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'In Times of Misunderstanding, We Must Remember Our Alliance during WWII'

'In Times of Misunderstanding, We Must Remember Our Alliance during WWII'

On April 24, Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia (2008-2012) John Beyrle gave a lecture at the Higher School of Economics on American and Soviet cooperation in the Second World War. The lecture also commemorated the 70th anniversary of Elbe Day, when Soviet and American troops met at the River Elbe on April 25, 1945.

John Beyrle is connected to Russia in many ways. He began his career in foreign service as the Deputy Press Attaché of the American Embassy in Moscow in the mid-1980s. When asked about the most memorable moments of his professional career as a diplomat and specialist on Russia and Eastern Europe, he remembers an entire array of events ranging from the funerals of Andropov and Chernenko in 1984 and 1985, the 1988 Moscow Summit between Reagan and Gorbachev, and the signing of New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) in Prague in 2010.

May 9, 2010, stands out in particular, as it was on this date that Beyrle saluted representatives of the allied troops (Russia, America, Great Britain, France, and Poland) at a 65-year WWII victory parade on Red Square. The 2010 parade was a symbol of the hard work the allied forces carried out together during World War II. 

The anti-Hitler coalition withstood internal friction and focused on a common goal – total defeat over Nazi Germany

This was not the first victory parade Mr Beyrle had attended in Moscow. In 2004, he watched the parade alongside his 80-year-old father, Joseph Beyrle, who was a U.S. Airborne soldier, participated in the Normandy landing, and was the only American soldier to have served both the United States Army and the Soviet Army in WWII. ‘Then, standing by the Kremlin walls and watching the parade’s participants, we were both touched by the emotions Russians expressed while remembering the victims from the battlefields near Moscow, Stalingrad, Leningrad, and other places.’ This is why the topic of war and victory is not only political for Mr Beyrle, but also deeply personal.

‘The government of the U.S. and many European countries currently have disagreements with Russia, and these disagreements are seriously affecting the trust the must lie at the heart of all international relations. Moreover, it’s worth returning to our memories of the war. I am convinced that during periods of misunderstanding and tensions, it is critical to again and again study the lessons of our alliance during WWII, as this is when our differences were objectively much stronger, but we were nonetheless able to work out a pragmatic and productive approach towards cooperation, which helped change the course of history. The victory that we celebrated in 2004 and 2010, and will celebrate again soon, was the collective victory of all allied forces.’

Unfortunately, not everyone in Russia or the U.S. is well acquainted with history, Mr Beyrle believes. In the U.S., people know very little about the fact that the U.S. and the Soviet Union fought against Germany together, and some even think that the two nations fought against each other. In Russia, there are people who know nothing about the role of America’s Lend-Lease Policy in the war, though shipments of food and equipment from America were some of the most important factors to winning the war. Mr Beyrle notes that the first convoys left the allied ports in as early as August 1941, when the U.S. had not yet joined the war with Germany or Japan, as the attack on Pearl Harbor took place in December 1941 only. Almost immediately after Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, President Roosevelt sent one of his closest advisers, Harry Lloyd Hopkins, to Moscow to make personal contact with Stalin. They first met on July 29, 1941, and Hopkins’ aim was to convince Stalin that America was ready to assist the USSR. This is when talks on Lend-Lease began. Put differently, despite all ideological differences, there was trust between the leaders of the two countries.

We cannot forget the potential America and Russia have in overcoming our differences and working together for the greater good

Cooperation during the war did not only concern the Land-Lease Policy, however. By the end of 1943, mobilisation provided the manpower needed to invade Europe and open a second front. The creation of the conditions needed for Operation Overlord was another joint allied effort. In 1943, the navies of Great Britain, the U.S., and Canada were able to give reliable protection to sea routes used to ensure the smooth shipment of military cargo and personnel for the invasion. Strengthened allied bombing from England and the successes of the Soviet forces on the Eastern Front caused the Luftwaffe to start sensing a lack of fighter-bombers on the Western Front. Mr Beyrle emphasised that the Red Army’s successful attack on the Eastern Front, along with the huge losses the Germans suffered as a result, forced the German command to refocus significant efforts from the West to the East. In addition, behind enemy lines, resistance groups in France, Belgium, and even in Germany itself kept the Germans on alert.

