The dignity of ceremonies to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War in Poland is being marred by furious spats between Russia and Eastern European states over their respective wartime roles.
By Matthew Day in Warsaw
As world leaders gather in the Polish city of Gdansk today to commemorate the first shots of the conflict, Poles are fuming over what they perceive as an insulting Russian propaganda campaign targeting their nation.
In the days leading up to anniversary, Russian media has aired a string of accusations against Poland, claiming that Warsaw intended to collaborate with Hitler in an invasion of the Soviet Union, and that Jozef Beck, Poland’s foreign minister in 1939, was a German agent. Moscow broadcasters have also claimed that there was a "German hand" in the 1940 Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish PoWs, an atrocity generally held to have been the exclusive work of Stalin’s secret police.
The squabbling has threatened to overshadow today’s ceremonies, in which Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin was due to join other European heads of state on the small peninsula of Westerplatte, which guards the entrance to Poland’s Gdansk harbour.
On the morning of September 1, 1939, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein ushered in WWII when it opened fire on the 180-strong Polish contingent stationed on Westerplatte. Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, and Lech Kaczynski, the nation’s president, were due to lay wreaths at a memorial to the garrison at 4:45am, 70 years to the minute that the ship’s shells first tore into the Polish defences. Later in the day there was scheduled to be a formal memorial ceremony, attended by dignitaries including British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Many Poles claim to detect the hand of the Kremlin in the recent Russian media broadside, and see it as an attempt to absolve Russia of guilt over the contentious Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, signed between Stalin and Hitler in August 1939. A pact of mutual non-aggression that lasted until 1941, it allowed Russia to invade and annexe Eastern Poland.
The disputes endanger attempts to use the solemn and reflective ceremonies in Poland to foster a spirit of reconciliation between countries still riven by unresolved and painful historical issues.
While Poland and other Eastern European states have now made their peace with a repentant Germany, there is long-standing frustration in the region that Russia has never really recognised, or apologised for, crimes committed by the Soviet state between 1939 and 1945, or the subsequent brutalities of communist rule.
But in what has been seen as a gesture to placate anger in Poland, the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza published an open letter yesterday from Mr Putin, in which he appeared to strike a more conciliatory note.
"Our duty is to remove the burden of distrust and prejudice left from the past in Polish-Russian relations," wrote Mr Putin, who went on to describe the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as "immoral", and also thanked Poland "from the bottom of my heart" for the 600,000 Poles who fought on the Eastern Front under Red Army command.
But while some Poles welcomed Mr Putin’s comments, others were dismissive. Andrzej Przewoznik, a historian on the Polish government’s committee organising the 70th-anniversay events, said that the Russian prime minister was "repeating communist propaganda".
In particular, he took exception to Mr Putin’s comparison of the Katyn massacre to the deaths of thousands of Red Army prisoners in Polish POW camps during the 1919-20 war between Poland and the Soviet Union.
Poles have pointed out that the 22,000 Polish PoWs and public officials who died at Katyn were murdered in cold blood, while most of the Red Army victims died from disease epidemics that also inflicted significant casualties on fighting troops and civilians.