Commemoration of the Meeting between Russian and American Soldiers at the End of WWII

Torgau, April 25, 2015
Ambassador John B. Emerson

Oberbürgermeisterin Staude,
Staatssekretär Weimann,
Botschafter Grinin,
Botschafter Phillips,
Mitglieder des Bundestages,
Mitglieder des Stadtrates,

meine sehr verehrten Damen und Herren,

es ist mir und meine Frau eine Ehre, Sie hier an diesem historischen Ort zu treffen.

I would like to start by greeting and thanking the veterans and their families who are with us today.  You are truly members of the Greatest Generation; a generation that came through a crushing depression; fought against fascism and tyranny; and re-built the world from the ashes of two devastating world wars.  Together we salute all those who fought, and struggled, and sacrificed during World War II.

We are here to acknowledge, and to celebrate, an event that marked the coming to an end of one of the most destructive and inhumane periods in all of human history.

Winston Churchill described the final months of the war as “triumph and tragedy.”  Although it was clear that the end was in sight, the last months of the fighting in Europe were among the most savage and bloody of the entire war.  American and Soviet commanders, fearing friendly-fire incidents, had agreed that, upon meeting, Soviet troops would fire off red flares and the Americans would answer with green ones. When and where this meeting of the allies would happen was not clear.  Every U.S. army unit wanted to be one of the first to meet the Russian Army.  One American veteran emotionally recounted, years later, how everyone in his unit was on the verge of tears when they finally saw those red flares.

The first meetings of Russians and Americans were between small groups of soldiers.  People from two different worlds, who knew practically nothing about one another, came together.  Informal toasts to victory, friendship, peace and happiness were raised – in languages unknown to either, but understood by all.  Weary and war-hardened soldiers happily slapped their new friends on the shoulder, exchanged medals, and showed off photos of relatives back home.  Those simple, heartfelt and emotional meetings were powerful symbols of the mutual efforts of the allies.

A photograph of one of the first such meetings, at the Elbe River, is portrayed at the World War II memorial in Washington, DC.  The famous photo of Americans and Russians shaking hands on the bridge in Torgau was a symbol of Allied success in bringing an end to the war, and to the horrific Nazi regime which had engulfed Europe in conflict; a conflict in which millions of soldiers – and many, many more millions of innocent civilians – had been starved, killed or systematically murdered.

The first meetings between soldiers were followed by a more ceremonial event between the senior commanders of the two armies.  This, too, was a celebration, but it was also a solemn recognition that such a war must never occur again; and it is as relevant today as it was on that sunny spring day in April of 1945, when Russian and American soldiers shared their hopes for peace and unity.

As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, we remember those who perished.  And we remember the experiences of veterans and others who survived.  Their stories, often almost unspeakable, shared one simple message and two simple words: “Never again.” Like Ambassador Grinin, I would like to add a third word to that message: Never again war.”

From the ash and smoke of that terrible war, rose a new-found consensus in the universal values of peace, freedom, social progress, equal rights, and human dignity.

Over the past seventy years, former foes have become friends.  The peaceful revolution that brought down the Berlin Wall, and German reunification, gave shape and form to the idea of a Europe whole, free, and at peace, and a broader vision of human rights that has inspired people around the world: a vision of a world where people are free to speak their minds, to criticize their own government; to assemble and to vote, and to choose their own destinies; a vision where every human being has the right –and the opportunity – to reach his or her highest potential.  But as we have learned, these rights do not exist in a vacuum.  They entail a corresponding set of obligations; that are neither easy nor inevitable, as the trajectory of history has shown – right up to this date.

And so today, as we salute all those who struggled and sacrificed during World War II, we must also deepen our commitment to the causes of peace, liberty, justice; to the friendship illustrated by the soldiers who met at this place 70 years ago; and to the common humanity that links us all together and makes each one of us equally precious.