Poland remembers outbreak of second World War
Published 01/09/2009 | 12:18
Officials from across Europe and the US gathered in northern Poland today to mark the outbreak of the second World War 70 years ago, in a ceremony bringing former foes and friends together 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, marking the exact time the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein shelled a tiny Polish military outpost where the Polish navy's arsenal was housed. It was the war's opening salvo.
Red and white Polish flags fluttered in the breeze as the officials at 4.45am (0245GMT) placed wreaths at the foot of the monument to the defenders of Westerplatte as an honour 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 the Second World War 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," Mr 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 the Second World War, 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 taking part in the later commemoration.
Chancellor Merkel told Germany's ARD television today 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 September 1 attack, Poland was overwhelmed by the Nazi blitzkrieg from the west, and an attack two weeks later from the east by 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 theatre 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.