As we remember the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany 70 years ago today, all should remember that peace and freedom alike are worth fighting for — and that includes our elected officials.
A few weeks ago, when I was in Gdansk with family, we toured briefly the Grodzisko Fort, an outpost in the hills which had been erected by Napoleon during the 19th century. Four years ago, however, a trip to Gdansk led us to the Westerplatte.
It was there, 70 years ago today, that German forces first invaded Poland in the first of what was to be many battles in the European theater during World War II. That first day, 205 Polish soldiers armed with only one 75 mm field gun, two 37 mm anti-tank guns, a few mortars and not enough machine guns to go around, repelled attack after attack by more than three thousand German naval infantrymen. For a week, the German attack was spurned, despite the area having no formal fortifications besides concrete crew barracks, despite those barracks under constant bombardment from the Baltic Sea and skies above, and despite the Poles knowing that reinforcements would not be arriving at any point soon, if at all.
Today, leaders from across the world will come to the port city to commemorate the start of the war, and undoubtedly the bravery exhibited and sacrifice made by those Polish soldiers at the Westerplatte. Among those in attendance: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who undoubtedly will have many of the same things to say as she did at Buchenwald in May; British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, whose own mother was hiding in Poland during the war and whose government just dedicated a memorial to the 500,000 Polish soldiers who fought alongside the Brits in the war; and Russian PM Vladimir Putin (that capitalist pig), who plans to defend the former Soviet Union against those who believe that Stalin was more aggressor than liberator. Leaders from Italy and France, among other countries, will also be present.
Notably missing, however, will be the American president. The Polish press has actually been buzzing about the perceived “snub” for days, some wondering whether it was in response to an open letter to the president sent back in July by leaders in Central and Eastern Europe lamenting an apparent shift in geographical focus of American foreign policy. Regardless, of motivation, today’s Washington Times offers an excellent look at the failure of the White House with regard to commemorating the start of the Second World War in Europe:
The Polish government sent out the invitation three months ago to the White House, but an answer was received only on Wednesday, a mere five days before the ceremony. Repeated attempts over the summer by the Poles to contact the White House and the State Department met with a long period of silence. One White House aide actually replied that everyone was on vacation until after Labor Day, which caused a Polish official to say he apologized that Adolf Hitler had invaded his country on Sept. 1.
The initial answer from the White House almost defied belief. The head of the official U.S. delegation was not to be a member of the Obama administration but former Clinton Defense Secretary William J. Perry. Over the weekend, a change was announced, and the U.S. delegation is to be headed by National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones. Gen. Jones will head the U.S. delegation, rather than President Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. or Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Gen. Jones will stand alongside Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Anyone want to play “who doesn’t belong in this picture?”
The lack of understanding of European history and sensitivities was not lost on the Polish chattering classes. They have been in a justifiable uproar over this mother of all snubs, feeling a mixture of humiliation and neglect. For an administration that pledged to prioritize public diplomacy, this treatment of an ally was appalling. Unsurprisingly, popular opinion of the United States took a serious nose dive in Poland.
Indeed, the Washington Times is right. While Americans are still loved by Poles and Ronald Reagan still adored by supporters of Lech Walesa and the Solidarity Movement, the varnish of Barack Obama’s administration wore off a long time ago, likely after the president wavered on missile defense despite Poland having stuck its neck out for former President Bush, angering Russia in the process. While I was there, the only news coming out of the United States was bad news for the president — from updates every few days on Obama’s lagging approval rating, to his mishandling of the Crowley-Gates affair.
Still, it’s a shame that politics should in any way trump or take away from remembering exactly what happened along the Baltic Sea during that first week of September in 1939. It was at 4:45 a.m. local time, 70 years ago today, that the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein began its bombardment of the garrison at the military transit depot, thus changing the course of history in Poland and indeed the world forever.
Likewise, it should not be forgotten that the very first instinct of the Polish people was to stand fast and fight hard, even against a military force exponentially larger and stronger than its own. Only 14 Polish soldiers died during the week of fighting at the Westerplatte, and even they did not perish in battle. Instead, they were later executed by the Germans for refusing to provide radio codes. Even though the battle ended with the surrender of Major Henryk Sucharski due to lack of reinforcements and supplies, the incredible courage shown during that week should be a testament to the enduing power of freedom, and the power of those who fight for it. I remember sitting atop a German tank left behind at the site, smiling, overcome even in such a solemn, weighty place by that love for liberty and willingness to fight.
As I’ve noted a few times here before, the characteristic I like most about the Polish people is their love of freedom, their hope for peace, and their knowledge that neither comes without sacrifice. As far as I’m concerned, there is no better example of that characteristic in action than at the Westerplatte. The site is now home to several memorials to the 14 Poles who died, the ruins of the barracks, markers for soldiers who fought, an enormous monument, and a sign which reads: “Never Again War.”
During my first visit to Gdansk and Poland in the summer of 2005, I took a number of photos at the Westerplatte. Here are a few: