WARSAW    -  The German president vowed his country would never forget the atrocities of the Nazi period on Sunday as he asked forgiveness from Poland during a series of commemorative events to mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the second world war.

“In no other square in Europe do I find it more difficult to speak, and to address you in my native language of German ... I ask for forgiveness for Germany’s historical guilt and I recognise our enduring responsibility,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at a ceremony in Piłsudski Square in Warsaw.

Steinmeier and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, joined a number of heads of state at the ceremony. Other events were held in Wieluń, which was heavily bombarded by the German air force on the first day of the war; and Westerplatte, where the first shots of the war were fired when a German battleship opened fire on a Polish garrison in the early hours of 1 September.

“It is hard to imagine that cataclysm of history today, the armed conflict which brought the most disastrous consequences in the history of mankind. We have to remember, and therefore we are gathered here today,” the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, said at the Warsaw ceremony.

Poland’s nationalist government had hoped that the US president, Donald Trump, would be the guest of honour, but he cancelled at the last minute and sent his vice-president, Mike Pence, in his place.

Despite the atmosphere of reconciliation, different politicians drew very different conclusions about the lessons of the war.

There was a note of anger in Duda’s speech, as he said Europe should have stood up to the Nazis earlier. “Perhaps the second world war would not have broken out in the first place, if the states in the west had put up a decisive resistance against … the imperial ambitions of Hitler,” he said.

By way of comparison, Duda also criticised western leaders who propose rapprochement with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, after Moscow’s actions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. “Turning a blind eye is not the recipe for preserving peace. It is a simple way to give consent to further attacks,” he said.