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The Warsaw Voice » Other » September 2, 2009
Marking 70 years since WWII broke out
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COMMENTARY: Remembering Westerplatte
September 2, 2009   
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At dawn on Sept. 1, 1939, the Polish transport depot on the Westerplatte peninsula came under fire from the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, which had been on a "courtesy visit" to the nearby Baltic port of Gdańsk. As the first shells hit Westerplatte, bombs dropped from Luftwaffe planes fell on sleeping Polish cities, towns and villages and roads choked with crowds of fleeing civilians.

So began World War II. It was a total war, an utterly brutal and destructive one, a war that demolished the world order that had been established just two decades earlier, after the war of 1914-1918. World War II changed Europe and the world beyond recognition, bringing out the worst in human nature, causing death on a massive scale, devastating societies and nations, and shattering notions of humanitarianism that had evolved over centuries. Entire cities were razed to the ground. Human rights and moral principles were trampled over.

The war that began Sept. 1, 1939, lasted the longest for the Polish people-almost six years. It brought death to millions of Polish citizens. Poland was the only European country to be invaded and occupied by two totalitarian powers: Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union. From the first days, Poland was left without support from its powerful allies at the time, Britain and France. Although the governments of both superpowers formally declared war on Hitler Sept. 3, 1939, they took no real steps to prevent the ravages of war from spreading all over Europe and, eventually, the whole world.

While Poland was fighting against invading German troops, at a conference in Abbeville Sept. 12, Britain and France put on hold any operations against Germany without even notifying Poland. They thus paved the way for Stalin to fulfill his obligations to Hitler- specified in a secret protocol to the Aug. 23, 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov pact between the Soviet Union and Germany.

The assault on Poland from the east began Sept. 17, 1939. When the Soviet army crossed the borders of Poland, which was fighting the German aggressor all by itself, it was the end of all chances for freedom and further development of the young country, which had just started to recover after 123 years of subjugation and partitions. Poland was now entrapped by two totalitarian powers.

The events of 70 years ago live on in the consciousness of Polish people in two symbolic dates, Sept. 1 and Sept. 17, 1939. To the participants and witnesses of those events, these dates bring to mind the worst and exceptionally painful memories of all-pervading mayhem, violence, crime and humiliation.

The division of Europe imposed by the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact and the war operations in September 1939 was extremely disadvantageous and unjust to Poland. For Poland, the victory over Nazi Germany, so ecstatically celebrated by Western European countries, was just the end of a period of German occupation and the beginning of a long period of Soviet dominion that went on to rob several Polish generations of opportunities for development.

Anniversary commemorations scheduled to take place Sept. 1 at Westerplatte as well as in Warsaw, Wieluń and other cities and towns in Poland, will be a reminder that Poland and the Polish people were the first to take consistent, armed action against the armies of the two totalitarian powers and resist the violence of Nazism and communism. They did so in the name of values common to all humanity, the ideals of freedom and democracy trampled and rejected by the two murderous systems. The people of Poland made a sacrifice of blood that they spilled fighting on all World War II fronts and in occupied Poland. Later they continued the struggle using peaceful methods and building a great nationwide movement led by the Solidarity trade union. In 1989, that movement triggered the fall of communism across Europe.

Today, in large part due to the enormous sacrifice and effort of the Polish people, Europe is free from totalitarian systems. It is home to free societies that can make decisions about their own lives while building political and economic unity with other nations. A lot is being said about the emergence of a new historical awareness among societies in a united Europe. But past experience shows just how divided we still are, how different historical experiences and memories we have, and how strongly our contemporary lives are marked by the ordeals of war and the years of enslavement by the two totalitarian systems.

As we pay tribute to the victims of the war at Westerplatte Sept. 1, we should not forget that this was a tragedy that took millions of lives. Words spoken on this site where it all began will send a message to free societies around the world. World War II was a war that a world of free people fought against a world of totalitarian violence. The victory of free societies would not have been possible without values that had shaped Europe for centuries.

As we remember the millions of Poles who perished in World War II, let us feel proud that we, Poles and Poland, were the first to stand up and fight in this battle.

Andrzej PrzewoĽnik
The author is historian, secretary-general of the government's Council for the Preservation of the Memory of Battles and Martyrdom
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