Germany Asks for Poland’s Forgiveness : Europe: Apology issued on the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.


German President Roman Herzog, attending memorial services here marking the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, issued an extraordinary public apology Monday for the suffering Germany caused Poland in World War II.

“Today, I bow down before the fighters of the Warsaw Uprising as before all Polish victims of the war,” Herzog said after laying a wreath draped in the German tricolor at the foot of this city’s monument to the failed rebellion. “I ask for forgiveness for what has been done to you by Germans.”

Thousands of Polish uprising veterans who had gathered from around the world for the late-night commemoration broke into applause, continuing the ovation until Herzog returned to his seat.


“I came here to hear him say this. Millions of Poles have been waiting for this,” said Irena Kwiatkowska, 60, who described herself as a “small child living in hell” during the uprising. “It took 50 years, but he said it.”

Herzog’s remarks were seen as the most important act of German contrition toward Poland since 1970, when Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt at the site of Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, the scene of an earlier uprising suppressed by the Nazis. Even that event, many Poles believe, was more a gesture toward Jews than all Poles.

“It fills us Germans with shame that the name of our country and people will forever be associated with pain and suffering, which was inflicted on Poland a million times,” Herzog said. “We mourn the dead of the Warsaw Uprising and all people who lost their lives in World War II.”

The apology was all the more significant because it came against a backdrop of intense controversy over the decision to invite German and Russian leaders to the remembrance, which marks one of the bloodiest chapters in Polish history.

Residents of Warsaw rose up against their German occupiers Aug. 1, 1944, but the ensuing 63-day rebellion was a military failure. More than 200,000 Poles, most of them civilians, were killed, and about 500,000 deported to concentration camps. Angry Nazi troops dynamited huge sections of the city, leaving it uninhabitable and mostly in ruins when they retreated several months later.

While the battle was against the Germans, many Poles hold the Russians largely responsible for the debacle because Soviet leader Josef Stalin refused to allow his forces, which had advanced to the city’s outskirts, to assist the poorly armed rebels.

Some Polish veterans were so outraged by the presence of Herzog and Sergei A. Filatov, chief of staff to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, at Monday’s remembrance that they staged alternative ceremonies. The anniversary also served to revive feelings of bitterness toward Germany and Russia among the general public, with a public opinion poll released Monday showing that only 30% of Poles believe the two countries would make good allies.

In his remarks Monday evening, Herzog addressed such skepticism, saying he understands the sentiment but asking both Poles and Germans to seek a new era of reconciliation.

Polish President Lech Walesa, who invited Herzog and Yeltsin as an act of healing, said the time had come for Poles to live in friendship with their former enemies and move toward integration in a greater Europe.

“We do not give absolution to the murderers in Warsaw, but we do not pass those feelings upon the German nation,” Walesa said. “Blood and hatred are a curse of the 20th Century; may they disappear in the past along with it.”

Vice President Al Gore, representing the United States at the commemoration, called the Warsaw insurgents “noble martyrs” who preserved the dignity of the Polish people, but he also said the cycle of hatred in Central Europe should be broken.

The coolest reception of the evening was reserved for Filatov, who was sent to represent Yeltsin. Many Poles didn’t want any Russian presence at the commemoration, but they were offended nonetheless when Yeltsin declined to attend himself.

Filatov spoke only briefly, reading a letter from Yeltsin and emphasizing the great losses both Russia and Poland suffered in World War II. He said both peoples were victims of Stalinism, and he assured Poles that democratic Russia “will not commit the mistakes we committed in the past.”

His remarks were greeted with only polite applause, with one woman in the audience asking aloud, “Where is the ‘We are sorry?’ ”

Earlier in the day, Poles held a more private ceremony at Pilsudski Square, the site of the tomb of the unknown soldier and a revered national gathering place near Warsaw’s oldest quarter. The solemn event, which included a military parade and a Mass, was to have been attended by Herzog and Filatov. But organizers removed the foreign dignitaries from the guest list after veterans groups threatened to protest the gathering.

“They should have invited young people, not the old ones who were shooting at us,” said veteran Eugeniusz Rajewski, who traveled from Sweden for the remembrance.