Europe marks the start of WWII in Poland as Germany sounds warning

Warsaw: Germany's President expressed deep remorse for the suffering his nation inflicted on Poland and the rest of Europe during World War II, warning of the dangers of nationalism as world leaders gathered on Sunday in the country where the war started at incalculable costs.

A Polish military veteran and a concentration camp survivor attend an international ceremony in Warsaw on Sunday to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.Credit:Getty Images

Two weeks after the German invasion, the Soviet army invaded Poland from the east, putting the country under a dual occupation that came with atrocities committed by two invaders. By the war's end nearly six years later, about 6 million Polish citizens had been killed, more than half of them Jews.

Polish President Andrzej Duda recalled Poland's immense suffering and he appealed to those assembled not to close their eyes now to imperial tendencies and border changes imposed through force.

Duda cited aggression against Georgia and Ukraine, and though he didn't name Russia, it was clear he found that country at fault as the aggressor.

"Recently in Europe we are dealing with a return of imperialist tendencies, with attempts to change borders by force, with aggression against countries," Duda said. "Turning a blind eye is not the recipe for preserving peace. It is a simple way to embolden aggressive personalities, a simple way to, in fact, give consent to further attacks."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki commemorate the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II in Warsaw on Sunday.Credit:Getty Image

The German President had a modern-day warning of his own about the dangers of nationalism – and described European unity as a guarantee for peace in the future.

Polish authorities didn't invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend anniversary events because of Moscow's annexation of Crimea and support for separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine.

Russia's recent rehabilitation of the Stalinist era, and a pact Soviet leader Josef Stalin made with Hitler that led to Poland's dismemberment in 1939, were apparently also behind the decisions not to invite Putin. That represented a change from 10 years ago, when Putin was invited amid attempts to thaw relations between the West and Russia at the time.

US President Donald Trump had originally been scheduled to attend the event, but cancelled as Hurricane Dorian barrelled toward the US. Pence spoke on behalf of the United States in Warsaw.

"While the hearts of every American are with our fellow citizens in the path of a massive storm, today we remember how the gathering storm of the 20th century broke into warfare and invasion followed by unspeakable hardship and heroism of the Polish people," he said.

Pence said the Polish people "never lost hope" and "never gave in to despair."

The "character, faith, and determination of the Polish people made all the difference," Pence said. "Your oppressors tried to break you, but Poland could not be broken."

Pence criticised the "twisted ideologies of Nazism and Communism," where, he said, "all morality became socialist morality. Whatever served the power of the state and its slave masters became justified, even murder on an unprecedented scale."

He called out the "unspeakable evil of the Holocaust" that "systemically murdered more than 3 million of Poland's Jewish citizens."

Hovering over the day, however, was a friction point: Poland remains the only country in the European Union that does not have comprehensive legislation to deal with the restitution of private property confiscated by the Nazis – and, in Poland's case, later nationalised under communist rule.

The Trump administration has been slow to call out Poland's nationalist government as it chips away at democratic institutions, breaches the country's constitution and spurs anti-LGBTQ sentiment.

During the observances in Warsaw, church bells tolled across a capital that German forces razed to the ground decades ago. Polish and foreign leaders laid wreaths, and one by one rang a bell in memory.

The observances started at 4.40am local time at the sites of the first German attacks – Wielun, a defenceless town, and minutes later on the Westerplatte Peninsula in Gdansk.

In Wielun, Steinmeier also voiced remorse, which Duda said provided "moral satisfaction." He addressed his German counterpart.

"Mr President, thank you for your presence and your attitude," Duda said. "I can see a man who has come with humility, a bowed head in order to pay homage … to share the pain."

Minutes later, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Frans Timmermans, a top European Union official, led an event on Westerplatte Peninsula, the Baltic Coast site where Polish troops put up resistance to fight the war's first battle.

"Eighty years ago, unspeakable horrors were unleashed on the Polish population, unspeakable horrors that we need to remember to prevent them from recurring in Europe," said Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European Commission.

"Can you imagine in this gathering that every fifth person sitting and standing here would suddenly disappear? This is what happened to the Polish nation at the hands of cruel Nazis who lost every understanding of humanity."

AP, The Washington Post

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