At least 20 world leaders gathered Tuesday in Poland to commemorate the start of World War II 70 years ago — a conflict in which 6 million Poles died.
Germany’s pre-dawn invasion began when the battleship Schleswig-Holstein fired on the Westerplatte military base in Gdansk harbor on September 1, 1939. The attack set off a chain of events that eventually embroiled all of the world’s major powers in the war. The conflict lasted until September 2, 1945 when Germany’s ally Japan signed an unconditional surrender. Leaders from many of those nations were in Gansk on Tuesday for a wreath-laying ceremony at the Cemetery of Defenders at Westerplatte, with commemoration speeches to take place in front of the Westerplatte memorial. Among those attending were German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin — leaders of the two nations that once held power over Poland. Merkel said on Tuesday that her country unleashed “endless suffering” by starting the war, but also recalled the fate of ethnic Germans expelled at the end of the conflict. Watch as Poland marks start of WWII » “Germany attacked Poland, Germany started World War II. We caused unending suffering in the world. Sixty million dead … was the result,” Merkel said on German television, according to Agence-France Presse. Send us your World War II stories “But the expulsion of well over 12 million people from areas of the former Germany and present-day Poland is of course an injustice. This must also be recognised,” she said.
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Poland first came under German influence at the start of the war, but was later dominated for about 40 years by the Russian-led Soviet Union as the Cold War between East and West settled in after World War II. A dwindling group of veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, was also due to attend.