Gdansk, Poland: Leaders from both sides in World War II gathered Tuesday for ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the start of the conflict in Europe, when a German ship fired on a Polish base on the Baltic.
At 4:45am, Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk, joined by diplomats and veterans, paid tribute to the victims of the conflict which was to claim an estimated 50 million lives, including six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
At events later on Tuesday, leaders of some 20 nations including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin - were to join them in remembering history’s bloodiest conflict, whose legacy endures and divides to this day.
“We are here to remember who in that war was the aggressor and who was the victim, for without an honest memory neither Europe, nor Poland, nor the world will ever live in security,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk declared at the pre-dawn ceremony.
Memorial events centre on Westerplatte, a peninsula on the edge of Gdansk (then the Free City of Danzig) and home in 1939 to a small Polish base.
For Poles it symbolises heroic resistance against overwhelming odds: its 180 soldiers held out for seven days against 3,500 Germans.
It was attacked on Friday, 1 September, 1939 by the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, which was on a purported goodwill visit.
The ship had been ordered by Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler to open fire at 4:45am, which is seen as the start of the conflict.
The Nazis, however, bombed Wielun, a town in central Poland close to the former border with Germany, at 4:40am. The battleship’s gunners received their captain’s order at 4:47am, and opened up at 4:48am, according to Polish historians.
Putin’s speech at the ceremony is hotly awaited by Poles, after a string of Russian publications and a film justifying the 23 August, 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which led to the partition of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union.
In an article published Monday in top Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Putin condemned the pact but added that the Soviet Union had no other option.
He noted that in 1938, Britain and France signed the infamous Munich agreement with Nazi Germany, “destroying all hope of creating a united front to fight against fascism”.
However, he made no reference to the Red Army invasion of Poland of September 17, 1939.
Kaczynski underlined Poland’s viewpoint in his speech, saying that in 1939, the Soviets had “stuck a knife in the back of Poland”.
The conflict remained a German-Polish affair until 3 September, 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, Holland and France and attacked Britain from the air, and Germany’s ally Fascist Italy entered the war.
The United States found itself at war on 7 December , with the