John Beyrle gave special recognition to the role of shuttle bombing that the allies organised with the USSR in 1944. At the time, shuttle bombers would fly from allied bases in Great Britain and Italy to bomb German factories that were moved to the East. The bombers then left to refuel at Soviet aerodromes near Poltava. On their flight back to base, they carried out additional strikes.

Of course, certain disagreements and problems arose among participants of the coalition, and the Western allies had fierce debates about the time, location, and scale of opening the Second Front. There were also differences between the Western allies and the USSR concerning both strategic and economic issues. The anti-Hitler coalition nonetheless withstood internal friction and focused on a common goal – total defeat over Nazi Germany.

The story of Mr Beyrle’s father serves as an excellent example of the allies’ overall experience and the power of the coalition. The American paratrooper, having escaped from Germany’s Stalag III-C prisoner-of-war camp, joined Alexandra Samusenko's tank brigade and fought with the Soviet submachine gun PPSh in a Lend-Lease Sherman tank. Beyrle was among the Soviet troops who freed the very camp he had run away from and where Soviet POWs taught him a few Russian words. ‘When I think about my father’s service, I understand that it’s impossible to overestimate the front-line brotherhood of the millions of coalition soldiers. Very few WWII veterans remain, but I want to repeat what I told the veterans at a symposium honouring Elbe Day on April 23. Thank you to all the Soviet soldiers who took my father in when he was helpless, fed him when he was hungry, treated his wounds, and helped him get to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and return home alive and unharmed.’

Mr Beyrle expressed hope that constructive relations would develop between the two countries. ‘We currently have fewer differences than before, and they’re not as deep. Russia and its Western partners are committed to principles of democracy and a market economy. Like during the Second World War, we now have to focus our efforts on achieving our common purpose – fighting global terrorism. A common purpose gave inspiration to my father and his comrades – they were trying to give their children a better world than the one they lived in. We cannot forget the potential America and Russia have in overcoming our differences and working together for the greater good. 

The memory of war is a source of strength for people in former Soviet countries, and for the allied countries as well. It’s the feeling that we handled what seemed impossible to handle

Lev Yakobson
HSE's First Vice Rector

One must never forget that Russia and the U.S. are major nuclear powers that are responsible for maintaining stability in the world. It is important that even amid deteriorating relations, Russia and the West continue to work together on resolving nuclear issues in Iran. This is an example of how fundamental pragmatism takes precedence over politics. No less important is on-going cooperation in the social and educational spheres – student internship and exchange programmes are still underway, and joint research projects are being developed. Mr Beyrle called for these ties to be strengthened at the non-governmental level. Such contacts promote mutual understanding and serve as the foundation for improving relations between the countries. He warned against a ‘search for the enemy’ and isolationist mindset in particular, since ‘if you look for an enemy, you’ll find one, and this can be very dangerous.’

Discussing the history of Russian-American relations, Mr Beyrle noted that Russia and America have maintained diplomatic relations for over 200 years, and during this time the countries have worked together rather regularly, as this served their national interests. There were moments of ‘cooling’ in the 20th century, but each time, cooperation was renewed and developed in one way or another. History therefore gives cause for optimism as concerns future relations between the two countries.

In closing the meeting, HSE's First Vice Rector Lev Yakobson emphasised that such meetings were a step towards mutual understanding, which is often in short supply. Such understanding might help prevent the formation of inadequate perceptions of the other party, as well as a number of conflicts. ‘The memory of war is very important; it unites us. That time still teaches us that there is something very important in life, something bigger and more significant than any differences or barriers. There’s life, death, and absolute evil, which must be fought against using joint efforts no matter what. The memory of war is a source of strength for people in former Soviet countries, and for the allied countries as well. It’s the feeling that we handled what seemed impossible to handle. It is a source of pride. And it is a warning against the dangers of repeating the past.’

Prepared by Maria Besova

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