Germany made an emotional appeal for forgiveness to neighboring Poland 80 years after the start of World War II that was met by a renewed demand for reparations by the fellow European Union member’s prime minister.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, filling in after a cancellation by President Donald Trump, praised Poland‘s wartime heroism at the commemoration and said the evils of Nazi and Communist totalitarianism amounted to a period in history when men had “forgotten God.”
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, visiting the town of Wielun, Poland, where Nazi bombers caused the first large-scale civilian casualties of the conflict in an air raid on Sept. 1, 1939, said his country won’t forget the past and takes responsibility for the war’s terror and atrocities.
“I bow my head before the victims of the attack on Wielun, I bow my head in front of the Polish victims of German tyranny and ask for forgiveness,” Steinmeier said, first in German and then in Polish, at an event hosted by his counterpart Andrzej Duda.
The ceremonies to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the start of the world’s bloodiest conflict gathered about 40 delegations in Warsaw on Sunday, including Pence, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Trump canceled, saying he was needed in the U.S. as Hurricane Dorian threatened to cause widespread damage in the southern Atlantic states.
In his speech near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, Pence said “no one fought with more valor, determination and righteous fury than the Poles” during the world’s bloodiest conflict.
Poland’s Duda said the world hasn’t learned its lesson from World War II, mentioning genocides in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as well as recent territorial incursions by Russia in Ukraine and Georgia.
Pence condemned the “twisted ideologies” of the the 20th century, which led to “the death squads, the concentration camps, the secret police, the pervasive lies of state propaganda machines, the destruction of churches and the endless hostility to people of faith.”
At a separate ceremony in Gdansk commemorating an attack on Poland from the Baltic Sea, Polish Premier Mateusz Morawiecki returned to the controversial topic of wartime reparations. He called on his nation’s western neighbor and biggest trading partner to take “responsibility” for the economic costs of its invasion and occupation.
Earlier this year, a Polish special parliamentary group published a preliminary study that showed the six-year conflict may have cost the Polish economy more than $850 billion — or nearly two years of the eastern European country’s output. The German government has said all claims were settled long ago.
“We have to remember the victims and we have to demand compensation,” Morawiecki said.
Unlike western European nations that settled World War II claims in the decades after the war, Poland says it was effectively prevented from doing so by its communist-era overlord Moscow. Poland signed its post-war border treaty with Germany only in 1990, a year after the Iron Curtain came down.
Calls for reparations from the 1939-1945 conflict, during which about 6 million Poles — half of them Jews — were killed, have soured ties between Warsaw and Berlin since 2017. Poles claim that a 1953 declaration by communist authorities wasn’t a sovereign decision but one made by a puppet regime of the Soviet Union.
The one-sided declaration was made “in accord with the constitutional order of that era, and amid potential pressure from the Soviet Union, and can’t be recognized,” the Polish government said in 2004.