Poland recalls a blow against Nazi brutality: Fifty years on from the Warsaw Uprising, Tony Barber finds that the deep wounds have still not healed

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The Independent Online
VICTIMS of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising were honoured in Catholic masses across Poland yesterday as the country prepared to mark the 50th anniversary of one of the defining moments of modern Polish history.

About 300 veterans with medals and armbands in the red and white national colours attended an outdoor service at the Warsaw Insurgents Cemetery in the western district of Wola. On Saturday, veterans paid their last respects

to General Tadeusz Bor- Komorowski, who led the uprising and whose remains were brought back from England last week, 28 years after his death.

For Poles, whose country was ravaged in the Second World War and then placed under Communist rule, the series of 50th wartime anniversaries are hardly occasions for celebration. And none is more painful and tragic than that which falls today.

On 1 August 1944, 50,000 underground fighters of the AK (Armia Krajowa, or Home Army) launched an uprising in Warsaw against German forces that had occupied Poland since 1939. By the time the remnants of the AK surrendered, 63 days later, up to 200,000 Poles had been killed - the majority of them civilians who were bombed from the skies, shelled from the ground, or murdered by SS and police units.

It was one of the war's most murderous battles and yet, according to the historian Adam Zamoyski, 'a peripheral episode of pointless heroism which profited only Stalin'. Only five and a half months after the uprising began, the Red Army marched into Warsaw. Soon after that the whole of Poland was turned into a Soviet satellite state.

Memories of the barbarity of Nazi Germany, and of the cynicism of the Soviet Union in refusing to assist the Warsaw Uprising, mean that this is a particularly difficult anniversary for Poles to commemorate. John Major and the US Vice-President, Al Gore, are attending today's events, but President Lech Walesa has decided to go further and invite leaders from Germany and Russia.

From Mr Walesa's point of view, these are two giant neighbours with which, for the sake of its own security, Poland must have amicable relations. 'We cannot live just by vengeance and hatred,' he said on Friday.

But for many AK veterans and other Poles, it is inappropriate to offer the hand of reconciliation to Germany and Russia on such a sensitive date. According to an opinion poll this month, 40 per cent of Poles favoured a German and Russian presence in Warsaw this week, but 50 per cent did not.

Matters were made worse when the invited German dignitary, President Roman Herzog, made the mistake of confusing the 1944 Warsaw Uprising with the 1943 revolt in the city's Jewish ghetto.

President Boris Yeltsin thought it best not to take up Mr Walesa's invitation, and instead is sending his chief of staff, Sergei Filatov. But given the Soviet role in the uprising, even the presence of a senior official from the reborn Russian state upsets many Poles.

The Red Army was so close to Warsaw by late July 1944 that people in the capital could hear its guns booming. By 1 August, advance Soviet units were in Radzymin, barely eight miles away.

Bor-Komorowski was under no illusions about Stalin's hostility towards the non-Communist Polish forces. However, he felt he had no choice but to order the uprising. For one thing, resistance fighters in Warsaw had waited five years to take revenge on the hated Nazi occupiers. For another, to do nothing would invite the fate of other AK units which, upon encountering Soviet 'liberators', had been shot, arrested or dragooned into Soviet service.

But the uprising, which stood hardly a chance of success, ran out of steam by 6 August. Stalin denounced the AK as 'a handful of power-seeking criminals' and refused to help the people of Warsaw. It suited him to let the Nazis rather than his own forces have more Polish blood on their hands.

By late August, AK units were trapped in three districts of Warsaw - the city centre, the Old Town to the north and Mokotow to the south. On the night of 1 September, 4,000 fighters were forced to evacuate the Old Town and crept into sewers, taking their wounded with them. The Nazis poured poison gas into manholes after them.

Despite hunger, thirst and shortages of ammunition and medical supplies, the AK put up stubborn resistance that eventually accounted for 17,000 German dead and 9,000 wounded. But the price was a terrible one. The Nazis filled cattle trucks with surviving civilians and deported them to concentration camps. Then they razed Warsaw.

In the Communist era, Poles were discouraged from commemorating the uprising, and veterans kept their AK medals hidden at home. For the 5,000 or so veterans still alive, perhaps the only consolation is now they can commemorate the uprising freely.

Leading article, page 11

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