1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

War memorial

September 1, 2009

Poland is marking the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. Speaking at the event, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939 opened the "most tragic chapter" in European history.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Poland
Merkel said Germany's invasion of Poland unleashed "immeasurable suffering"Image: picture alliance/dpa

Speaking at Westerplatte, the site of a Polish base that saw the first battle with Nazi German troops in the early hours of September 1, 1939, Merkel said no country suffered from German occupation as much as Poland.

"The war unleashed by Germany resulted in immeasurable suffering to many peoples - years of deprivation of rights, of humiliation and destruction," Merkel said.

"I commemorate the six million Jews and all those others who suffered a brutal death in concentration and death camps. I commemorate the many millions of people who had to give up their lives resisting Germany," the chancellor said.

Merkel was joined by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as well as the prime ministers of France, Italy, Ukraine and Sweden, which currently holds the European Union presidency. The US was represented by National Security Adviser James Jones.

The German attack on Poland, at the Westerplatte peninsula, pitted 3,500 Germans against 180 Poles, who were able to defend their position for a week.

It was the start of a war that would eventually involve almost every nation on the planet, and claim some 50 million lives.

Old photograph of the battleship Schleswig Holstein, firing shots
The battleship Schleswig-Holstein fired on PolandImage: picture-alliance / akg

At the pre-dawn ceremony on Westerplatte, off Gdansk harbor, Polish political and religious leaders recalled the sacrifices their countrymen made in the struggle against the overwhelming forces of Hitler's Germany.

"Testimony to strength and heroism"

"It was they who gave testimony of strength and heroism," Polish President Lech Kaczynski said of the Polish soldiers on Westerplatte, who were able to hold the fort for a week against dive-bombing raids and naval artillery.

"There is a question why Poles defended Westerplatte, why Poles did not take concessions offered by Nazi Germany," Kaczynski said. "... In Poland, we do not know the notion of peace at any price."

Also speaking at the pre-dawn ceremony, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said: "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."

German troops passing Polish troops who are carrying a camarade on a stretcher
German infantry troops advanced into Poland on Sept. 6, 1939Image: AP

Westerplatte surrendered on Sept. 7, 1939, as the Nazis continued their attacks across the country.

The Soviet Union invaded from the east 10 days later in accordance with the Soviet-German Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a move that Kaczynski likened to a "knife in the back."

"Westerplatte is a symbol of heroic resistance of those who are weaker against those who are stronger," Kaczynski said.

"We Germans will never forget"

Merkel also underlined Europe's post-war transformation from a "continent of terror and violence into a continent of freedom and


"That this was possible is nothing more and nothing less than a miracle," she said. "We Germans will never forget: Germany's partners in the east and the west have made this possible by their readiness to forgive. They stretched out the hand of forgiveness, and we took it, with thanks."

Editor. Chuck Penfold

Skip next section Explore more