East meets West at the Elbe
On this day in 1945, during the Second World War, Soviet and American troops met at the River Elbe in Germany – the day is now known as Elbe Day. The event was a momentous show of unity of the Allied Powers as the war drew to a close while the Allies advanced towards Berlin. The first contact was between an American delegation led by First Lieutenant Albert Kotzebue of the 3rd Battalion, 273rd Infantry, 69th Infantry Division, who took his men across the river and were greeted by Russian Lt Col Alexander Gardiev, Commander of the 175th Rifle Regiment of the 58th Guards Division, 34th Corps. The two groups agreed on a formal handshake to be photographed the next day.
Official, staged, picture commemorating the meeting on the Elbe. 2nd Lieutenant William Robertson (US) and Lt. Alexander Sylvashko (USSR) shake hands
Each side commended the other, with Moscow holding a gun salute and US General Omar Bradley praising the Soviet success in pushing the Germans back from Russia. A few days after the Elbe meeting, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler committed suicide and Germany soon surrendered – the war was finally over.
Two soldiers pose during Elbe Day
“We meet in true and victorious comradeship and with inflexible resolve to fulfil our purpose and our duty. Let all march forward upon the foe.”
– British Prime Minister Winston Churchill
“This is not the hour of final victory in Europe, but the hour draws near, the hour for which all the American people, all the British people and all the Soviet people have toiled and prayed so long.”
– US President Harry Truman
“Our task and our duty are to complete the destruction of the enemy to force him to lay down his arms and surrender unconditionally. The Red Army will fulfill to the end this task and this duty to our people and to all freedom-loving peoples.”
– Soviet leader Joseph Stalin
British newspapers celebrated the news of the end of the war in Europe – May 8th 1945
Elbe Day became a powerful symbol of unity between the East and the West as post-war relations between the former allies soured and descended into Cold War. Those who opposed the conflict between the communist and capitalist blocs (led by the Soviet Union and United States respectively), used this event as a reminder that both sides are just human, and do have the capacity to co-exist peacefully. If the ‘spirit of the Elbe’ persisted, the 1950s and 60s need not have been characterised by constant fear of nuclear annihilation by an ideological opponent, and perhaps even the bloodshed of proxy wars like Korea and Vietnam could have been avoided. Like the German and British troops playing football together on No Man’s Land on Christmas Day during World War One, Elbe Day is a potent reminder that humanity is inclined towards peace; what unites us is more powerful than what divides us.