Leaders from several countries on Sunday gathered in Wielun, the first city to be bombarded by the German Luftwaffe on September 1, 1939, to mark the 80th anniversary of World War 2. Polish president Andrzej Duda and German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, alongside local officials and residents, including survivors of the bombings, observed a minute of silence in memory of an estimated 2,000 victims.
President Duda thanked Steinmeier for his attendance, the German president said, “Eighty years ago, at this very moment, all hell rained down on Wielun, fuelled by German racist barbarity and the desire to annihilate.” He asked for Poland’s forgiveness. “I bow before the Polish victims of German tyranny, and I ask for your forgiveness.”
Minutes later, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and the deputy head of the European Commission Frans Timmermans attended ceremonies at the Westerplatte Peninsula, on the Baltic coast, where the war’s first battle took place between Polish troops and the invading Nazis.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland after staging fake border incidents as the pretext to attack. The United Kingdom responded with an ultimatum to Germany to cease military operations, and on September 3, after the ultimatum was ignored, France, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand declared war on Germany. South Africa joined on September 6 and Canada on the 10th, but the alliance offered no direct military intervention in Poland. The Allies launched a naval blockade of Germany, to which Germany responded by sending U-boats against Allied merchant ships, which later escalate into the Battle of the Atlantic.
On September 8, German troops reached the suburbs of Warsaw. The Polish counter offensive halted the German advance for several days, but it was shortly outflanked and encircled by the Wehrmacht. Remnants of the Polish army broke through to besieged Warsaw.
On September 17, 1939, after signing a cease-fire with Japan, the Soviets invaded Eastern Poland under a pretext that the Polish state had ostensibly ceased to exist. On September 27, the Warsaw garrison surrendered to the Germans, and the last large operational unit of the Polish Army surrendered on October 6.
Poland, which never surrendered, formed the Polish government-in-exile and an underground apparatus in the occupied country. A large contingency of the Polish military escaped to Romania and the Baltic countries to join the allied war effort against the Axis countries.
In the years that ensued, until May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany was responsible for the murder of some 6 million Jews, 2.7 million ethnic Poles, and 4 million who were deemed “unworthy of life,” including the disabled and mentally ill, Soviet prisoners of war, Romani, homosexuals, Freemasons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as part of a program of deliberate extermination. 3.6 million Soviet POWs out of 5.7 million captured died in Nazi camps. Death camps were created by Nazi Germany to exterminate people on an industrial scale. Nazi Germany conscripted a slave labor force of about 12 million civilians from German occupied countries who were used in German industry, agriculture and the war economy.