where the Allied and Soviet delegations met. (6)
I can well understand why he was so affected.
Jan. 1, 2020 is Fresh Start Day
(1) “Elbe Day,” Wikipedia, at httpss://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elbe_Day
(2) “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914,” Time Magazine, at httpss://time.com/3643889/christmas-truce-1914/
(3) William Robertson and Alexander Silvashko, pictured in the upper left photo, had an impromptu meeting, after which Silvashko came with Robertson in his jeep to the latter’s camp. Fortunately the propaganda value of the meeting, which captured the public imagination at the time, outweighed the abandonment of his post.
(4) The coming together after the fall of the Berlin Wall may be another example.
(5) Similar moment in film? The Sum of All Fears, in which, during an escalating, possibly-nuclear confrontation, the Russian premier takes a risk and has his forces stand down until a full explanation from the Americans can be given. In the film, this action allows the untangling of a plot and gives birth to a new era of cooperation.
(6) Wikipedia again:
Joseph Polowsky, an American soldier who met Soviet troops on Elbe Day, was deeply affected by the experience and devoted much of his life to opposing war. He commemorated Elbe Day each year in his hometown of Chicago and unsuccessfully petitioned the United Nations to make April 25 a “World Day of Peace.” His remains are buried in a cemetery in Torgau.