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Doomed Uprising a Bitter Pill 60 Years Later

Resentment of German, Russian roles in Warsaw revolt, in which 200,000 Poles died, lingers today. But its place in history is finally recognized.

August 01, 2004|Vanessa Gera | Associated Press Writer

WARSAW — On Europe's great fault line, where World War II began and left the German and Polish capitals in ruins, today is a day steeped with symbolism: A German chancellor will be in Warsaw for the first time to pay homage to the dead in the doomed Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

Sixty years after the rebellion, in which the Nazis killed 200,000 people, Germany's place in the emotional equation is still a complicated matter. And so is Russia's.

Looking both west and east, Poles have much to resent -- the Germans for perpetrating the slaughter, and the Soviet Army for not intervening, even though it was parked at the gates of Warsaw.

On top of that, the revolt was written out of Polish history during its 40 years of communist rule and, as a result, was eclipsed in the world's consciousness by the well-known and internationally documented Warsaw Ghetto Uprising a year earlier.

The 63-day uprising began Aug. 1, 1944, when the Allied victory over the Third Reich seemed imminent, with the D-Day forces sweeping toward Germany from the west and the Red Army parked at the gates of Warsaw, ready for the final march on Berlin.

It led to SS leader Heinrich Himmler's infamous order to his troops: "Every inhabitant should be killed, no prisoners are to be taken, Warsaw is to be razed to the ground and in this way the whole of Europe shall have a terrifying example."

Today, Poland's relations with its German neighbor are in some ways closer than ever, and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's office says he is honored to be invited to a commemoration of "enormous historical and symbolic importance."

But official gestures aside, new tensions are brewing -- brought on, ironically, by the closer relationship since Poland joined the European Union on May 1.

The discord is rooted in World War II, which ended with the Allied powers giving Poland a swath of prewar Germany, a decision that uprooted millions of ethnic Germans from their homes.

Some Germans have threatened to use EU courts to regain their property, and Poles deeply resent their portraying themselves as victims of a war that Adolf Hitler started by invading Poland in September 1939.

How easily emotions are inflamed became clear last week when the main German expellee lobby group commemorated the Warsaw Uprising in a Berlin church, without inviting any Polish delegates.

The head of the Federation of Expellees, Erika Steinbach, said at the event that her aim was reconciliation and dialogue. "We want to sympathize, and we yearn for the sympathy of others," she said.

But Polish politicians were outraged, among them Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, 82, a former foreign minister and Holocaust survivor who fought in the uprising.

"The Warsaw Uprising is something sacred for many Poles, especially for the residents of Warsaw," he told the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper. "Hands off this sacred thing!"

Kazimierz Ujazdowski of the opposition Law and Justice Party called Steinbach "impudent and aggressive," and demanded that the German government disavow the group's actions.

In fact, Schroeder and his government, as well as German President Horst Koehler, have distanced themselves from Steinbach's group and urged Germans to abandon all demands for compensation.

Even before the latest blowup, Warsaw Mayor Lech Kaczynski ordered experts to estimate the damage done to Warsaw during the uprising, threatening to sue Germany for the cost of reconstruction.

Although the German government has given some compensation to forced and slave laborers of the Nazi era, it has never paid for rebuilding Warsaw. Studies done in the late 1940s estimated total damage at $30 billion.

Today, cross-border businesses, German investment in Poland, and university exchanges bring Poles and Germans together with growing frequency, but mistrust and ugly stereotypes on both sides persist. Many Germans consider Poles lazy and inclined to criminal behavior, while Poles view Germans as arrogant.

Germany isn't the only issue in contention. The Russian ambassador also angered Polish veterans and historians by remembering the uprising as a "united fight against a common enemy."

"The fruits of our common victory are sacred," Nikolai Afanasievski wrote in a commemorative booklet prepared by organizers of today's ceremony.

In fact, Poles see the Soviet Union's behavior during the uprising as a monstrous betrayal.

Moscow initially called on the Poles to rise up, but when the Polish Home Army -- which was both anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet -- began fighting, the Soviets stood back and let the slaughter happen. It was a bitter prelude to the 40 years of communist rule and Soviet hegemony that would follow -- a time during which there were no monuments to the uprising, and it was officially ignored, with textbooks mentioning it only in passing.

"Can you imagine if Washington, D.C., had been completely destroyed and no monument was allowed to its destruction for 45 years?" said Norman Davies, an Oxford University historian who published a book last year on the uprising.

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