WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s capital ground to a halt on Thursday as air-raid sirens wailed to mark 75 years since Polish insurgents launched the doomed Warsaw Uprising against Nazi German forces occupying their city.
Traffic halted and pedestrians stood in silent homage in memory of the nearly 200,000 mostly civilian victims of the 63-day insurrection, launched on August 1, 1944, in a doomed bid to secure Poland’s post-war independence.
Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas, who was in Warsaw for the anniversary, asked Poles for forgiveness and expressed shame over the human suffering and the Nazis’ near-total destruction of the Polish capital.
“I came here because I want to honor the dead and because I want to ask the families of the dead and injured, and the Polish people, for forgiveness,” Heiko Maas said at memorial ceremonies earlier in the day.
“I’m ashamed of what was done to your country by Germans and in the name of Germany,” he said.
Polish far-right groups controversially organized the main rally in the city center marking the anniversary in recent years, stoking outcry at their attempt to co-opt it.
But on Thursday, youngsters sporting stickers “against fascism” and pro-democracy activists holding a banner saying “Warsaw free from fascism” featured prominently.
The presence of the opposing sides at the memorial reflects the growing polarization in Poland.
The uprising by Polish Home Army (AK) partisans is sometimes confused with the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in which Jewish partisans imprisoned by the Nazis in an area of the Polish capital launched their own doomed insurgency.
In 1944, around 50,000 AK partisans, mostly men and women in their late teens and early 20s, scouts and even children, took up arms against the Nazi Germans occupying the capital, as the Soviet Red Army was poised to invade it from the east.
Vastly better equipped, the Nazis slaughtered insurgents and civilians, many in aerial bombardments.
Sixty-three days of savage battles turned the capital into a smoldering heap of rubble.
What little was left standing was then razed on the orders of Adolf Hitler, as the Nazis fled Soviet troops stationed on the east bank of the Vistula River, where they had waited patiently for the Germans to crush the Polish resistance.
The uprising was aimed at securing Poland’s post-war independence. The strategy was to eject German forces from Warsaw in order for Polish insurgents to gain control as the Soviet Red Army swept in with help from the east.
The battle is widely regarded as the most tragic in Poland’s bloody and turbulent history, prompting sharp criticism among some Poles who saw it as a suicide mission.