Seventy years on, world remembering WWII

1st September 2009, Comments 0 comments

The thunder of the Schleswig-Holstein's guns in Danzig (modern-day Gdansk) was the trigger for six years of global warfare whose controversies rage to this day.

Warsaw -- Seventy years ago, at 4:45 am on September 1, a Nazi German battleship on a goodwill visit opened fire on a Polish fort on the Baltic Sea.

The thunder of the Schleswig-Holstein's guns in Danzig (modern-day Gdansk) was the trigger for six years of global warfare whose controversies rage to this day.

World War II -- the culmination of a groundswell of conflict across the 1930s, from Japan's invasion of China to the Spanish civil war -- was to claim around 50 million lives.

"Poland wants September 1, 1939 to remain etched in the world's memory as the beginning of the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, tied to Germany's, and then Soviet Russia's, aggression," said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

On Tuesday, leaders of more than a dozen nations will gather in the ruins of the Westerplatte fort, which became iconic when its 180 soldiers held out for seven days against 3,500 Germans.

Among them will be German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, his French, Italian and Ukrainian counterparts Francois Fillon, Silvio Berlusconi and Yulia Tymoshenko, and Sweden's Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country is at the helm of the 27-nation European Union.

The United States, meanwhile, is sending retired defence secretary William Perry and James Jones, security adviser to President Barack Obama.

The absence of a higher-ranking figure has been met with acerbic comments in the Polish media, seen as a snub in a country that has become a faithful US ally since the fall of the communist bloc in 1989.

Polish officials, however, have sought to play down the issue.

Merkel and Putin are set to be closely watched, because Germans, Russians and Poles have differing interpretations of the past.

Adolf Hitler's Germany and Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union cast aside their differences in 1939 to carve up Poland.

The Nazis turned on their erstwhile allies in 1941, launching a bloody invasion -- according to Russian authorities 8.6 million Soviet soldiers and 27-28 million civilians were killed in the conflict.

After the tide turned in 1943, the Red Army gradually rolled back the Nazis across Eastern Europe.

While the soldiers' sacrifice is undisputed, many in the region recall that they also crushed non-communist resistance groups which had battled the Nazis and then imposed five decades of Soviet-inspired rule.

The Kremlin is hitting back hard against what it dubs "falsification" of wartime history.

Poles are up in arms at claims by Russian historians of Polish double-dealing with Germany in the 1930s and allegations that Warsaw was partly to blame for the war. Surveys show three-quarters of Poles want Putin to apologise for the Soviet invasion of September 17, 1939.

In 1938, the West caved in to Hitler's demand for a swathe of Czechoslovak territory inhabited mainly by Germans; 1939 was a replay, as he sought land from the Poles, but Warsaw refused and Germany attacked, without declaring war.

While Germany does not play down its role, there has been controversy over efforts to build a memorial centre in Berlin for the millions of Germans who fled or were driven from Eastern Europe as the Red Army advanced and after post-war border changes.

Poland, for example, gained ex-German territory in the west to offset that taken by the Soviets in the east, where millions of Poles lost their homes.

Warsaw has protested that the memorial could overshadow the suffering of vast numbers of non-German victims of Nazi Germany, including the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

In a joint statement last week, Polish and German Roman Catholic bishops condemned both the expulsions and the Nazis' crimes. They warned against "attempts to exploit the wounds of the past and to awaken resentment resulting from biased interpretations of history."

The memory of the war remains strong in Poland, where even the smallest communities are dotted with plaques commemorating local massacre victims.

Polish researchers put the country's toll at between 5.62 million and 5.82 million, including three million Jews, most of whom perished in death camps set up by the Nazis in Poland.


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