WARSAW, Poland — Poland's president led international commemorations late Thursday and into Friday marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, a gathering meant as an alternative celebration to Moscow's Red Square parade this weekend.
President Bronislaw Komorowski was joined by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, European Council President Donald Tusk, who is Polish, and the presidents of Ukraine and several Central European countries for a ceremony that began just before midnight on the Westerplatte peninsula in Gdansk. That is the site of some of the first shots fired by Germany against Poland at the start of the war on Sept. 1, 1939.
The ceremony began so late so that it would continue into Friday, exactly 70 years after Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945.
Light beams illuminated a monument to the Polish defenders of Westerplatte to the playing of the Polish national anthem and a gun salute.
Then Komorowski, a member of the pro-democracy Solidarity movement during the communist era, spoke of how Poland suffered under the domination of two totalitarian systems during the war, Germany and the Soviet Union, and of how the war's end also marked the start of decades of Soviet domination over Eastern Europe.
It's a very different reading of history from that promoted in Russia, which tends to stress only the heroic actions of Soviet troops during the war. Russia is preparing to celebrate the Victory Day holiday with great pomp on Saturday.
Recently Moscow has accused Warsaw of trying to deprive Russians of credit for their huge sacrifices in defeating Adolf Hitler.
Komorowski originally organized the ceremonies in Gdansk in reaction to the deep divisions between the West and Russia over Moscow's actions in Ukraine. They were meant to give Western leaders a chance to pay homage to the Allied victory over Nazi Germany without traveling to Moscow.
Komorowski also criticized Russia for changing borders in Europe with its annexation of Crimea.
"This is something that hasn't been practiced since 1939," he said. "There can be no acceptance of such a practice. These anachronistic attitudes will not stop the aspirations of peoples to decide their own destiny."
Though many Western leaders are boycotting Saturday's Moscow commemorations, they also mostly did not travel to the commemorations in Poland, perhaps in an effort not to anger the Kremlin as the West encourages a tenuous peace deal between Ukraine and Russia.
Before the main ceremony, the U.N. leader met with Komorowski and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. In a statement, the U.N. said Ban "encouraged the sides to swiftly and fully implement" the measures of the peace deal for Ukraine agreed on in Minsk, Belarus.
Later, Ban told a panel at a conference on the war that the anniversary holds special importance to the U.N. because "our organization was founded on the ashes of this calamitous war that claimed the lives of millions of fellow human beings."