Warsaw, Poland – Hundreds of people on Sunday descended on the largest square in the Polish capital to mark the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, the bloodiest conflict in recent history.
The sky was abuzz with police helicopters and Warsaw’s central streets were closed off as 40 foreign delegations made their way to Piłsudski Square.
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived early, along with the prime ministers of France and Belgium. The presidents of Germany, Slovakia, Croatia, Lithuania, Hungary, Ukraine and the Czech Republic ceremoniously marched onto the stage one by one. US Vice President Mike Pence arrived last but was the only one to be greeted with booming applause from the crowd.
After an hour of military pageantry in the scorching noon heat, many opened umbrellas, others scouted out shady patches under linden trees or crouched under media platforms.
“Nobody fought with more courage and determination than Poles during the brutal war and for 40 years of communist rule. If anyone doubts the destiny of humanity, which is freedom, let them look at Poland,” he said.
Speaking in Warsaw and earlier in Wielun, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier promised to never forget the atrocities of the Nazi regime, asking for forgiveness.
“In no other square in Europe do I find it more difficult to speak, and to address you in my native language of German … I ask for forgiveness for Germany‘s historical guilt and I recognise our enduring responsibility,” he said.
The words rang evocatively with the backdrop of the former Saxon Palace which was razed during the war, leaving behind just an archway sheltering the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Polish President Andrzej Duda spoke about the importance of preserving memory. “It is our duty to encourage young people to go and take on this terrible, shocking experience of visiting the concentration camp, seeing this terrible story with their own eyes,” he said.
Despite the conciliatory openings, speakers diverged on their main take-aways about the 1939-1945 war.
Pence devoted much of his speech to also talk about Soviet atrocities all the way up the Solidarity movement of the 1980s. Alluding to the Polish Pope John Paul II and Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, he concluded that the problem of the 20th century was that men had forgotten God.
Steinmeier meanwhile warned that the US’s inward focus is distancing the country from its traditional European allies.
“That [wartime] America cared about a united Europe. That America wanted a real partnership and a friendship based on mutual respect. A lot of that no longer seems obvious today. Therefore let us not forget what once constituted our strength,” he said.
He called for a closer alliance with the US: “Europe needs partners, and I am sure that the US also needs partners in the world.”
An angry-looking Duda said that the war may have been avoidable had the West stood up to fascism sooner. He warned of the “return of imperialist tendencies”.
In an overt reference to Russia, he said: “This is what happens: in 2008 Georgia, in 2014 Ukraine. Today still: shifted borders, occupation, prisoners of war, military provocations.”
A wave of commotion ran through the crowd. “He’s talking about Ukraine, isn’t he?” asked a retired US tourist huddled on the grass, who had rearranged his holiday plans in Europe to see the commemorations.
“We must be firm, we cannot allow it, because it is our collective responsibility to our societies, and the societies of Europe and of the world, that there should never be military aggression again, that the tragedy of the Second World War experienced by the whole world should never repeat itself,” Duda added. More applause came from the crowd.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was not officially invited because Russia is not a member of either the European Union, NATO or the Eastern Partnership.
Following an hour of speeches, a row of cannons went off 21 times, the number reserved for the most important occasions in Poland. A cloud of milky smoke descended on the crowd; kids screamed plugging their ears, car alarms going off.
The events in Warsaw followed dawn commemorations on Sunday morning, held in Wielun in central Poland and Westerplatte in Gdansk, at the exact time of the first attacks 80 years ago.
In the dark of the night, at 4:45am sirens blared out commemorating the moment German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish Military Transit Depot at Westerplatte, marking the first battle of the war.
At the ceremony, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans used his speech to take a swipe at the divisive politics of Poland’s conservative government.
The way to honour the memory of those who died in the war is “working for tolerance, working for mutual respect, working to remove the feeding ground of those who propose intolerance”, he said.