Address by the President of the Republic of Poland at Westerplatte
Distinguished Federal President,
Distinguished War Veterans,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This year, the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I coincides with the seventy fifth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. Both wars were a drama for many families, many nations. Until now vivid memory of painful losses then sustained has endured, and of the wounds that have not yet been fully healed to-date.
A distance of merely one generation separates the two wars. Noteworthy is that the two European generations taking part in the wars and so painfully afflicted by them, drew entirely different conclusions from the catastrophes they had gone through.
After World War I, Europe went ahead to enhance national egoisms, to dwell on divergences in national interests, strengthening the endeavour to revise the results of the war, and to take revenge for the defeat experienced.
Those phenomena were conducive to the spread of the left-wing and the right-wing extremisms, the emergence of authoritarian and totalitarian systems. It took as much as the tragedy of World War II to make Europe reverse to what unites European nations and not to what divides us: to integration, to the strengthening of free market and democracy, to security founded on welfare, and cooperation with neighbours.
This historic experience has a crucial significance also nowadays as we are facing the threats emerging east of the territory integrated in the European Union, the territory made secure in the North Atlantic Alliance’s fold.
Here, on the Westerplatte Peninsula where on Septmeber 1, 1939, the gunfire opened by the battleship Schleswig Holstein announced the war waged on Poland, it must be also recalled that the war had been preceded with a few years’ period of appeasement towards 3rd Reich's aggressive policy. It had been preceded with the revision of borders, violation of international law, employing military pressure in neighbourly relations, breaching of disarmament treaties.
It must be likewise remembered that the German-Polish conflict soon transformed itself into a European war, and that in turn escalated into a world war. The war which took the toll of millions of lives, which unleashed a mechanism of unprecedented genocide, which caused unspeakable distress and suffering befalling not only victims of the aggression but all people, also the perpetrators.
For us, Poles, that war lasted almost six years: six horrible long years. For us, Poles, it is more than the history of heroic combat, as exemplified on Westerplatte or in the Warsaw Rising; it is more than the history of perseverance and determination, as exemplified by the Polish Undeground State, the only one in existence in Europe under occupation. It is more than the hallowed memory of the fights fought by our soldiers on almost all fronts of World War II. First and foremost, this is an experience of a direct encounter of mass terror and barbarity. Let us remember that every fifth Polish citizen has perished, predominantly in concentration camps, in ghettoes and annihilation camps, in pacification operations in Polish towns and villages. Let us remember that almost two-fifth of Polish cultural output has been pillaged, never to be returned, or destroyed. That almost one half of our total infrastructure was subject to destruction. That we suffered mass displacements, relocation and deportation to the East, to be exiled in the wake of the war.
This is why when the guns trailed away, when the war was over, almost every Polish family wept for their relatives who perished in that war. And there were many victims, for whom nobody was left to weep for, as it often happened that whole families were losing their lives. Symbolic are the destinies of Rafał Lemkin, an author of the convention against genocide, a prominent Polish lawyer of Jewish descent who lost in the Holocaust tens of family members. As he put it, he was “the only one to survive from all who were driven to slaughter”.
For Poles, the end of the war and the liberation from the German occupation was not tantamount to regaining freedom and sovereignty they were dreaming of. We were left on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain which then stretched along the Elbe River.
All we could do was to follow from the distance the processes proceeding in Europe as appropriate lessons were learnt from the evil and dramatic experience of the war. It was then that political Founding Fathers of reconciliation and integration came into prominence, strengthened by their wisdom but also by Europe’s painful experience. It was then, when the pain and fear were still alive, that a realization came for European nations and societies that it is possible to abandon fear of one’s neighbour provided that one participates together with him in the same grand political project. Providing that breaking through stereotypes and overcoming one’s own pain, genuine reconciliation is effected, raising above the tragic history.
