WARSAW – The heads of state of Poland and Germany on Sunday marked 80 years since the outbreak of history’s bloodiest conflict with a ceremony in the Polish city of Wielun, where the first World War II bombs fell.
Polish President Andrzej Duda and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier delivered speeches at dawn in the small central city to remember the war, which killed more than 50 million people, including 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.
“I saw dead bodies, the wounded. … Smoke, noise, explosions. Everything was burning,” Wielun bombing survivor Tadeusz Sierandt, 88, said ahead of the anniversary.
The carpet-bombing came one week after Germany and the Soviet Union secretly agreed to carve up Eastern Europe between them by signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans attended a dawn remembrance in Westerplatte, where a Nazi German battleship opened fire on a Polish fort on Sept. 1, 1939.
Morawiecki spoke of the huge material, spiritual, economic and financial losses Poland suffered in the war: “We need to talk about those losses, we need to remember, we need to demand truth and demand compensation.”
For Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, the memory of the war is a central plank of its “historical politics,” aiming to counteract what it calls the West’s lack of appreciation for the extent of the nation’s suffering and bravery under Nazi German occupation.
Critics say the party’s ambition is to fan nationalism among voters at a time when populists around the world are tapping into historical revisionism.
Hitler’s attacks on Poland led Britain and France to declare war on Nazi Germany. On Sept. 17, the Soviet Union in turn invaded Poland.
After the Nazis tore up the pact with Moscow, two alliances battled it out to the end: the Axis powers, led by Germany, Italy and Japan and the victorious Allied forces, led by Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States.
Later Sunday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Steinmeier and Duda were to deliver speeches at a ceremony in Warsaw’s Pilsudski Square, the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Poland suffered some of the worst horrors of World War II: nearly 6 million Poles — half of them Jews — died in the conflict.
Though it has been 80 years since the war started, there are still unresolved matters according to Poland, which says Germany owes it war reparations.
A parliamentary commission is currently working on a new analysis of the extent of Poland’s wartime human and material losses. Berlin, however, believes the case is closed.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will attend the Warsaw ceremony, but no other major world leaders are expected.
U.S. President Donald Trump had planned to attend the war commemorations but canceled at the last minute so he could monitor Hurricane Dorian.
Also not coming are French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while Russian President Vladimir Putin was not invited — unlike 10 years ago — because of Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
The Polish presidency has said it expects around 40 foreign delegations to attend, a few of them led by heads of state.
They include Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of the Ukrainian, whose partnership matters to Poland. Warsaw believes its security depends on Ukraine remaining outside of Russia’s sphere of influence.
Duda said Poland wants neighbor “Ukraine to be closer to the European Union, to be closer to NATO” after meeting with Zelensky in Warsaw on Saturday.
Zelensky slammed the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline set to send Russian gas to Germany as a “threat” to Europe.
The U.S., Poland and Ukraine agreed later Saturday to beef up cooperation aimed at securing energy supplies in the region reliant on Russian deliveries.
The agreement is largely focused on gearing Ukraine’s gas infrastructure to deliveries from the West, including U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG).
While in town, Pence hopes to sign a pact with Poland on confronting 5G network risks, according to a senior U.S. administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The United States is pressing allies, with mixed success, to reject Chinese 5G technology, especially from the giant mobile phone company Huawei.
Washington fears that Huawei will provide Beijing with a way to spy on communications from the countries that use its products and services.