Officials from across the Europe and the U.S. gathered in northern Poland on Tuesday to mark the outbreak of World War II 70 years ago, in a ceremony bringing together former foes and friends to pay tribute to the tens of millions killed in the conflict.
Ahead of the international commemoration, Polish leaders came together at dawn on Gdansk’s Westerplatte peninsula for a ceremony marking the exact time the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein shelled a tiny Polish military outpost where the Polish navy’s arsenal was housed in the war’s opening salvo.
Red and white Polish flags fluttered in the breeze as the officials at 4:45 a.m. (0245GMT) placed wreaths at the foot of the monument to the defenders of Westerplatte as an honor guard looked on.
“Westerplatte is a symbol, a symbol of the heroic fight of the weaker against the stronger,” President Lech Kaczynski said. “It is proof of patriotism and an unbreakable spirit. Glory to the heroes of those days, glory to the heroes of Westerplatte, glory to all of the soldiers who fought in World War II against German Nazism, and against Bolshevik totalitarianism.”
Prime Minister Donald Tusk echoed that praise, while warning of the dangers of forgetting the war’s lessons.
“We meet here to remember who started the war, who the culprit was, who the executioner in the war was, and who was the victim of this aggression,” Tusk said.
“We meet here to remember this, because we Poles know that without this memory, honest memory about the truth, about the sources of World War II, Poland, Europe and the world will not be safe.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin _ representatives of the two countries that invaded Poland in September 1939, starting the war _ were to take part in the commemoration later in the day.
Merkel told Germany’s ARD television Tuesday that her country would never forget the “causes and effects” of the war.
“Germany triggered the Second World War,” she said. “We brought endless suffering to the world.”
Within a month of the Sept. 1 attack, Poland was overwhelmed by the Nazi blitzkrieg from the west, and an attack two weeks later from the east by forces from the Soviet Union, which had signed a pact with Hitler’s Germany.
It was the beginning of more than five years of war that would engulf the world and see more than 50 million people slaughtered as the German war machine rolled over Europe.
Poland alone lost some 6 million citizens _ half of them Jews _ and more than half its national wealth. During the German occupation, the country was also used as a base for the Nazis’ genocide machinery, home to Auschwitz, Majdanek, Sobibor and other death camps built for the annihilation of Europe’s Jews.
At the height of the war, the European theater stretched from North Africa to the outskirts of Moscow, and pitted Germany and its allies, including Italy, against Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States, along with a host of other countries, including Polish forces in exile.
The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, with Germany’s unconditional surrender.
Around 20 European leaders and officials including French Premier Francois Fillon and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband will join Merkel and Putin for the ceremonies.
The U.S. will be represented by National Security Adviser James Jones. The delegation, which is lower-ranking that of most European nations, has disappointed some in Poland who view Washington as a close and historic ally.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said, however, that it was no indication of a chill in relations between the two nations.
“There are very deep and extensive ties between the U.S. and Poland. We are bound by, by not only ethnic and cultural ties, but also by our membership in NATO,” he said.
“We appreciate the, the tremendous sacrifice that the people of Poland made in World War II.”
But the presence of Merkel and Putin has sparked the most interest in Poland.
Warsaw enjoys generally warm ties with Germany, and Merkel welcomed her invitation to the events, pointing to it a “signal of reconciliation” between the two countries. Both are members of the European Union.
She said Sept. 1 is “a day of mourning for the suffering” that Nazi Germany brought on Europe and of “remembrance of the guilt Germany brought upon itself” by starting the war.
Poland’s relations with Russia, meanwhile, remain tense.
But in a letter to Poles published in the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza on the eve of the anniversary, Putin called for “joint grief and forgiveness” in the hope that “Russian-Polish relations will sooner or later reach such a high level of true partnership,” as Russian-German ties.