GDANSK, Poland // With war medals glinting on their chests, 24 Polish veterans joined political leaders in the port city of Gdansk before dawn yesterday to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War here at 4.45am on September 1, 1939.
The old men stood in silence as wreaths were laid at the foot of a 25-metre high memorial on Westerplatte, a peninsula opposite the port, where Nazi Germany launched its invasion of Poland with an assault on a small military depot manned by 205 Polish troops. Outnumbered 10 to one and under fire from the heavy guns of the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein as well as constant aerial bombardment, the defenders held out for seven days and came to symbolise Poland's brave resistance in the face of hopeless odds.
A guard of honour fired three salvos into the dark sky at the sombre ceremony, which began on the minute of 4.45am. A later ceremony on Westerplatte was attended by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as well as senior officials from Britain, France and the United States. "Westerplatte is a symbol, a symbol of the heroic fight of the weaker against the stronger," Lech Kaczynski, the Polish president, 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 the Second World War against German Nazism, and against Bolshevik totalitarianism."
That was a swipe at Russia, which angered Poles before the anniversary by rejecting any blame for the outbreak of the war, even though a non-aggression pact known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had freed Hitler's hand to invade Poland in his quest for "Lebensraum" - living space - for his "master race" in the east. Seventeen days after the Nazis attacked from the west, the Soviet Union marched in from the east under a secret deal with Hitler to carve up Poland.
The Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, had on Sunday rejected as an "outright lie" attempts to put some of the blame for the war on the Soviet Union. It is a highly sensitive topic in Russia, too, where the Soviet Union's victory over Hitler is a matter of intense national pride. Mr Putin sought to calm tensions by striking a conciliatory tone in Gdansk, but he stopped short of apologising for the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers in Katyn Forest by the Soviet Union in 1940.
"If we are going to speak objectively about history we must understand it does not have just one colour. It was diverse and a huge number of mistakes were made by all sides," Mr Putin told a news conference after talks with the Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, in the resort of Sopot near Gdansk. "And all these actions created the conditions for the large-scale aggression by Nazi Germany." In an article published in Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza daily newspaper on Monday, he condemned the non-aggression pact but added that France and Britain had also tried to compromise with Hitler in 1938, accepting the destruction of Czechoslovakia, and then had failed to come to Poland's aid after declaring war on Germany on September 3. Mr Putin and Mr Tusk agreed to set up joint teams of historians to study the Katyn massacre.
Poland fell after 36 days, but its government never formally capitulated and Polish troops went on fighting Hitler alongside the Allies until the end of the war, when Poland became part of the Soviet bloc. For many Poles, the Second World War did not truly end until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 finally brought it freedom. Mrs Merkel called September 1 "a day of mourning for the suffering" that Nazi Germany brought on Europe and of "remembrance of the guilt Germany brought upon itself" by starting the war. "No country suffered for so long under German occupation as Poland. In this dark time, the country was devastated. Towns and villages were destroyed... Barely a Polish family was spared,"she said.
Jerzy Stawowski, a Polish veteran who was 17 when war broke out, welcomed that statement. "It was very important that Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that Germany started the war," Mr Stawowski, 87, wearing his brown Polish army uniform, said in an interview. "We have to forgive and reach out to each other. I'm proud that this reconciliation is happening in Gdansk. We have to make a new beginning. This is important to us veterans. We don't have many years left."
Mr Stawowski said his brother had been killed in action on September 17. "I remember burying his body without a coffin or a cross to mark his grave," he said. Waclaw Butowski, 84, who fought in France with the First Polish Armoured Division alongside Allied forces after the Normandy landings in 1944, said: "The Germans today aren't what they were then. I have no hatred for them. During the war it was a different story. All that's important is peace and work."