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Europe marking anniversary of start of World War II

Wreath laying and remembrance ceremonies are to be held throughout Europe on Sep 1 to mark the outbreak of World War II 70 years ago.

world Updated: Aug 30, 2009 09:25 IST

Wreath laying and remembrance ceremonies are to be held throughout Europe on Sep 1 to mark the outbreak of World War II 70 years ago.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Premier Vladimir Putin are due to join Polish President Lech Kaczynski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk for a commemorative ceremony at Westerplatte near the Polish city of Gdansk, formerly Danzig.

The shelling by a German warship of a Polish military depot at the Westerplatte peninsula was one of the first episodes in Nazi Germany's aggression on Poland that led to the war. For five days the small Polish garrison held out against the eleven-inch guns of the battleship Schleswig-Holstein and Stukas dropping 500-pound bombs.

William L. Shirer, an American correspondent based in the German capital at the time Nazi troops invaded Poland, described the events in his Berlin Diary of Sep 1, 1939.

"At dawn this morning Hitler moved against Poland. It's a flagrant, inexcusable, unprovoked act of aggression. But Hitler and the German High Command call it a 'counter-attack'!"

Shirer recalled that at the start of World War I in 1914 there had been tremendous excitement in Berlin on the first day of hostilities.

Twenty-five years later, however, things were different. "Today there is no excitement, no hurrahs, no cheering, no throwing of flowers, no war fever, no war hysteria," Shirer wrote.

"There is not even any hate for the French and British -- despite Hitler's various proclamations to the people, the party, the East Army, the West Army, accusing the 'English war-mongers' and 'capitalistic Jews' of starting this war."

Shirer also described seeing 250 people standing about in the sun on Berlin's Wilhelmplatz square Sep 3, 1939, when loudspeakers announced that Britain had declared war on Germany.

"They listened, there was not a murmur. They just stood there as they were before. Stunned. The people cannot realise yet that Hitler has led them into a world war," wrote Shirer, who later went on to pen the best-selling book, "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich".

Although the war officially began with the German invasion of Poland, Hitler had earlier already seized Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia, with no intervention by other nations. By June 1940, Germany had conquered not only Poland, but also Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and France, leaving Britain alone to battle on against the fascist forces.

That same month the German army launched its Operation Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union. Not until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 would the US be drawn into the war alongside Britain.

By the time the war ended in 1945, more than 55 million people had been killed and countless more made homeless.

On Sep 1, wreath-laying ceremonies are planned at Polish monuments in Berlin and Leipzig, honouring the nation's war dead. Similar events will take place in other European towns and cities.

In London, a World War II exhibition at the Imperial War Museum was inaugurated on Aug 20, exploring the build-up to Britain's declaration of war on Germany 70 years ago.

Among the items on display is then British prime minister Neville Chamberlain's pocket diary containing a simple entry for Sep 3, 1939: "War declared."

Also displayed is a letter he wrote to his sister Ida the first week of the war, with a passage reading. "I have had some dreadful anxieties, especially during one sleepless night. Of course the difficulty is with Hitler himself.

"Until he disappears and his system collapses there can be no peace," the prime minister wrote.

In the US, numerous films and books have been or are being released dealing with the start of the five-year conflict.

Gordon Zuckermann has just brought out a historical novel, "The Sentinels: Fortunes of War". In it, he claims that for Americans the war years represented a period of enormous personal glory and sacrifice in which they had "unselfishly helped the world to liberate itself from the tyranny of fascism".

In the third and final volume of his non-fiction trilogy on Nazi Germany, titled "The Third Reich at War", historian Richard Evans depicts the rise and fall of German military might from the onset of the war to its conclusion.

Evans mixes narrative of the war with personal tales from generals, front-line soldiers, Hitler Youth and middle-class housewives in his book.

Numerous World War II-themed movies have also been released during the past 12 months, including the Tom Cruise thriller "Valkyrie" in which he plays the role of Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg in an abortive 1944 anti-Hitler bomb plot.

Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds", about a group of Jewish American soldiers trained to track down and eliminate Nazis, has just opened for release in Germany.

Earlier this year, Kate Winslet won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in British director Stephen Daldry's war-related movie "The Reader", based on the book by German writer-historian Bernhard Schlink.