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Poland Commemorates 1944 Partisan Uprising

DW staff (nda/ncy)August 2, 2004

On August 1, 1944, Polish partisans began a battle to retake Warsaw from its Nazi occupiers. Sixty years to the day, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder led a list of dignitaries commemorating the uprising.

Schröder paid tribute to Polish suffering under the NazisImage: AP

Three days of commemorations came to a climax on Sunday when veterans laid wreaths and sang patriotic songs as world leaders and survivors joined together in Warsaw to mark the 60th anniversary of the uprising by Polish partisans against Nazi occupiers towards the end of World War II. Among the dignitaries attending were Gerhard Schröder, the first German chancellor to take part in the annual ceremonies.

"Today we bow in shame in the face of the Nazi troops' crimes," Schröder said at the ceremony Sunday. "At this place of Polish pride and German shame, we hope for reconciliation and peace."

Schröder's words were followed by applause. Later he garnered even more of his hosts' approval by assuring that Germany would not support restitution claims to return ancestral property to Germans who fled or were expelled from eastern Europe after the Nazis' defeat. The issue has dogged Polish-German relations for years.

Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz said Schröder's speech had "great meaning for Poland." It was more than a political declaration, Cimoszewicz told Polish Broadcasting. Schröder's rejection of restitution claims could be "very important" to fend off claims to the European Court or the Human Rights Tribunal, he said.

Although Schröder was warmly received throughout his visit to Poland, he did encounter sporadic jeers. At the Warsaw Uprising Cemetery, he was met with a sign that read: "Heil Schröder, don't come to the place where our countrymen are honoured who were murdered by your countrymen -- without compensation even today."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Britain's Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott were also among those marking the anniversary with the laying of wreaths and a commemorative concert, as well as the opening of new, interactive museum about the uprising. Russia did not send a representative to the ceremonies.

Rebellion was timed for maximum effect

The partisan uprising broke out at 5 o'clock on August 1, 1944, following the broadcast of the code signal "tempest." The first the German army knew of the battle to liberate Warsaw -- the first European capital they had taken nearly five years before -- was a wave of explosions followed by rifle fire throughout the city.

The timing of the uprising was chosen for maximum effect as the Germans appeared to be about to withdraw from Warsaw after being forced to retreat over the previous few months in the face of a sustained attack from the Red Army, which had forced the Wehrmacht out of the Baltic States, Belorussia and western Poland.

An estimated 40,000 troops, including 4,000 women, made up the Polish Home Army, or Armia Krajowa, under the command of General Tadeusz 'Bor' Komorowski, who estimated they could hold out for about five days without help. In fact, the insurgents held out for much longer than that, battling the vastly superior German army for 63 days.

Komorowski rallied his troops at the start of battle with a rousing call to arms: "Today I have issued the order you have been waiting for, the order to begin open battle against Poland's age-old enemy, the German invader."

"After nearly five years of uninterrupted and heavy fighting underground, today you will carry your arms in the open in order to free your country again and to render exemplary punishment to the German criminals for the terror and crimes committed on Polish soil."

Soviets, allies left Poles to their fate

Although barely armed, the plan was to hold out for the rapidly advancing Soviet army, which had just reached the outskirts of Warsaw at the time of the uprising. There were also hopes that Britain and the United States, would come to their aid in time.

In reality, little assistance was offered, and the Red Army halted its advance and observed the battle from the other side of Warsaw's Vistula River, watching as the SS commanders carried out Hitler's orders to level the city and kill or deport its inhabitants. More than 200,000 civilians were killed and Warsaw was left in ruins.

Months later, the Soviet army took over a city of rubble and Stalin installed a puppet government which occupied Poland for more than four decades.