German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier yesterday asked Poland’s forgiveness for history’s bloodiest conflict during a ceremony in the Polish city of Wielun, where the first World War II bombs fell 80 years ago.
“I bow before the victims of the attack on Wielun. I bow before the Polish victims of German tyranny. And I ask your forgiveness,” Steinmeier said in both German and Polish.
Poland suffered some of the worst horrors of World War II: Nearly six million Poles died in the conflict that killed more than 50 million people overall. That figure includes the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, half of them Polish.
“It was Germans who committed these crimes against humanity in Poland. Anyone calling them things of the past, or claiming that the vile rule of terror of the National Socialists in Europe was a mere footnote of German history, is passing judgement on him or herself,” Steinmeier added in the presence of his Polish counterpart.
The line appeared to be a clear reference to the far-right Alternative for Germany party, whose co-leader Alexander Gauland once called the 12-year Third Reich a “speck of bird poop” on an otherwise glorious German past.
“As Germany’s federal president, let me assure you that we will not forget,” Steinmeier said. “We want to, and we will, remember. And we will bear the responsibility that our history imposes upon us.”
Polish President Andrzej Duda for his part denounced Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland, calling it “an act of barbarity” and “a war crime.”
“I am convinced that this ceremony will go down in the history of Polish-German friendship,” he added, thanking Steinmeier for his presence.
The heads of state were to tour the Wielun museum and meet with local survivors of the Sept. 1, 1939, bombing.
“I saw dead bodies, the wounded... Smoke, noise, explosions. Everything was burning,” Wielun bombing survivor Tadeusz Sierandt, 88, told reporters 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 separate dawn remembrance in Westerplatte, where a Nazi German battleship opened fire on a Polish fort on Sept. 1, 1939.
Timmermans spoke of how “we Europeans could honor the memory of those who fell for our freedom here.”
“We express it [gratitude] by ... working for tolerance, working for mutual respect, working to remove the feeding ground of those who propose intolerance. Who believe that hate is a good engine for politics. Who believe that confrontation between nations, between different cultures, is a good thing,” he said.
Adolf Hitler’s attacks on Poland led the UK 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 the UK, the Soviet Union and the US.
Later yesterday, US 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.
Although it has been 80 years since the war started, there are still unresolved matters according to Poland, which has said Germany owes it war reparations.
A parliamentary commission is working on a new analysis of the extent of Poland’s wartime human and material losses.
“We have to talk about, remember and demand the truth regarding those losses. We have to demand compensation,” Morawiecki said at the Westerplatte ceremony.
However, when it comes to reparations, Berlin believes the case is closed.
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