Sept. 1 Chancellor Angela Merkel paid tribute to the victims of World War II and the Holocaust, saying Germany bears “eternal” responsibility for the war that began 70 years ago when Nazi troops invaded neighboring Poland.

Speaking at the Westerplatte peninsula in Gdansk, Poland, where some of the first shots were fired on Sept. 1, 1939, Merkel recalled Poland’s devastation by Germans and the 6 million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis during the war.

“I pay tribute to the 60 million people who lost their lives in this war unleashed by Germany,” Merkel said today. “There are no words that could even remotely describe the suffering caused by this war and the Holocaust. I bow before the victims.”

Leaders of European nations involved in the conflict met for the anniversary in the nation that Merkel said suffered the longest under Nazi occupation. Before her speech marking what she called “the most tragic chapter in European history,” Merkel sat between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Polish counterpart, Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

Merkel said Europe can take heart from the fall of the Iron Curtain two decades ago and the spirit of reconciliation among Germany’s neighbors that helped mend relations, including German-Polish ties.

‘Continent of Horror’

“In this spirit, Europe has transformed itself from a continent of horror and violence into a continent of freedom and peace,” she said. “European unification and Germany’s friendship with its neighbors draw strength from the fact that we confront our history.”

President Barack Obama, in a written message to the event, said Poles in World War II opted “to fight authoritarianism and to choose democracy and freedom.” He noted that the U.S. backed Poland, a former Soviet satellite, when it joined the NATO military alliance, according to the text provided by the White House. Obama picked National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones to lead the U.S. delegation to the ceremony, the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw said on its Web site.

Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin and Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler sealed a non-aggression pact days before Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, secretly agreeing to carve up eastern Europe.

Red Army

After the Nazis invaded, the Soviets marched into the Baltic states and eastern Poland. Hitler broke his treaty with Stalin when he attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. The Red Army rolled back the invasion all the way to Berlin in 1945, keeping most of eastern Europe under Moscow’s control for the next half century.

Tusk, in his speech, referred to a Red Army cemetery near his family house. “Thousands, tens of thousands of young people lost their lives here in the early spring of 1945,” Tusk said. “They gave their lives for liberation, but they didn’t bring us freedom. But we honor them too, and care for their graves.”

Merkel, who was born nine years after the war ended and grew up under communism in East Germany, said Europe’s freedom was assured only when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and Germany reunified the next year. She singled out former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for helping bring about the historic changes.

In an assertive moment, Merkel defended Germany’s growing efforts over the past decade to remember the plight of ethnic Germans who lost their homes in eastern Europe when the Red Army and communist regimes drove them out at the end of the war.

Germans remember the expellees’ fate “without wanting to rewrite Germany’s eternal historic responsibility” for starting the war, Merkel said.

Russian Contribution

Putin sought to defend the role of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe during the war and in subsequent history. The fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago and the reunification of Europe would have been impossible without Russia, he said.

Russia, the legal successor to the USSR, claims that former communist countries such as Ukraine and the three Baltic states are trying to rewrite history by equating Stalin with the Nazi leader.

“My country not only recognizes the mistakes and problems of past tragedies but is making a practical contribution to the creation of a new world based on new principles,” Putin said in his speech.

West German Chancellor Willy Brandt traveled to Poland in 1970 as part of his Ost-Politik policy aimed at rapprochement with the communist East Bloc.

During a Dec. 7 visit to the memorial for Jews killed by Germans during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, he spontaneously dropped to his knees.