Donald Tusk, chosen by EU leaders to be the next president of the European Council, spoke at the Westerplatte peninsula on the Baltic coast, where some of the first shots of the Second World War were fired on 1 September, 1939 by an attacking German warship.
Two weeks later Soviet troops invaded from the east, acting on a Moscow deal with Germany to carve up Poland. More than five years of brutal, global war followed, taking the lives of tens of millions of people.
“Today, looking at the tragedy of Ukraine, at war – because we should use this word – in the east of our continent, we know that September 1939 must not be repeated,” Mr Tusk said.
He said the lesson Europe should draw from its past “must not be a lesson of naive optimism” because the security of the continent requires “courage, imagination and resolute action.”
Meanwhile the anniversary of the start of the Second World War was just another day in Germany for the hundreds of workers employed nationwide to clean up the unexploded bombs threatening to wreak havoc in towns and cities.
As church services were held yesterday to commemorate the dead of history’s greatest conflict, the gathering in of the “iron harvest” from that war is now a desperate race against time.
A crop of between 100,000 and 150,000 unexploded bombs dropped by British and American air armadas are growing more unstable each year. Earlier this year a construction worker lost his life in the town of Euskirchen and eight others were injured when the jaws of his mechanical digger detonated a bomb on a building site.
Three men died in the university city of Goettingen in 2010 when they moved a bomb and it went off. Two other victims were crippled for life. In 2006, a construction worker was killed in southern Germany when his bulldozer ran over an RAF bomb during autobahn renovations; the bulldozer was catapulted 60 feet into the air.
In all, dozens of people have been killed and injured in explosions in the past decades and thousands placed in danger. In 2011, falling water levels on the River Rhine in Koblenz exposed two mammoth RAF bombs capable of causing catastrophic damage if they detonated: some 45,000 people were evacuated from their homes in Germany’s largest peacetime forced movement of people. Luckily it was made safe without mishap.
But that will become an increasing rarity in the years to come. Experts warn that the fuses of the bombs are becoming more unstable by the day. The fear now is of “spontaneous” detonations where the corroded fuses suddenly go off without movement.
In the whole of Germany, more than 2,000 tons of American and British bombs and all sorts of munitions ranging from German hand grenades and tank mines to Russian artillery shells are discovered every year.
A bomb from an RAF or USAAF plane from the Second World War is discovered on average once a day across the country, sometimes as many as three times a day, costing authorities tens of millions of pounds a year.
The Allies rained 2.7 million tons of bombs on Germany between 1940 and 1944. The academic Journal of Mine Action estimates that as much as half of them failed to do their job.
Many contain a vial of acetone in the fuse which was designed to burst on impact. The fluid was meant to trickle down and dissolve a celluloid disk keeping back the cocked firing pin that then ignites the TNT inside.
Those components, as well as the plastic parts of other detonators, are disintegrating at an alarming rate. Experts warn that within a decade bombs will begin to detonate by themselves – or will be too unstable to defuse if discovered.
Hans-Jürgen Weise, one of Germany’s most experienced bomb disposal experts, warned back in 2008 of the danger of rotting detonators. “One day such bombs will be so sensitive that no one will be able to handle them,” he said.