7 AUGUST 2004, Page 16

It's time to move on

Britain has no reason to apologise to Poland, says Simon Heifer: we could not have helped the resistance fighters during the Warsaw uprising

The Polish Prime Minister, Marek Belka, has been busy these last few days commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising. As we have all just been reminded, this was the action taken by organised Polish anti-communist and anti-Nazi resistance fighters in their capital to drive out the invader and stave off subsequent Sovietisation. It resulted in their wholesale slaughter and the razing of Warsaw by the departing Germans. The Poles have long seen the event as a betrayal of their brave people by the Allies. This theme has bubbled through to the surface in recent days. assisted not least by Mr Belka.

In an interview with the BBC on Saturday, the Prime Minister said he was looking forward to an admission by the British that they could have done more to help the Poles at that time. He saw this admission as being a prelude to an apology. On two counts, this implicit demand for British contrition is both uncalled for and unhelpful.

Mr Belka's particular gripe is that Britain could have sent Free Polish forces under her protection back to Warsaw to assist in the uprising. Sadly, we couldn't. We had no means of getting them there. We had no planes with sufficient range to get to Warsaw. Any such operation would have required the transports to land on Russianoccupied territory. The Russians wouldn't have it, since they wanted to impose a Soviet state on Poland instead, and did not want its capital liberated by tiresomely independent-minded Poles. That is why they sat outside the city until satisfied that the resistance movement had been smashed by the Germans, and they could go in and occupy the ruins and enslave their demoralised and beaten inhabitants.

So it might be thought that if Mr Belka wants an apology from anyone, it might be from the Russians, who behaved cynically and murderously, repeating the wickedness demonstrated at Katy, n earlier in the war when they killed a substantial proportion of the Polish officer class. Perhaps since so many current Polish politicians are ex-communists, or reds lite, they might still have reservations about pinning the full blame on the country that once gave them political inspiration. Belka might, of

course, take issue with Britain for having allied itself with Stalin, whom it would not upset at that stage. The choice Churchill faced in August 1944 was to accept Stalin's self-serving strategy or to break off that pact at a stage in the war when Hitler was not yet beaten and start freelance operations on behalf of the Poles. The second of these options was simply not feasible. Because of the nature of the war the Poles could be helped only by the Russians, which was no fault of Britain's.

But the second, wider issue — and why Mr Belka's complaint is so unhelpful to him and his cause — is that this call for someone to apologise is simply not doing Poland any good at this stage in its historical development. Nobody disputes the immense suffering of that country between 1939 and 1945. It lost six million of its people, half of them Jews (and the Soviet authorities, after the war, launched a pogrom against the few who were left). Because of its geographical position it was at the mercy first of the Germans, then of Stalin. None of these facts can be disparaged or diminished; but now, 60 years later, a modern country like Poland has to accept that the dogs have barked and the caravan has moved on.

The West has no conscience to salve about Poland. whatever Mr Belka says. It was, after all, Hitler's invasion on 1 September 1939 that brought the Western European powers into the war in the first place. In the decade leading up to Poland's liberation from the Soviet yoke Britain, in particular, gave moral and practical support to Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement; that is why Mrs Thatcher is still regarded there as a heroine. Poland is in Nato. Since 1 May this year, it has been in the EU. It needs to remain wary of its Russian near-neighbour, whose increasingly autocratic government actively dislikes the success and way of life of its former satellites and will pass up no opportunity to destabilise them. But dwelling on the past is pointless now. Mr Belka seemed to admit as much in welcoming Gerhard SchrOder, the German Chancellor, to the Uprising commemorations. It is odd that Poland seems able to bury the hatchet with a neighbour that within living memory all but destroyed it, but wishes to pick a fight with another country whose sacrifices on its behalf were considerable, and whose goodwill towards it has been unbroken.

Of course, in acting in this way Poland is behaving like so many other countries around the globe which see the arrival of good fortune as an excuse not to come to terms with the past and move on, but to dredge up old enmities, real or imagined. We have had this up to the back teeth with the Irish, for some of whom the (misinterpreted) actions of Oliver Cromwell and King Billy remain painful more than 300 years later. France's entire pattern of behaviour, which has by its arrogance disadvantaged so many of its partners in Europe, is conditioned by the tripartite memory of 1870, 1914 and 1940. In Africa, the butcher Mugabe hates the white man because he dared, more than 100 years ago, to civilise his now profoundly uncivilised country. It is only their possession of nuclear weapons that stop India and Pakistan from going to war over Kashmir, and the effort to maintain that particular peace prevents both countries making the economic progress that they should. And, closer to home, only this week the Spanish were becoming hysterical — rather than behaving like the established European partner of ours that they supposedly are — because of our provocative determination to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the annexing of Gibraltar.

If Poles like Mr Belka are determined not merely to stay rooted in 1944, but to discover new slights to his people in the events of that year, Poland will never move on. Yes, it was ghastly. Yes, it was unjust. Yes, it was a tragedy. But it cannot be undone now. What Poland does have is a chance to show — by both its participation in Nato and its acceptance into the common European home — that it can become a dynamic force in the world. But so long as it clings to its victim mentality, and acts like some aggrieved and harddone-by trade unionist on the opportunist look out for compensation, it will instead start to diminish itself among those whose favour and regard it so plainly seeks.

Simon Heifer is a columnist for the Daily Mail.