For European integration was born out of the conviction that whenever the united Europe was absent, war appeared in lieu of it. The dream of peace entailed the necessity to reconciliate, to start a dialogue with one’s former enemy who had been perceived as a deadly and eternal foe. It always took an effort to understand also someone else’s reasons, someone else’s experiences, to build mutual trust, to consciously lay groundwork for future cooperation. In order to have all of those effectively achieved, it was necessary to acknowledge truth, to admit one’s gilts and show remorse, to preserve and to relive the memory of the atrocious crimes perpetrated by the German Nazism.
This kind of the task could be only accomplished in its fullest and deepest extent by citizens of Western Europe immediately after the war, citizens of democratic countries, free countries, and free people. The French-German reconciliation featured especially importantly in that context. But also we ourselves, albeit separated by the Iron Curtain, and forcibly squeezed into a totalitarian communist system, in the enclaves of our limited freedom, were launching analogical processes. The reconciliation with Germany was ushered in by the two Churches, by the famous letter of Polish bishops to German bishops. It contained a very unique statement which is a key to mutual relations between nations: namely that we forgive and we ask forgiveness. The reconciliation was fought off by the communist regime but it triumphantly re-emerged years after in free Poland.
This year, we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the victory of our Polish Solidarity. The 25th anniversary of our Polish freedom regained. With great joy and satisfaction I wish to recall that one of the achievements to celebrate, one of the miracles of freedom, as you, Mr Gauck, put it in Berlin, was the Polish-German reconciliation which not only rose above the painful history but also in the prospect of our shared good fortune of Poland and Germany, Poles and Germans.
This was symbolized by the fact that Chancellor Helmut Kohl found out about the fall of the Berlin Wall while he was in Warsaw, talking to the first non-communist government east of the Iron Curtain, to Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s government. The victory through reconciliation was symbolized by the Reconciliation Mass in Krzyżowa and the famous embrace of the two statesmen which sent a strong signal to their respective nations and states.
As we stand today on Westerplatte commemorating the anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, together with President Joachim Gauck, a great friend of freedom and a great friend of Poland, I wish to bring back not only the memories of what happened 75 years ago, not only the gunfire opened by the battleship Schleswig-Holstein but also another memory which is so important to people of my generation, Solidarity generation, a memory of that brotherly embrace and hug on such a joyous occasion, as Poland was regaining freedom, as Germany was uniting, as Europe was uniting.
Bad history, painful history which needs to be effectively overcome, makes it incumbent on our nations and our states: on Poles and Germans, to show a particular sense of responsibility in the face of threats emerging nowadays. In the face of old types of threats, well-known to us, the threats that are still provoked on the European continent and beyond by radical policies, ideological and religious fundamentalisms, national egoisms grown out of every proportion, propensity for aggression and for conflicts.
Before our very eyes, the arsenal of military measures in being employed again in relation to our neighbour, international law is consciously and cynically breached, as much as norms binding in the civilized world. In the civilized world, we know that armed forces are to be used only as a last resort, are to be used as a last instance, in the situation of absolute sheer necessity. Here in Europe, what we see before our eyes, is the deployment of armed forces as the first instance, as a method of choice, before any other method or argument would be given a chance in pursuit of often diverging reasons or interests.
It is here that without any hesitation international peace and order are violated in the name of one’s own dreams about greatness or one’s zone of influence; in the faith that what matters is simply one’s own reasons and one’s own interests. And these are precisely the same threats that where pestering and fretting Europe almost through the whole of the 20th century. The same kind of threats which until now have been effectively curbed by the reconciliation and integration processes.
History is teaching us, teaching but also placing a commitment to draw conclusions from painful experiences. History suggests that courage and determination are still needed to counter the ones who threaten international order, peace and freedom, that it is still essential to make an effort for reconciliation and integration that the ones who wish to continue the pursuit of the world in which one neighbour would not need to fear another.
Here, on Westerplatte, history is speaking to us most forcefully; the history is speaking out to us all.