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Poland Observes 70th Anniversary of World War II


European and American leaders have gathered to observe the 70th anniversary of the German military invasion of Poland, which is generally regarded as the start of World War II. Tuesday's ceremonies come amid controversy between Poland and Russia over the war, in which some 50 million people died.

At a somber ceremony Polish leaders met at dawn on Gdansk's Westerplatte peninsula, where 70 years ago German forces began to attack Poland.

An honorary guard looked on as officials placed wreaths at the foot of the monument to the defenders of Westerplatte at 4:45 am local time, the exact time that the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein began shelling this tiny Polish military outpost.

And, as Red and white Polish flags fluttered, giant lights beamed video footage of the German invasion at a wall of the monument.

Backed by tanks and other heavy equipment, soldiers marched through Polish towns terrifying local citizens. The invasion is generally regarded as the beginning of World War II, which eventually involved almost all nations and killed tens of millions of people.

Tuesday's ceremony came amid a war of words between Russia and Poland over the invasion. Poland is furious that Russian military and intelligence officials appear to lay significant blame on Poland for the outbreak of the Second World War.

The Russian Intelligence Service is reportedly planning to publish documents showing what it calls Poland's aggressive intentions towards the Soviet Union ahead of World War II, and says at least one Polish minister was a German agent.

This follows a documentary on Russian state-run television alleging that Poland had made agreements with Nazi Germany, which planned an invasion of the Soviet Union.

Poland and other former Soviet satellite states say however that the invasion came after Soviet Union leader Josef Stalin reached an agreement with Germany that included dividing eastern Europe into spheres of influence.

Just over two weeks after the start of the German invasion in the west, Soviet troops entered Poland in the east and later occupied the Baltic states as well as parts of Finland and Romania.

Poles still view the Red Army invasion as an act of aggression, especially the Katyn Forest massacre, in which some 22,000 Polish soldiers, police and intellectuals were murdered by Soviet forces in 1940.

During Tuesday's commemoration, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk indirectly referred to the controversy with Russia and the German invasion.

He says people meet here to "remember who started the war, who the culprit was, who the executioner was in the war, and who the victim was of this aggression."

While Moscow has acknowledged wrongdoing under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, it also claims that some 27 million Soviet citizens died in the war against Nazi Germany.

But Adam Burakowski, a political analyst at the Polish Academy of Sciences, has told the Polish Radio External Service that the victim count also included Poles and other non-Russians who were made Soviet citizens after the war.

"Considering the recent Russian attempts to re-write history, for example by suggesting Polish complicity in German aggression, we could expect Russians to publish their own estimates of Soviet war victims shortly," he said. "Probably, they could count citizens of pre-war Poland [eastern Poland, annexed to the USSR by the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact] as Soviet citizens, and this way enlarge the total amount of their losses. In my opinion, it could be an abuse."

In an apparent effort to defuse tensions on the eve of the anniversary, Vladimir Putin has written an article which appears in the Monday edition of Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborca. In it he expressly condemns the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the treaty of non-aggression between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Mr. Putin was to meet his Polish counterpart later Tuesday.

The tensions with former Soviet satellite states has saddened Soviet veterans, including Yakov Vinnichenko, who told Russia Today television he was involved in liberating concentration camps.

"The attitude in these states is certainly different than it use to be, and not for the better," saod Vinnichenko.

There were calls for reconciliation during ceremonies that were attended by former enemies, including German, Polish and American leaders.

United States President Barack Obama, who was not at Tuesday's ceremonies, sent a message saying that today there is "a different era in which the United States and Poland are close allies."

He also noted that as a member of the Western NATO military alliance, Poland is now protected by a creed that says an attack on one is an attack on all.

Yet for elderly people, the wounds of war, still remain.

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