Germany's president expressed deep remorse for the suffering his nation inflicted on Poland and the rest of Europe during World War II, warning of the dangers of nationalism as world leaders gathered Sunday in the country where the war started at incalculable costs.
Speaking at a ceremony in Warsaw, Frank-Walter Steinmeier recalled World War II as a "German crime" that his nation will never forget. The German president expressed gratitude to Poles for the gestures of forgiveness Poland has bestowed in return.
"I bow in mourning to the suffering of the victims," Steinmeier said. "I ask for forgiveness for Germany's historical debt. I affirm our lasting responsibility," the statesman said, calling the war a "painful legacy."
He recalled that under the Nazi plan for Poland, "its culture, its cities, its people — everything living was supposed to be destroyed."
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The German apology and the direct reference to the Polish victims of the war – not just the Jewish ones – underscores a victory for the Polish government's diplomatic efforts.
Over the past several years, Poland has been actively trying to reshape the "culture of memory" vis-à-vis the war. As part of these efforts - undertaken in the legal sphere, publicly, in the media and through diplomacy – Poland and the Polish people are portrayed as Nazi victims, their part in saving Jews is emphasized and their part in collaborating with the Nazis is diminished.
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This policy has drawn sharp criticism from both Polish and Israeli historians, who, while recognizing Polish victims, claim the government is distorting history by minimizing the persecution of Jews by Poles.
In separate observances taking place at the Westerplatte Peninsula on the Baltic coast, where the war's first battle was fought, Poland's prime minister spoke of the need for redress.
The war "meant not only fire for the Polish homes, it meant the death of Poland's hopes, Poland's future, the end of Poland's science, Polish universities, Polish factories," Mateusz Morawiecki said.
"For this reason we should talk about these losses, we should .... demand redress," he added.
Poland's nationalist government has been raising the issue of reparations from Germany ever since it took power in 2015. Germany says that matter is closed.
'Remembrance and Warning' - to Russia
The emotional Warsaw ceremony was part of day-long commemorations that started at 4:40 am, the exact hour that, according to survivors, the war's first bombs fell, killing civilians. Nazi Germany attacked Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, triggering a nearly six-year war that killed more than 70 million people.
Led by Polish President Andrzej Duda, it was also attended by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as leaders from around the world. It also included the sounding of a "Remembrance and Warning" bell honoring the fighters and victims of the conflict.
Donald Trump was originally scheduled to attend the event but canceled, citing the need to be home with the approach of Hurricane Dorian. The visit would have been Trump's second to Poland since taking office in 2017, reflecting his cozy relationship with Poland's right-wing nationalist president.
Following speeches by Pence, Steinmeier and Duda, each attending state leader, including Ukrainian PM Volodymyr Zelenskiy but not Russia's Vladimir Putin, approached the memorial bell and sounded it, in a joint sign of memory and as a warning against conflicts.
In his speech, Andrzej Duda called on his audience not to close their eyes today to imperial tendencies and forceful changes of borders.
Duda said "Recently in Europe we are dealing with a return of imperialist tendencies, with attempts to change borders by force, with aggression against countries, seizure of land, capturing people."
He said that "turning a blind eye is not the recipe for preserving peace. It is a simple way to, in fact, give consent to further attacks."
The Polish president did not name the country at fault, but mentioned Russian actions against Georgia and Ukraine, making it clear he meant Moscow as the aggressor.