On Sept. 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded neighboring Poland, the last in a long series of acts that officially triggered World War II.
This invasion finally woke up the world to the danger it had been appeasing or essentially overlooking for years. I have previously summarized the years of militaristic aggression and expansion that preceeded WWII as follows:
In post-9/11 America, much has been made of the appeasement that preceded World War II, especially the case of the Sudetenland and the Munich Agreement. Somewhat lost in the sands of time are the military conflicts in the years leading up to the outbreak of the war. Chief among these are the Sino-Japanese War, with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and a wealth of atrocities that make Abu Graib look like a four-year-old’s birthday party, and the Spanish Civil War, the proving ground for the troops, equipment and tactics of the Soviets, Germans and Italians. Even more obscure is the invasion of Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) by Benito Mussolini’s Italy in 1935.
Finally, there was Case White, the German code name for the Polish campaign. Two days later, France, Britain and Australia responded by declaring war on Germany. The Poles fought valiantly and the campaign was not as brutally one-sided as commonly thought. The Polish military was forced to give significant ground, hoping to make a stand until its allies in western Europe could put their forces into play against Germany; unfortunately, Case White was essentially closed when the Poles were stabbed in the back by the Sept. 17 invasion by the Soviets from the east. Still, action dragged on until the first week of October. It should be noted that a great many Poles escaped the brutal conflict and continued to contribute to Allied efforts throughout the war.
Today, German and Polish leaders paid tribute to the anniversary.
Sirens wailed and religious leaders led prayers for the dead as the presidents of Poland and Germany stood together solemnly Thursday on the Baltic peninsula where World War II began 66 years ago.
Horst Koehler is only the second German president to attend the annual ceremonies on the Westerplatte peninsula, following the example of his predecessor, Johannes Rau. His presence comes amid signs of deepening friendship between the former foes, despite some lingering bitterness.
More than 50 million people died in nearly six years of war launched by Nazi Germany — including an estimated 6 million Poles, half of them Jewish.
In 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany to its west and the Soviet Union to its east. After the Nazis attacked the Soviets, Poland came entirely under German control and subject to a brutal occupation. It become the hub of Hitler’s program to exterminate Europe’s Jews, under which 6 million were murdered.
At the ceremony on Westerplatte, Koehler and Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski walked to a monument to the war’s first victims. They were killed on the peninsula in the Baltic port of Gdansk when a German warship began shelling a Polish munitions depot and garrison on Sept. 1, 1939, as the Nazis launched their invasion.
To the roll of military drums, Koehler and Kwasniewski walked behind soldiers, who placed large wreaths on their behalf, and bent over simultaneously to arrange the wreath’s ribbons, each in the colors of their respective national flags.
The presidents then took two steps back, joined hands for a moment of silence and bowed toward the wreaths.