“I stood on the edge of Germany’s historical abyss…” The day West German Chancellor Willy Brandt stunned the world as he atoned for his country’s past
Commonly cited as one of the most iconic reconciliatory moments ever captured on camera, on this day 50 years ago the West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, sank to his knees in Warsaw in atonement of his nation’s wartime atrocities.
Subsequently known as Kniefall von Warschau (Warsaw kneel down), the act took place in front of the Polish capital’s Monument to the Heroes of the Jewish Ghetto Uprising, a 1943 rebellion that would ultimately be remembered by history as the largest Jewish insurgency of the conflict.
Later recalling his actions in his memoirs, Brandt wrote of his homage: “As I stood on the edge of Germany’s historical abyss, feeling the burden of millions of murders, I did what people do when words fail."
Brandt had arrived in Warsaw early that morning, chiefly to sign the Treaty of Warsaw, an agreement paving the way for the ratification of the Oder-Neisse line as the modern border between Germany and Poland.
Earlier, he had visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and signed the guestbook with the following words:“In memory of the dead of the Second World War, and the victims of violence and betrayal, in the hope of an enduring peace and of solidarity between the nations of Europe.”
Accompanied by a phalanx of photographers, the Chancellor then made his way to the Ghetto memorial in the northern district of Muranów.
Slowly following in the footsteps of two officials as they laid a wreath in front of the monument, Brandt then carefully rearranged the ribbons on the arrangement before taking a step back and falling to his knees.
With his head bowed, and seemingly lost in focused contemplation, Brandt remained knelt in this position for approximately thirty seconds whilst cameras clicked around him.
“My gesture was intelligible to those willing to understand it,” Brandt later commented.
“The tears in the eyes of my delegation were a tribute to the dead. As one reporter put it, ‘then he knelt, he who has no need to, on behalf of all who ought to kneel, but don’t, because they dare not, or cannot, or cannot venture to do so.’ That was what it was: an attempt through the expression of fellow-feeling, to build a bridge to the history of our nation and its victims.”
Though a committed opponent of the Nazi regime, by personally seeking penance Brandt took ownership of the sins of his nation and channelled the feelings of many in Germany. Speaking in a documentary filmed years later, Marek Edelman, an eyewitness to the event and a famed veteran of both the Jewish insurgency and the Warsaw Uprising the following year, affirmed its importance:
“It left a mark, not only in the consciousness of Polish society, but across the whole world, that something had changed in Germany. Willy Brandt had made this gesture not just for himself but in the name of German society, and that was something great.”
Walter Scheel, the former German Foreign Minister concurred: “The way he handled this symbolic gesture did more for the international reputation of Germany than all of the good will and politics of the many governments that had gone before.”
The world was stunned. With images of Brandt flashed across the planet, he was lionized as a humanitarian. Time magazine would later make him their Man of the Year, and further plaudits would come via a Nobel Peace Prize awarded in 1971.
But despite the outpouring of global respect, not all were convinced.
The British Ambassador in Bonn commented: “Though the pictures were widely publicized at the time and made a profound impression, they were not universally endorsed.”
In a survey conducted soon after by Der Spiegel, 49 percent of German respondents opined that Brandt’s kniefall had been “exaggerated”.
Meanwhile, in Poland, despite the convictions of Marek Edelman to the contrary, many others were left underwhelmed by Brandt.
As admirable as his kniefall was, he had missed the opportunity to acknowledge the efforts of the Home Army or, indeed, make even a fleeting reference to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.
“Ex-insurgent veterans were not represented,” wrote historian Norman Davies. “They had been killed in their thousands by the Nazis and in far greater number than the Ghetto fighters. They had fought and died for their capital.. And now, in the moment of reconciliation, they were officially side-lined.”
Although a salient observation, this has not detracted from Brandt’s legacy, nor the importance of his kniefall.
In 2000, on the 30th anniversary of the event, a monument was unveiled by his widow and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in close proximity to the Ghetto Uprising memorial, while in October 2020 a commemorative two euro coin was minted and widely circulated in honour of the moment.
Designed by Berlin-based Bodo Broschat, the master engraver has been quick to assert its pertinency: “Coins are a country’s calling card so it is good that this coin has been issued. With a circulation of around 30-million coins, everyone will now be able to carry this memorial in their wallet.”
Indisputably, exactly half a century on, Brandt’s actions in Warsaw resonate to this day, a point underlined by Germany’s current Ambassador to Poland, Arndt Freytag von Loringhoven:
“In German there is a saying: ‘A gesture says more than a thousand words.’ The genuflection of Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt in Warsaw became the symbol of acknowledgement of German guilt and reconciliation between Poles and Germans.
“In light of the countless conflicts afflicting our world today, this message of humility and sincerity is more relevant now than ever.”