Eighty years ago today, Adolf Hitler’s Germany staged a fake attack on a radio station by German prisoners dressed as Polish soldiers. A few hours later, German planes bombed the Polish town of Wieluń and World War II was underway.
The blow fell particularly heavily on Poland, which was woefully unprepared for Germany’s assault. At one point, Polish horse cavalry went up against German panzers — a futile, suicidal attack that spoke more to the Polish army’s valor than it did to their common sense.
The war ended in May 1945, but not until 50 million had died. Six million of that total were killed in Poland. And today, 80 years after Germany deliberately and knowingly started a world war, the German president apologized to Poland for his nation’s sins.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier asked for Poland’s forgiveness as he marked the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II on Sunday.
Speaking at a ceremony in the Polish town of Wieluń, where the first German bombs fell, Steinmeier said “far too few” Germans knew the town’s history today.
Alternating between German and Polish, he continued: “I bow before the Polish victims of German tyranny. And I ask for your forgiveness.”
Steinmeier was joined by Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, who described his German counterpart as someone “who has come with humility, with his head bowed, to pay homage … to share the pain.”
The two leaders observed a minute’s silence at the ceremony, which began at 4:40 a.m., the moment 80 years ago when the first bombs rained down on the town’s civilians. Some six million Polish citizens would die over the course of World War II.
The outbreak today of a virulent anti-Semitism in much of Europe — including Poland — speaks to the forgetfulness of many, especially young Europeans who have so little idea of how such a bloodletting could have happened.
Also forgotten is the Soviet Union’s pivotal role in starting the war. Russia, once Poland’s main protector, turned on its ally when it inked a peace deal with Hitler just a week before Germany’s attack. It was discovered after the war, when copies of the treaty were recovered, that a secret protocol between Hitler and Stalin divided Poland between the two dictators and split Europe into “spheres of influence. The deal gave Hitler exactly what he needed — the ability to attack Poland without starting a two-front war with England, France, and Russia.
No apology is expected from Russia.
The notion of a nation apologizing for the actions of its government decades ago, when none of the current principals were alive, should make us uncomfortable. “Collective guilt” that extends through the generations doesn’t seem fair. There is little doubt that the generation of Germans who elevated Hitler to a god-like status needed to apologize — about 50 years ago. But what responsibility does the current generation of Germans really bear? They despise Hitler as much as or more than any other European people. How can they be accused of culpability for something that happened long before most of them were born?
I’m sure it makes some people feel better. But with so few still alive who lived through that nightmare, you wonder about which people are supposed to be comforted.