September 1st marks the 70th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Poland and the start of World War II. The Polish town of Wielun was the first victim of the war in Europe – attacked five minutes after Westerplatte in Gdansk, the tiny military outpost which was shelled by a German battleship. The German chancellor and the Russian prime minister will attend Westerplatte’s commemoration but Wielun will hold its own anniversary ceremony. The town believes its wartime past qualifies it to carry a message of pacifism, along with the Spanish town of Guernica.
Vladimir Putin also plans to deliver a message of peace regarding the Kremlin’s relations with Poland. In an article for the Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, he describes as “immoral” the Nazi-Soviet pact signed a week before the Germans invaded. He writes that our duty now is to “remove the burden of distrust and prejudice and turn a new page in our history.” But Putin adds that the Soviet Union had felt obliged to sign the non-aggression treaty due to the failure of Western European powers to present a united front against Nazi Germany. The pact – which essentially carved up Poland and the Baltic States between Germany and Russia – has long soured relations between Warsaw and Moscow. Ties have also been strained over the Katyn massacre – when Soviet secret police killed thousands of Polish officers near the city of Smolensk. Putin points out in his article that Russians also died in the tragedy. Until 1990, Moscow had blamed the massacre on the Nazis.