Poland marks Second World War anniversary

Officials from across Europe and the U.S. gathered in northern Poland on Tuesday to mark the outbreak of the Second World War 70 years ago, bringing together former foes to honour the tens of millions killed in the conflict.

Officials from across Europe and the U.S. gathered in northern Poland on Tuesday to mark the outbreak of the Second World War 70 years ago, bringing together former foes to honour the tens of millions killed in the conflict.

Earlier, Polish leaders met at dawn on Gdansk's Westerplatte peninsula to mark the exact time the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, in the war's opening salvo, shelled a tiny Polish military outpost housing the navy's arsenal.

Red and white Polish flags fluttered as the officials at 4:45 a.m. placed wreaths at the foot of the monument to the defenders of Westerplatte. An honour guard looked on.

"Westerplatte is a symbol, a symbol of the heroic fight of the weaker against the stronger," President Lech Kaczynski said.

"It is proof of patriotism and an unbreakable spirit. Glory to the heroes of those days, glory to the heroes of Westerplatte, glory to all of the soldiers who fought in World War II against German Nazism, and against Bolshevik totalitarianism."

Prime Minister Donald Tusk warned of the dangers of forgetting the war's lessons.

"We meet here to remember who started the war, who the culprit was, who the executioner in the war was, and who was the victim of this aggression," Tusk said.

"We meet here to remember this, because we Poles know that, without this memory — honest memory about the truth, about the sources of World War II — Poland, Europe and the world will not be safe."

Putin downplays Soviet role in Poland

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, representatives of the two countries that invaded Poland in September 1939, were scheduled to take part in the commemoration later in the day.

Merkel told Germany's ARD television Tuesday that her country would never forget the "causes and effects" of the war.

"Germany triggered the Second World War," she said. "We brought endless suffering to the world."

Within a month of the Sept. 1 attack, Poland was overwhelmed by the Nazi blitzkrieg from the west, and an attack two weeks later from the east by the Soviet Union, which had signed a pact with Hitler's Germany.

Putin downplayed Russia's responsibility, saying that other countries had also negotiated with Nazi Germany before the war broke out. He emphasized instead the Soviet Union's role in fighting the Nazis.

"Today is a special day ... the day of the beginning of the second world war during which Russians and Poles together were fighting against one enemy, the Nazis," Putin said.

Tusk acknowledged the Red Army's defeat of the Nazis in Poland and vowed his nation and Russia would investigate the "painful elements of our common history."

"If, in the past, it was possible for the Poles and the Germans and the Russians and the Germans, for God's sake, why isn't it possible for the Poles and the Russians?" he said. "This meeting today … is another step in building the fair foundations for an increasingly good dialogue."

The initial German attack on Poland started more than five years of war that would engulf the world and result in the slaughter of more than 50 million people as the German war machine rolled over Europe.

Poland alone lost six million citizens, half of them Jews. During the German occupation, the country was used as a base for the Nazis' genocide machinery. It was home to Auschwitz, Majdanek, Sobibor and other death camps built for the annihilation of Europe's Jews.

At the height of the war, the European theatre stretched from North Africa to the outskirts of Moscow, and pitted Germany and its allies, including Italy, against Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States, along with a host of other countries, including Canada and Polish forces in exile.