By Alexandra Alper and Pawel Florkiewicz
WARSAW (Reuters) – Germany’s president asked for forgiveness for his country on Sunday for the suffering of the Polish people during World War Two as Poland marked 80 years since the Nazi German invasion that unleashed the deadliest conflict in human history.
The ceremonies began at 4:30 a.m. in the small town of Wielun, site of one of the first bombings of the war on Sept. 1, 1939, with speeches by Polish President Andrzej Duda and his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Few places saw death and destruction on the scale of Poland. It lost about a fifth of its population, including the vast majority of its 3 million Jewish citizens.
After the war, its shattered capital of Warsaw had to rise again from ruins and Poland remained under Soviet domination until 1989.
“As a German guest I walk before you here barefoot. I look back in gratitude to the Polish people’s fight for freedom. I bow sorrowfully before the suffering of the victim,” Steinmeier said at event later in Warsaw.
“I ask for forgiveness for Germany’s historical guilt. I profess to our lasting responsibility.”
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence paid tribute to the courage of the Polish people.
“None fought with more valour, determination, and righteous fury than the Poles,” Pence told the gathering of leaders that included German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.
For some in Poland, the conflict and its commemorations are still a live political issue, just weeks before a national vote.
For Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, the memory of the war is a major plank of its “historical politics”, aiming to counteract what it calls the West’s lack of appreciation for Polish suffering and bravery under Nazi occupation.
Pence attended the ceremony instead of U.S. President Donald Trump who cancelled his trip due to the arrival of Hurricane Dorian, a disappointment to the PiS government which is seen as one of Washington’s biggest allies in Europe.
Pence underlined that relationship, saying: “America and Poland will continue to call on our allies to live up to the promises we have made to one another.”
Trump and the PiS government share views on issues such migration, energy and abortion, but the Warsaw government faces mounting isolation in Europe over accusations that it subverts democratic norms.
Despite the theme of the day looking back 80 years, present day politics was, as ever, to the fore.
“We know that Europe needs to become stronger and more self-confident,” Steinmeier said. “But we also know: Europe should not be strong without America – or even against America. Rather, Europe needs partners. And I’m sure America needs partners in this world too … So let’s take care of this partnership!”
Poland was holding a series of commemorations during the day. Parallel events, attended by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and European Commission deputy chief Frans Timmermans, were held in the coastal city of Gdansk, site of one of the first battles of the war. [nL8N25D0C7]
Morawiecki spoke of the huge material, spiritual, economic and financial losses Poland suffered in the war.
“We need to talk about those losses, we need to remember, we need to demand truth and demand compensation,” Morawiecki said.
PiS politicians have repeatedly called for war reparations from Germany, one of Poland’s biggest trade partners and a fellow member of the European Union and NATO, and several onlookers yelled “reparations” after Steinmeier spoke.
Berlin says all financial claims linked to World War Two have been settled but Steinmeier continued with his theme of responsibility. “Because Germany – despite its history – was allowed to grow to new strength in Europe, we Germans must do more for Europe,” he said.
Critics say the PiS’s ambition is to fan nationalism among voters at a time when populists around the world are tapping into historical revisionism. PiS says the country’s standing on the global stage and national security are at stake.
Wartime remembrance has become a campaign theme ahead of the national election due on Oct. 13, with PiS accusing the opposition of failing to protect Poland’s image.
“Often, we are faced with substantial ignorance when it comes to historical policy … or simply ill will,” Jaroslaw Sellin, deputy culture minister, told Reuters.
Opinion polls show PiS is likely to win the October ballot. The party’s ambition is to galvanise voters and disprove critics by winning a majority that would allow it to change the constitution.
Poland marks commemorates the outbreak of World War Two rather than its end because it fell under Soviet domination shortly afterwards.
(Reporting by Alexandra Alper, Marcin Goclowski, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Joanna Plucinska, Justyna Pawlak, Alicja Ptak Agnieszka Barteczko and Alan Charlish in Warsaw, Pawel Goraj in Gdansk, and Paul Carrel and Joseph Nasr in Berlin; Editing by Alison Williams)