In 1945, Albert Kotzebue was a lieutenant with the 273rd regiment of the 69th infantry division of the 1st US Army. He grew older, but with time his life only became more interesting. When I met with him in Chicago in the mid 1980s, Kotzebue, then a retired colonel, was studying law. He was preparing to take difficult university exams the next week.
He was to die within two years, but only God knew that then.
Kotzebue was happy at the time, and generous. He gave me a precious souvenir - an exact copy of the wartime issue of the Army Stars and Stripes newspaper featuring an article by war correspondent Andy Rooney reported from the frontline, which is now a historical, even a canonical, document.
It was a yellowish and a bit thick sheet of paper with a headline across it reading: "Yankees Meet With the Reds."
The American and Russian armies met just 75 miles south of Berlin, dividing Germany into two parts and closing the final gap between the Eastern and Western fronts. The encounter Washington, Moscow, and London reported more or less at the same time took place at Torgau, on the Elbe River at 4:40 p.m. ... Russian soldiers are exactly like Americans ... This is the best way to describe them ... We are overwhelmed with joy, a great new world is opening to us, wrote Rooney.
Kotzebue shared the overwhelming joy. He, then a lieutenant, was in command of the U.S. patrolmen who were the first to shake Russian soldiers' hands on the Elbe.
Were his patrolmen really the first to meet with Russians on the Elbe? We cannot be certain, just as we do not know who was the first to hoist the Russian flag on the Reichstag. At any rate, Kotzebue's patrol is believed to have met with Russian troops four and a half hours before Lieutenant William Robertson's group broke through to them. Kotzebue did not believe it was particularly important who was first. He said war was not a game.
The whole day I listened to him recounting the circumstances of the event.
In the early hours of that day, the battalion command sent Kotzebue and a small patrol out to search for Soviet units along the Elbe.
Lt. Kotzubue and his 28-man jeep-mounted patrol had to make their way through refugees and German deserters, some of them in women's clothing, all coming from the opposite direction. There were seven jeeps. The fleeing masses were not easily scared by the jeeps' horns. The river was 20 miles away, but the patrolmen only reached it at 11:30 a.m.
They saw figures in khaki uniforms and typical Red Army caps on the other bank of the swift-flowing river. That moment stuck in Kotzebue's memory. The American patrolmen used green signal flares to announce their arrival. The Russians were suspicious, as Nazis had tried to deceive them moving along the bank under the guise of Americans. It took more negotiations and recognition signals until Soviet soldiers waved inviting them to cross the river.
Crossing the river was not easy. Lt. Kotzebue and six of his men went down the river and located two boats chained to the dock. They broke the chains with the butts of their guns.
The whole night the soldiers celebrated their meeting, proposing toasts to Stalin, Roosevelt, the Red Army, and the end of the war. In the morning, somebody brought an accordion and guitars. The Americans taught Russians to sing "The Swany River," while the latter sang "Katyusha."
I asked Kotzebue whether he understood the importance of the moment at the time. He nodded his gray-haired, well-shaped head in agreement.
To me it was that simple: humanity had been drawn into a fierce war, while our brotherhood with another nation, the Russians, defeated the evil, said Kotzebue. I am a religious man, and I have always seen that as the biblical triumph of light over darkness.
On that day, Wednesday, April 25, 1945, Lieutenant Kotzebu and Lieutenant Gordeyev, it was the only Russian name he remembered, made modern history on the banks of the Elbe.
An international conference convened in San Francisco the same day to establish the United Nations Organization that was to bring order in the new, daring postwar world.
Meanwhile, one journalist and later a famous American historian, Charles Higham, embarked on the work of his lifetime at The New York Times office - a research effort that culminated in a shocking book, "Trading with the Enemy." His work seemed heretical to many at that time and is often seen as such today.
The book's subtitle is "An Expose of the Nazi-American Money Plot 1933-1949." Albert Kotzebue would have hardly understood what was behind the title, and if he had he would not have believed the author.
Higham studied declassified documents from the U.S. National Archives and other organizations and furnished facts that produced a rather embarrassing picture. Leading American companies, among them Standard Oil of New Jersey, Chase Manhattan Bank, Texas Company, International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. (ITT), Ford, Sterling Products, and many others, appeared to have maintained cooperation with the Reich.
The U.S. administration, including Jesse Jones, the wartime Secretary of Commerce, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, and senior State Department officials, never subjected the business leaders to criticism for dealings with the Nazis, according to Higham.
That was a war formula completely different from Albert Kotzebue's naive perceptions. History is not the Bible - good does not always triumph over bad in it.
Let's have a look at some secrets behind those dealings with the enemy from WWII soldiers' perspective.
When Lieutenant Kotzebue and his division were fighting their way toward the Elbe to join Russian units and ordinary Americans and Brits were lining up at empty petrol stations, Standard Oil of New Jersey Co. was exporting oil, via Switzerland that maintained neutrality, for fuel for Nazi tanks and armored vehicles.
When approaching the Elbe, Luftwaffe bombers equipped with the engines that were uninterruptedly supplied by Ford factories from across occupied Europe often attacked Allied troops.
Ford, for example, had a large branch in Poissy near Paris that produced aircraft engines, trucks, and cars for Nazi Germany throughout WWII, something its American owners did not object to. "The workers have pledged to do the utmost to achieve victory early this year," ran a news bulletin at the Ford plant in Germany.
When Allied troops approached the Elbe, Walter Schellenberg, Hitler's foreign intelligence chief and second-in-command of the Gestapo, was simultaneously a director of the U.S.' International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. The author's findings show ITT chief executive Behn Sosthenes took flights from New York to Madrid and Bern for talks on ways to update the Nazis' communication systems.
In May 1944, when Allied troops were moving to the Elbe, Thomas McKitrick, the American president of the Nazi-controlled Bank of International Settlements (BIS) in Switzerland, arrived at his Basel office to preside over an annual board of directors meeting, the fourth one in the war. He met with Hitler's emissary, Emil Puhl, to talk about the arrival of 20kg in gold bullion worth $378 million in the Bank's vaults.
The gold had been seized from occupied countries' banks. Highem writes golden spectacle frames, rings, cigarette cases, and death camp inmates' golden teeth melted in the Reichsbank's vaults were also there.
Back in March 1943, Congressman Jerry Voorhis submitted a resolution demanding an investigation into BIS transactions. He wanted to know why an American citizen had retained the post of bank president and was used to promote the "fascist axis'" interests and goals. Voorhis' resolution was never discussed in Congress.
These are only a few stories from the book that abounds in astonishing wartime accounts. Fortunately Albert Kotzebue did not know all that, as "Trading with the Enemy" came after his death.
You cannot but recall the book's accounts when reading foreign and even Russian works about the difficult choice the Western Allies had to make about joining forces with Soviet tyrant Stalin. They write the United States sacrificed its democratic principles by stretching a helping hand to the Soviet regime. U.S. aid under the Lend-Lease program, Operation Frantic when American Flying Fortresses made air raids from airfields in Poltava, Ukraine, were indeed a sacrifice of the Western principles of democracy and freedom.
I believe Moscow was well aware of the U.S. banking and industrial leaders' dealings with Hitler and therefore also had moral doubts about cooperating with the U.S.
However, VE Day is a great holiday, and deciding who was a greater sinner is hardly appropriate.
The victors are, after all, righteous men like Russian Lieutenant Gordeyev and American Lieutenant Kotzebue, who met on the Elbe 60 years ago.