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Take time to remember the handshake that changed the world

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As we strive worldwide to overcome the existential COVID-19 threat, we must not forget the anniversary of a major event 75 years ago that represented a jubilant but exhausted collective victory against another truly merciless foe.

The link-up and famous WWII handshake between battle-hardened allied U.S. and Soviet forces on April 25, 1945, at the Elbe River near the small Saxon town of Torgau symbolized the culmination of a hard-fought, costly victory against the Third Reich. Their fateful encounter  split Nazi Germany in half; five days later Adolf Hitler shot himself in encircled Berlin. This remarkable moment signified the final chapter in the European theater of a brutally globalized military, ideological and sociological conflict that extinguished tens of millions of lives worldwide including countless civilians by privation and genocide. The war bloodily continued in the Pacific theater against Imperial Japan for another three months, terminating with the world-changing atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I’m concerned that the Elbe handshake, so riveting to the “Greatest Generation” that lived it and the “Baby Boomers” who were taught it, is but a historical footnote in today’s USA.

It is remembered more in Russia and the other nations of the former Soviet Union where it’s still steeped in the memory of their horrific wartime sacrifices. Adding to our growing historical amnesia of this pivotal moment, today’s global onslaught of COVID-19 necessitated cencellation of several commemorative occasions scheduled in Germany, Moscow and at Arlington cemetery. These non-governmental events included conferences in Berlin and Moscow, with local bands and an Elbe link-up reenactment at Torgau. They were designed to highlight this dramatic occasion while providing an introspective platform from which to call for renewed efforts toward practical U.S., Russia and international cooperation on some of the key issues of today. The conferences will continue virtually with public events canceled. A signed joint communique from U.S., former Soviet and European citizens, including several retired generals, will also be released.

The canceled 75th anniversary public occasions were likely the last opportunity for almost all of the few surviving veterans — U.S. and former Soviet — physically able to participate. Those remaining are well into their late 80s, and 90s.

Publicly highlighting the 1945 Elbe link-up presents a rare opportunity to recall serious and effective cooperation between Moscow and Washington during dangerous times.

True, both became bitter Cold War adversaries shortly thereafter. Additionally, publicly recognizing the Elbe link-up would not absolve Moscow from its aggressive “gray zone” and disinformation activities that must continue to be confronted worldwide. Still, even with today’s antagonistic relations, taking a step back and together recalling this very personal U.S. and Soviet wartime moment could provide a constructive narrative for today’s fractious, fast-moving world that cries for better relations between the two most lethally equipped nations on earth.

The post-WWII and Cold War order continues to disintegrate with little stabilization on the horizon. For instance, we face the ominous prospect that within ten months, next February, the New START Treaty will expire. This is the last strategic U.S.-Russia nuclear weapons limitation and verification agreement remaining. Without its possible 5-year extension, we will be in unregulated nuclear freefall, with no formal arms control mechanism in place to address dangerous new technologies and a rising China.

Scrambling all this is that there will soon be a post COVID-19 world order the details of which will be difficult to predict. Suffice to say much will change, including global relationships and priorities. Threats, real and perceived, will change. How will national self-reliance and resource acquisition, global markets and supply chains evolve which will drive foreign policy? A key question will be whether nations will pull together as a problem-solving collective or further fragment into competing entities? What will future borders look like? Only time will tell.

Let’s be sure that during our societal struggle against this malignant coronavirus that we take a moment across all generations to recall the importance and symbolism of 1945’s iconic Elbe handshake. World leaders grappled with some of these giant issues after WWII. Publicly recalling that could provide a glimmer of something positive for Moscow, Washington and much of our wounded world to aspire toward during these troubled times.

Retired Brig. Gen. Peter B. Zwack commanded the U.S. Army’s 66th Military Intelligence Group from 2004-06 and served as a senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Kosovo, South Korea and U.S. Army Europe. He also was the senior U.S. defense attache to Russia (2012-2014) and operations officer for Army Cyber Command. He is currently a Wilson Center Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute. He was scheduled to participate in the Elbe events in Germany and will now do so virtually.

Tags Aftermath of World War II Cold War cooperation Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic Germany International relations Soviet Union–United States relations World War II

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