Polish leaders marked the 70th anniversary of World War II in a somber ceremony at dawn today on the Baltic peninsula where the conflict began, hailing those who gave their lives to defeat Nazi Germany.
Later in the day, European and American officials — former friends and foes from the war — were to meet in Gdansk for other ceremonies to pay tribute to the tens of millions who lost their lives in the conflict.
At the Westerplatte peninsula — the site of Nazi Germany's opening assault on Poland — Polish political and religious leaders recalled the sacrifices their countrymen made in the struggle against the overwhelming forces of Hitler's Germany.
"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, but also warned of the dangers of forgetting the war's lessons.
"We meet here to remember who started the war, who was 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.
"We remember because we know well that he who forgets, or he who falsifies history, and has power or will assume power, will bring unhappiness again, like 70 years ago."
With red and white Polish flags fluttering in the breeze, those gathered then placed wreathes at the foot of the monument to the defenders of Westerplatte as an honor guard looked on.
The ceremony began at 2.45am— the exact hour on Sept. 1, 1939 that the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein shelled a tiny Polish military outpost on Westerplatte, where the Polish navy's arsenal was housed, in the war's opening salvo.
Within less than a month Poland was overwhelmed by the Nazi blitzkrieg from the west, and an attack 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 — 3 million of them Jews — and more than half its national wealth in destroyed factories, torched museums, libraries and villages. During the Nazi occupation, the country was also to be used as base for the occupying 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.
Later in the day, around 20 European leaders and officials including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, French Premier Francois Fillon and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, will take part in a larger service on Westerplatte.
The US 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.
But the presence of Merkel and Putin — the leaders of the countries that invaded Poland in the fall of 1939 — 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 called 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.Reuse content