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Europe

European leaders mark 70 years since outbreak of war

Video by Nicholas RUSHWORTH

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2009-09-01

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called World War II the "most tragic" era in European history as the continent marked 70 years since the war began on September 1, 1939. Merkel earlier said that Germany bore responsibility for the conflict.

AFP - German leader Angela Merkel recalled World War II as the "most tragic chapter" in European history Tuesday as the continent marked 70 years since the conflict began on the shores of the Baltic.
   
In a ceremony also attended by veterans of the 1939-45 war, Merkel joined leaders from countries including Poland and Russia at the former naval base which was the site of the first battle of the conflict on September 1, 1939.
   
But while the ceremony underlined how Europe has been able to heal its divisions in the intervening years, old wounds were clear to see with fresh disputes over its historical legacy.
   
"Seventy years ago today the German invasion of Poland opened up the most tragic chapter in European history," said Merkel.
   
"The war unleashed by Germany resulted in immeasurable suffering to many peoples -- years of deprivation of rights, of humiliation and destruction."
   
The Polish army, outnumbered by more than two to one, surrendered a little over a month after the battle on Gdansk's Westerplatte peninsula and a brutal Nazi occupation began.
   
Almost six million Polish citizens perished in the war, half of them Jewish.
   
Before heading to Poland, Merkel had said on German television that her country bore full responsibility for the conflict.
   
"Germany attacked Poland, Germany started World War II. We caused unending   suffering in the world. Sixty million dead ... was the result," she said.


   

Speaking at a pre-dawn ceremony before Merkel's arrival, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk also underlined how the memories and bitterness of 70 years ago still burned brightly.
   
"We are here to remember who in that war was the aggressor and who was the victim, for without an honest memory neither Europe, nor Poland, nor the world will ever live in security," said Tusk.
   
Bogdan Kolodziejski was 10 when the war started and during the occupation became a resistance courier.
   
"I've never forgotten the day the Germans marched into Warsaw, singing at the top of their voices," he told AFP.
   
Putin's presence comes after renewed attempts by Russia to justify the August 23, 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
   
Under the terms of that agreement, Germany and the Soviet Union carved up Poland between them at the start of the war.
   
Putin, who met with Tusk Tuesday, avoided the issue of the Red Army invasion of September 17, 1939.
   
But he told reporters that Russia disliked "persistent attempts" to pin all the blame on the pact.
   
"Why throw these false facts into the public consciousness and then speculate on them in domestic politics? This is the worst thing we could do," he said.
   
"There were a huge number of mistakes made by many sides. All these actions together allowed the massive aggression by Nazi Germany," he said.
   
He pointed to the Munich agreement of 1938 where Britain and France let Germany annex a slice of Czechoslovakia.
   
Britain and France, bound to Poland by military pacts, declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, each pulling their vast empires into the conflict.
   
For Russia, what is known as the "Great Patriotic War" started on June 22, 1941 when the Nazis tore up their non-aggression pact and invaded.
   
Suddenly the Soviet forces, from having been the occupiers of part of Poland, found themselves fighting against a common enemy.
   
Around 8.6 million Soviet soldiers and 27-28 million civilians were killed in the war, which ended with Germany's crushing defeat in 1945.
   
Merkel said that the continent's recovery since then should be a source of pride.
   
"Europe ... has transformed itself from a continent of terror and violence into a continent of freedom and peace. That this was possible is nothing more and nothing less than a wonder," she said.

Date created : 2009-09-01

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