Under the watchful eye of six American veterans visiting Berlin after serving there in 1945, the LRE Foundation launched its international network of hiking trails on 22 July in the Allied Museum. “We are taking a pledge with you”, said managing director Rémi Praud, in the reassurance that the Liberation Route Europe’s mission and purpose will be fulfilled. “We will continue to grow with our partners across Europe to keep your stories alive as Liberation Route is creating the largest WWII memorial in Europe.”
The day started in the German-Russian Museum in Berlin-Karlshorst, where Rémi Praud, together with deputy director Jurriaan de Mol, and Margot Blank, curator of the museum, welcomed the special guests and a handful of international journalists in the Kapitulationssaal. “In this historic room, the High Command of the German Wehrmacht signed the unconditional surrender in front of representatives of the Soviet Union, the USA, Great Britain, and France on the night of 8-9 May 1945”, explained Blank, while her words were at times overwhelmed by the creaking of the antique wooden floor.
After a visit to the permanent exhibition documenting the war of conquest and annihilation led by the German Reich against the Soviet Union from both perspectives, and a lunch in the museum garden, it was time to move from Berlin East to the Allied Museum in Southwest Berlin, where American troops were stationed right after the war.
The director of the Allied Museum, Mr. Jürgen Lillteicher, welcomed the group, and the veterans toured the grounds under the inspiring guidance of curator Bernd von Kostka, who told compelling anecdotes while gazing at an original British candy bomber, a spy tunnel, and the original Checkpoint Charlie.
From the original ‘outpost theatre’ of the US troops, hosts Praud and de Mol opened the launch event at 15:00, live-streamed on the Foundation’s channels. “We dreamed of our own Camino de Compostela” [the famous Spanish pilgrimage], smiled founder de Mol, explaining how it all started in 2008 as a regional initiative in the Netherlands. “Already then, we knew it belonged to a far bigger story”. Ten years later, Liberation Route Europe was an extensive international network certified by the Council of Europe. “But we were still missing a very tangible aspect”, Praud continues, “We wanted to really connect those sights. Now you can follow in the footsteps of history with your own feet. And by bicycle, as well, in the future”, he smiled.
De Mol pointed out that the Liberation Route Europe hiking trail network is unique and has the direct support of the German government and the vfonds (Dutch Foundation for Peace, Freedom and Veteran Support). One of the people making this possible is German MP and LRE Foundation’s patron, Martin Schulz. In his introductory message, Schulz said: “To commemorate is a duty, especially of my generation, the first one in Europe born, and – I hope – until death, living in freedom, democracy and a kind of liberty no generation before has known.”
More personal messages from LRE supporters and partners followed, as well as from Daniel Libeskind, architect and designer of the ‘Vectors of Memory’, the special trail markers on the Liberation Route Europe trails. The Director-General of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Andreas Görgen, had a special message for hikers: “Go for it. Put on your shoes and experience the wonderful landscapes you are walking in. Go back home and contribute to freedom, to peace and to what will be the grand task of the 21st century: diversity and sustainability.” Attending guests and viewers were taken on a virtual hike along the Liberation Route Europe in Portsmouth, Normandy, the Ardennes, the Hürtgen forest, the Netherlands, and ultimately in Berlin.
For the veterans, the trip to Berlin is, without exception, very meaningful. “The target of my unit was Berlin”, says 95-year-old sergeant William Bill Casassa. “We fought up to the Elbe river. That was the end of the fighting for the entire American army. It took me 76 years to get back – to get to Berlin”. He referred to the American war cemetery in Margraten, the Netherlands. “That’s where our guys are. I hope future generations visit places like that and learn about what happened.”
LRE Foundation Chairman, Ed Kronenburg, closed the launch event with a special message for the veterans and for the future: “We have to continue to tell the stories you have told us. Your stories provide hope, strength and graciousness in times of uncertainty”. “We have to inspire the younger generations and teach them the values of freedom, democracy, and equality and the need to defend these values. We have to fight for them on a daily basis.”