Poland Commemorates the 80th Anniversary of the Start of WWII

by PAC Intern Julia Benbenek

This past weekend marked the 80th anniversary of the start of WWII. On September 1st, 1939, at 5:00 AM, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein fired at Polish soldiers stationed on the Westerplatte Peninsula in what is currently Gdańsk. Soon after the invasion, France and Britain declared war—a war which would cost Poland 6 million citizens, 3 million of them ethnic Poles and 3 million Polish Jews which made up half of all the European Jews killed in the Holocaust. In addition, the Nazis targeted the Sinti and Roma people residing in Poland as they were included along with Jews as racially distinctive minorities. Thousands were deported to ghettos and placed in concentration camps; the estimated deaths of the Sinti and Roma genocide range from 220,000-500,000 in all of Europe. In the two weeks following the initial Nazi German invasion, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, and Hitler and Stalin began to divide up Poland and other Baltic states according to secret protocol in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. 

An aerial photo of destroyed Warsaw in January of 1945.

Polish President Andrzej Duda invited leaders of the EU, NATO, and members of the Eastern Partnership to commemorate the anniversary. In attendance were U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeir, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky among other world leaders. 

The weekend consisted of various ceremonies to honor the victims of WWII starting in Wielun. Wielun was the first city to be bombarded by the German Luftwaffe. A moment of silence was observed in memory of the estimated 2,000 victims by presidents, local officials, and locals—among them survivors of the bombings. Later, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Deputy Head of the European Commission Frans Timmermans led observances at the Westerplatte Peninsula, the site of the war’s first battle where Polish troops put up resistance. Krzysztof Szczerski, a top aide to President Andrzej Duda commented on the purpose of the commemoration: “The anniversary celebrations are to be a warning to the world—about the necessity of peace, about the sovereignty of states, about not negotiating at the expense of others.”

At the ceremony in Pilsudski Square in Warsaw, both Vice President Pence and President Steinmeir shared touching speeches about the war. Vice President Pence stated, “It is difficult for any of us who are not Poles to fathom the horrors that began here 80 years ago, on this day, the first of September 1939,” he continued to say, “While the hearts of every American are with our fellow citizens in the path of a massive storm, today we remember how the gathering storm of the 20th century broke into warfare and invasion followed by the unspeakable hardship and heroism shown by the Polish people.” President Steinmeir’s speech placed blame on Germany for the atrocities of WWII as he remarked, “This was a German war crime.” He went on further to ask the Polish people for forgiveness: “I bow before the Polish victims of German tyranny, and I ask for your forgiveness.” Although, President Donald Trump was unable to attend, on Sunday, he told reporters on South Lawn, “I do have a great message for Poland (…) I look forward to being there soon. But I just want to congratulate Poland. It’s a great country with great people. We also have many Polish people in our country; it could be 8 million. We love our Polish friends. And I will be there soon.”

Although, the weekend marked the anniversary of the start of a tragic world war which cost millions of lives, it was also a symbol of global solidarity. Overcoming any existing political differences, world leaders were able to come together to commemorate the anniversary and honor the victims of the war. 

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