Leading Article: Poles deliver a timely reminder

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IT WAS an act of political courage by President Lech Walesa of Poland to invite the German and Russian presidents to today's commemoration in Warsaw of the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. Some 200,000 Poles, most of them civilians, were killed by the Germans, many in cold blood, during the 63 days of the uprising. Soviet forces, invading from the east, sat on the far bank of the river Vistula refusing to help, happy to watch Nazi troops slaughtering those Poles most likely to resist a Communist takeover.

Stalin's forces invaded Poland from the east shortly after the Germans attacked from the west in September 1939. He and Hitler between them are reckoned to have slaughtered around 6 million Poles - a fifth of the country's population - of whom approximately half were Jews. Almost everything has changed in both Germany and the former Soviet Union in the subsequent half century - especially since 1989. But the Warsaw Uprising remains raw in the memory of many Poles, and President Walesa's invitation has proved understandably controversial. He hopes the confrontation will provide a history lesson for all concerned, while promoting the process of reconciliation.

President Yeltsin, who may not have relished the prospect, is sending his chief of staff. But Germany's new president, Roman Herzog, will be there, as will Al Gore, the US Vice-President, and John Major. The British presence is welcome, since many of our airmen lost their lives attempting

to fly in supplies to the insurgents - partly because the Russians denied permission to land, even to damaged Allied aircraft. It was an early lesson in Stalin's ruthlessness, from which too little was learnt.

President Walesa no doubt calculates, rightly, that today's ceremonies will increase Western understanding of Poland's anxiety to join both Nato and the European Union as soon as possible. Polish suspicion of Russia lingers on, while Germany is - without necessarily being forgiven - seen as the gateway to the EU. For the Poles the lesson of the Second World War is that there can be no security for any country in central Europe except within a treaty organisation committed to collective defence.

Today the Poles fear that the West may do a deal with the Russians that will once again consign them to a Russian rather than Western sphere of influence. This week's emotion-charged ceremonies should leave no doubt among those present of the historical justification for Poland's foreign policy goals.