WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s defense minister accused European critics of trying to “erase” the tragic fate Poles suffered at German hands during World War II “from the historical memory of Europe.”

Antoni Macierewicz made his remarks Monday during a visit to Sulejow, a small town in central Poland, as it marked the 78th anniversary of being heavily bombarded by the German Luftwaffe at the start of the war.

The remark comes amid growing tensions between Poland’s conservative-nationalist government and Germany, France and the European Union.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Frans Timmermans, deputy vice president of the European Commission, have all recently criticized what they see as an erosion of the rule of law under the government of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo.

Amid the strained ties, Polish leaders have also been saying in recent weeks that Germany owes war reparations for the massive damage inflicted during the war. During more than five years of wartime occupation Germany killed nearly 6 million Polish citizens and destroyed many towns and cities.

Szydlo’s government says Germany has moral obligation to pay. But government critics believe the issue is being seized on to divert voters from its problems with Europe.

Macierewicz recalled the millions killed and the near total destruction of Polish towns like Sulejow, Warsaw, and many others, and said those communities now have the right to financial compensation from Berlin.

He also recalled how Polish priests gave help to the people under attack in Sulejow, making the point that Poland stood alone fighting in its own defense as it was abandoned by its Western allies.

Macierewicz’s remarks, stressing Poland’s active role in its own self-defense, appeared to be a reaction to a comment last week by Timmermans, who said that Poland can thank the EU for the greater sovereignty and freedom it enjoys today than in the recent centuries, when Poland was often under foreign rule.

Timmermans said Poles in the past were at the mercy of the bigger powers and didn’t have a say in their own sovereignty and where their borders fell.

“Sulejow, destroyed villages and cities, the Polish nation, have the right to the truth of how the defense of Europe and European values looked in 1939, and who really defended them. And who destroyed them,” Macierewicz said.

He said he wanted to remind this fact to Merkel, Macron and others “who want to erase the drama of Poland and the Poles from the historical memory of Europe.”

Also Monday, Poland’s Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said “serious talks’ are needed with Germany to “find a way to deal with the fact that German-Polish relations are overshadowed by the German aggression of 1939 and unresolved post-war issues.”

He said Poland’s material losses from the war are about $1 trillion, though a total figure could be higher.


Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed.