"We want to, and we will, remember. And we will bear the responsibility that our history imposes upon us," German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said
Warsaw (AFP) - German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Sunday asked Poland's forgiveness 80 years after Germany's attack triggered World War II while his Polish counterpart denounced Russia's recent "imperialist" aggression against its neighbours.
Poland suffered some of the worst horrors of World War II: nearly six million Poles died in the conflict that killed more than 50 million people overall.
That figure includes the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, half of them Polish.
"I bow before the Polish victims of German tyranny. And I ask your forgiveness," Steinmeier said at pre-dawn ceremonies in the western Polish city of Wielun where Germany's first bombs fell 80 years ago.
"It was Germans who committed these crimes against humanity in Poland. Anyone calling them things of the past, or claiming that the vile rule of terror of the National Socialists in Europe was a mere footnote of German history, is passing judgement on him or herself," Steinmeier said alongside his Polish counterpart.
The line appeared to be a reference to the German far-right, whose co-leader Alexander Gauland once called the 12-year Third Reich a "speck of bird poop" on an otherwise glorious German past.
Polish President Andrzej Duda for his part denounced Nazi Germany's attack on Poland, calling it "an act of barbarity" and "a war crime" but also hailed post-war reconciliation.
Duda later on Sunday slammed recent Russian military attacks against its neighbours as "imperialist tendencies" at state ceremonies in Warsaw attended by US Vice President Mike Pence, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, among others.
- Sanctions -
The Polish leader did not specifically name Russia, but referenced Moscow's actions against "Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 that altered borders."
He urged "the leaders of Europe and the world, NATO and EU members" to guard against appeasing aggressors.
"There must be sanctions, resolute actions, it must be obvious that any military aggression will be met with a firm reaction," Duda said.
"Closed eyes are not a good recipe for keeping the peace; it's a good way to encourage aggressive personalities, to give the green light for new attacks."
Polish authorities said they had not invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to Sunday's ceremonies because of Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
"80 years after the invasion of Poland by the Nazi army, let us remember the explosion of the Second World War that devastated our Europe," French President Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter.
"The fight for peace and our values is more important than ever," he added.
Nazi Germany's attack on Poland on September 1, 1939 came one week after Berlin and the Soviet Union secretly agreed to carve up Eastern Europe between them by signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans attended a separate dawn remembrance ceremony on Sunday in Westerplatte, on Poland's Baltic coast, where a Nazi German battleship had opened fire on a Polish fort 80 years ago to the day.
- 'Demand compensation' -
Hitler's attacks on Poland led Britain and France to declare war on Nazi Germany. On September 17, the Soviet Union in turn invaded Poland.
After the Nazis tore up their pact with Moscow, two alliances battled it out: the Axis powers led by Germany, Italy and Japan and the victorious Allied forces led by Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States.
Although it has been 80 years since the war started, there are still unresolved matters according to Poland, which says Germany owes it war reparations.
A parliamentary commission is currently working on a new analysis of the extent of Poland's wartime human and material losses.
"We have to talk about, remember and demand the truth regarding those losses. We have to demand compensation," Morawiecki said on Sunday at the Westerplatte ceremony.
When it comes to reparations, however, Berlin believes the case is closed.
US President Donald Trump had planned to attend the war commemorations but cancelled at the last minute so that he could monitor Hurricane Dorian.
"We love our Polish friends, and I will be there soon," Trump told reporters at the White House on Sunday, confirming a visit was still in the offing.