Herzog begs Poles' forgiveness over 1944 Warsaw atrocities: Lech Walesa has stirred bitter memories by inviting Russians and Germans to help commemorate the uprising in Poland's capital, writes Tony Barber in Warsaw

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GERMANY'S President, Roman Herzog, appealed to the Polish nation yesterday to forgive Germans for the terrible suffering caused by the Nazi suppression of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. However, a visiting dignitary from Moscow chose not to apologise about the duplicitous role played by the Soviet Union in the bloody events of August to October 1944.

'We believe that in the history of the Warsaw Uprising, and of Soviet-Polish relations in that period, there should be complete openness,' said Sergei Filatov, an aide to Russia's President, Boris Yeltsin. Before flying to Warsaw, he said that Poland and Russia had been victims of totalitarianism. He praised Poland's contribution to the defeat of Fascism but did not talk about the Soviet part in the Warsaw Uprising.

Mr Herzog, speaking at a ceremony in Warsaw to mark the Uprising's 50th anniversary, said: 'It fills us Germans with shame that the name of our country will be eternally linked with the pain and suffering that was inflicted on Poles millions of times over . . . I bow down today before the victims of the Warsaw Uprising, as before all Polish victims of the War. I ask for forgiveness for what Germans did to you.' Hundreds of Polish veterans attended the ceremony, which recalled the day in December 1970 when Willy Brandt, then West German Chancellor, knelt before a monument to the victims of Nazi aggression. This time, Mr Herzog sought forgiveness in the name of a united Germany.

At 5pm yesterday, sirens wailed throughout Warsaw to mark the moment when commanders of the underground Home Army gave the order to start fighting. About 200,000 Poles, mainly civilians, and 17,000 Germans were killed in the uprising, which broke out on 1 August 1944 and lasted for 63 days, amid scenes of unimaginable brutality. After the Home Army surrendered, the Nazis systematically reduced the Polish capital to ruins and deported survivors to camps.

Yet for many Poles, the significance of the uprising lies in the fact that the Soviet forces camped outside eastern Warsaw refused to come to their aid. Stalin, intent on imposing Communism on Poland, denounced the leaders of the Uprising as 'criminals'. The abiding sense of betrayal explains why some Polish veterans attacked President Lech Walesa for inviting a Russian representative.

However, some Polish politicians praised Mr Walesa. Adam Michnik, a former dissident and Solidarity activist, who fell out with Mr Walesa in 1990, said his invitation to German and Russian leaders was far-sighted, and would promote reconciliation.

Also present were John Major and the US Vice-President, Al Gore. The Western Allies airlifted arms and supplies to the Polish insurgents of 1944, but not enough to alter the outcome.

Mr Major, opening an exhibition of documents about the uprising, said: 'There have been 50 years of peace in Europe. Now Poland is not only at peace but Britain is at your side and will remain so, as we were 50 years ago.'

Earlier, Mr Walesa laid a wreath at Warsaw's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and veterans heard a message from the Pope. 'The Warsaw Uprising has a special importance to the Europe of the second half of the 20th century. It was the start of the process of shaping independent states in Central and Eastern Europe which could not be carried out until 1989, after the collapse of the totalitarian systems,' the Pope said.

(Photograph omitted)