German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier

The German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Sunday asked Poland’s forgiveness for history’s bloodiest conflict during a ceremony in the Polish city of Wielun where the first World War II bombs fell 80 years ago.

Poland suffered some of the worst horrors of World War II as nearly six million Poles died in the conflict which killed more than 50 million people overall. That figure however includes the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, with half of them Polish.

“I bow before the victims of the attack on Wielun. I bow before the Polish victims of German tyranny. And I ask your forgiveness,” Steinmeier said in both German and Polish.

“It was Germans who committed these crimes against humanity in Poland. Anyone calling them things of the past or claiming that the vile rule of terror of the National Socialists in Europe was a mere footnote of German history is passing judgement on him or herself.

“As Germany’s Federal President, let me assure you that we will not forget. We want to, and we will remember. And we will bear the responsibility that our history imposes upon us,” he added in the presence of his Polish counterpart, Andrzej Duda.

On his own part, President Duda denounced Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland, describing it as an act of barbarism and a war crime.

“I am convinced that this ceremony will go down in the history of Polish-German friendship. I saw dead bodies, the wounded, smoke, noise, explosions. Everything was burning,” Duda said, thanking Steinmeier for his presence.

The heads of state later toured the Wielun museum and met with local survivors of the September 1, 1939 bombing.

The bombing came one week after Germany and the Soviet Union secretly agreed to carve up Eastern Europe between them by signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Hitler’s attacks on Poland prompted Britain and France to declare war on Nazi Germany. On September 17, the Soviet Union in turn invaded Poland.

After the Nazis tore up the pact with Moscow, two alliances battled it out to the end. The Axis powers led by Germany, Italy and Japan and the victorious Allied forces led by Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States.

Later on Sunday, US Vice President, Mike Pence, Steinmeier and Duda are expected to deliver speeches at a ceremony in Warsaw’s Pilsudski Square, the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

German Chancellor, Angela Merkel will also attend the Warsaw ceremony, but no other major world leaders are expected.

US President, Donald Trump had planned to attend the war commemorations but he cancelled it at the last minute so that he could monitor Hurricane Dorian which is bearing down on the state of Florida.

Also not attending are French President, Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson while Russia’s Vladimir Putin was not invited unlike 10 years ago because of Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Although it has been 80 years when the war started, there are still unresolved matters. Poland says Germany owes it war reparations but Berlin  believes any case concerning reparations is closed.

The Polish presidency had said in a statement issued on Saturday that the commemorations would be attended by around 40 foreign delegations, a few of them led by heads of state.

They include Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky whose partnership matters to Poland, which believes its security depends on Ukraine remaining outside of Russia’s sphere of influence.