Page last updated at 19:05 GMT, Tuesday, 1 September 2009 20:05 UK

Poland remembers its catastrophe

By Jonny Dymond
BBC News, Gdansk

A general view of ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the beginning of WW II at the Monument of Westerplatte Defenders, in Gdansk, northern Poland, early morning on Tuesday
Both heroism and horror were remembered in the pre-dawn darkness

Searchlights lit up the sky as the hour of the anniversary approached - three streams of light pricking the early morning darkness.

Around the monument to the heroes of the Battle of Westerplatte, military units shuffled into formation.

A long line of dignitaries - military, governmental and religious - faced the obelisk, itself a throwback to Soviet-era sculpture.

Westerplatte is one of Poland's great moments of resistance: bombarded by the German warship Schleswig-Holstein, vastly outnumbered by German troops, and dive-bombed by Stuka planes, 180 lightly armed Polish troops guarding a military depot held out for seven days before surrendering.

At the appointed hour - 0445 (0245 GMT), marking the passage of 70 years to the minute - trumpets rang out across the Westerplatte.


There was, of course, talk of heroism in the speeches of the mayor of Gdansk, the President Lech Kaczynski and the Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

But for Poland, perhaps more than any other nation on Earth, World War II was nothing but a catastrophe. By the war's end, five to six million Poles had been killed, many of them Jews - a greater proportion of Poland's population than that of any other country.

German troops enter Poland days after a "blitzkrieg" (lightning war) began the assault on Poland on 1 September 1939
Poland was eventually overwhelmed by Nazi troops

Both Nazi and Soviet occupiers sought to wipe Poland and its civilisation from the map.

The country's intellectual, religious, commercial and military elite were slaughtered. Properties were confiscated, museums looted, universities and schools closed. The capital Warsaw was destroyed on the orders of Hitler.

And the country became a base for the mechanised slaughter of the Holocaust. Auschwitz, Sobibor and Majdanek were some of the camps placed here by the Nazi occupiers.

"We remember," said Mr Tusk, "because we know well that he who forgets or he who falsifies history, and has power, or will assume power, will bring unhappiness again, like 70 years ago."

'Knife in the back'

Mr Kaczynski, the country's more nationalist president, threw a little more fat on the fire of an argument raging between Poland and Russia over responsibility for the war.

There was a huge quantity of mistakes made on many sides
Vladimir Putin
Russian prime minister

Poles have long seen the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty, signed a week before war started, as the starting gun for the German invasion.

Just two weeks later, in mid September 1939, the Soviet armies occupied eastern Poland, and the country was effectively no more.

"On 17 September," said President Kaczynski, "when we were we still defending Warsaw… that day Poland received a knife in the back."

As dawn broke over the Westerplatte, and the trumpets sounded again to mark the end of the ceremony, it was the soldiers of Poland - who fought and fell for their country - who were, once more, remembered.

Head bowed

If the early morning was Poland's alone, the day later broadened out into a remembrance of the wider European struggle. Senior representatives from about 20 combatant countries gathered.

Once, all eyes would have been on the German leader. But now it was Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on whose words everyone hung.

History, said Mr Putin, does not have one colour.

"It is diverse and there was a huge quantity of mistakes made on many sides," he told journalists.

"And all these actions, one way or another, created conditions for the beginning of the large-scale aggression of Nazi Germany."

In the shadow of the monument to the men of the Battle of Westerplatte, dignitaries sat in the now-blazing afternoon sunshine.

The mood had shifted. There was more talk of the future, of the change that Europe had undergone. But the arguments about the past would not go away.

Once again, leaders stood to say their piece and in among the churning up of the past and the talk of the future, one brief and graceful speech stood out.

The speaker's theme was remembrance, of death, of suffering and of loss, and at the heart of the speech, one line.

"I bow my head," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, "before the victims."

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