Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, whose country sided with Nazi Germany during the initial invasion of Poland in 1939, said the war and its causes needed to be studied from all perspectives.
“We should examine everything which ended up bringing about the tragedy of September 1, 1939,” Putin said, standing next to Poland’s prime minister Donald Tusk after the two met ahead of official commemorations. “We must do this so that this tragedy never happens again.”
Poland’s leaders gathered at dawn on Gdansk’s Westerplatte peninsula to mark the exact time the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, in the war’s opening salvo, shelled a tiny Polish military outpost housing the navy’s arsenal.
Red-and-white Polish flags fluttered as the officials opened the ceremony, placing wreaths at the foot of the monument to the defenders of Westerplatte. 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 World War II against German Nazism, and against Bolshevik totalitarianism.”
Tusk warned 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.”
The initial German attack on Poland started more than five years of war that would engulf the world and result in the slaughter of more than 50 million people as the German war machine rolled over Europe.
President Barack Obama sent a message noting that today, as a Nato member, Poland is protected by a creed that says an attack on one is an attack on all.
“We celebrate together the determination of the people of Poland to fight authoritarianism and to choose democracy and freedom,” Obama said in the message to Poland. “Today, we live in a different era in which the United States and Poland are close allies, partners in meeting global challenges to our security and prosperity, and in supporting fundamental human rights around the world.”
Earlier, German chancellor Angela Merkel, who was taking part in the commemoration, told Germany’s ARD television 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 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.
Putin downplayed Russia’s responsibility, however, saying that other countries had also negotiated with Nazi Germany before the war broke out. He emphasised instead the Soviet Union’s role in fighting the Nazis.
“Today is a special day... the day of the beginning of the Second World War during which Russians and Poles together were fighting against one enemy, the Nazis,” Putin said.
Tusk acknowledged the Red Army’s defeat of the Nazis in Poland and vowed his nation and Russia would investigate the “painful elements of our common history”.
About 20 European leaders and officials, including French premier Francois Fillon and British foreign secretary David Miliband, joined Merkel and Putin for the ceremonies.
The conflict remained a German-Polish affair until September 3, 1939 when Britain and France, bound to Poland by military pacts, declared war on Germany, pulling in their vast empires.
For Russia, meanwhile, what is known as the “Great Patriotic War” started on June 22, 1941. The Nazis turned on their erstwhile allies, launching a bloody invasion. For west Europeans, it remained the so-called “Phoney War” until 1940. That year, Nazis swept through Denmark, Norway, Belgium, France and the Netherlands and attacked Britain from the air, and Germany’s ally fascist Italy entered the war.