Germany’s president has asked Poland’s forgiveness for Nazi “tyranny”, 80 years on from the start of World War II.
Ceremonies to mark the anniversary began at 4.30am (local time) on Sunday in the small town of Wielun, site of one of the first bombings of the war on September 1, 1939.
Polish President Andrzej Duda and his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke at the Wielun commemoration.
“Wielun was to show what kind of war it would be – that it would be a total war, a war without rules, a destructive war,” Mr Duda said.
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, the shattered capital of Warsaw had to rise again from ruins and Poland remained under Soviet domination until 1989.
Later, at an event at Pilsudski Square in Warsaw, Mr Steinmeier asked for forgiveness on behalf of Germany.
“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,” he said.
“I ask for forgiveness for Germany’s historical guilt. I profess to our lasting responsibility.”
He apologised for the “horrific war” unleashed by Germany.
“This war was a German crime,” Mr Steinmeier said.
US 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,” Mr Pence told the gathering of leaders in Warsaw that included German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.
Mr Pence attended the ceremony instead of US President Donald Trump, who cancelled his trip due to Hurricane Dorian.
Mr Trump’s cancellation was a disappointment to Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is seen as one of Washington’s biggest allies in Europe.
“America and Poland will continue to call on our allies to live up to the promises we have made to one another,” Mr Pence said.
He will hold bilateral talks in Warsaw on Monday.
For Poland’s 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.
PiS politicians have repeatedly called for war reparations from Germany, one of Poland’s biggest trade partners and a fellow member of the EU and NATO, and several onlookers yelled “reparations” after Steinmeier spoke.
Berlin says all financial claims linked to WWII have been settled but Mr 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.
Underscoring the Warsaw conservatives’ distrust of its European allies, President Duda said WWII might have been prevented had Western nations shown more opposition to the “manic visions” of Nazi German leader Adolf Hitler.
“It’s a big lesson for us,” Mr Duda said in a speech in Warsaw.