An iconic gesture and its ambiguous memory: Willy Brandt's kneeling.
Celebrated, remembered, but not always understood. History and criticism of a gesture that moved the world.
The genuflection of Willy Brandt on 7 December 1970 has become iconic: celebrated in German schoolbooks as the founding gesture of German Erinnerungskultur (Culture of Remembrance), considered one of the most significant moments in the development of Ostpolitik, even included in the questions for applicants for German citizenship.
Yet the gesture contains a number of ambiguities, both in the way media and public received it at the time when it took place, and in the way - different, not uniform - in which it has entered the memory of Germans and Poles.
Today, with the war in Ukraine just around the corner, some attempts to rewrite the history of Ostpolitik (for the negative), and renewed tensions between governments in Warsaw and Berlin (see: war reparations), it is time to reflect on that gesture from a more secular perspective. To see its limits, too.
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One morning, in Warsaw.
Shortly before the signing of the negotiated treaty on 7 December 1970, Willy Brandt visited the Memorial to the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising to pay his respects.
Earlier he had visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Accompanied by a phalanx of photographers, the Chancellor then made his way to the Ghetto Memorial in the northern district of Muranów.
In the footsteps of two officials who laid wreaths at the monument, Brandt carefully rearranged the ribbons before falling to the ground and kneeling.
For about thirty seconds, Brandt remained in this position, head bowed and seemingly lost in intense contemplation. "He's kneeling," some whispered, as everyone fell silent. The photographers and cameramen know they are taking pictures that will be seen around the world.
»Dann kniet er, der das nicht nötig hat, da für alle, die es nötig haben, aber nicht da knien – weil sie es nicht wagen oder nicht können oder nicht wagen können. Dann bekennt er sich zu einer Schuld, an der er selber nicht zu tragen hat, und bittet um eine Vergebung, derer er selber nicht bedarf. Dann kniet er da für Deutschland.«
"Then he, who does not need it, kneels for all those who need it but do not kneel there - because they do not dare or cannot or cannot dare. Then he confesses a guilt that he himself does not have to bear, and asks for forgiveness that he himself does not need. Then he kneels there for Germany."
Eyewitness and Spiegel reporter Hermann Schreiber
50 years later, Der Spiegel commented:
“Die Bilder des auf dem Platz der Helden des Ghettos knienden Bundeskanzlers, des Deutschen, der sich vor den Opfern der Deutschen verneigt, bergen eine Dramatik, die in der Politik selten ist. Es ist kein Zufall, dass es Willy Brandt war, der diese aufwühlende Geste der Empathie wählte. Kein Politiker hat die westdeutsche Republik so polarisiert, aber auch so viele Menschen begeistert wie Willy Brandt.”
"The pictures of the Chancellor kneeling in the square of the heroes of the ghetto, of the German bowing to the victims of the Germans, carry a drama that is rare in politics. It is no coincidence that it was Willy Brandt who chose this stirring gesture of empathy. No politician polarised the West German republic as much as Willy Brandt, but at the same time inspired so many people".
1970: a mixed reception in Germany, skepticism and indefference in Poland.
A media frenzy followed Brandt's kneeling in the West. His kneeling was rewarded by Time magazine as "Man of the Year." The following year, he received the Nobel Peace Prize, making him the only German to receive the award since World War II.
West Germany's reaction to the gesture was mixed. West Germans were divided about the appropriateness of the gesture, according to a 1970 opinion poll published in Der Spiegel. A survey entitled "Durfte Brandt knien?" ("Was Brandt allowed to kneel?") found that 41% of respondents thought the gesture was appropriate while 48% thought it was exaggerated.
For the West German younger generation, the Social Democrat Brandt, who had survived National Socialism in exile in Norway, was the better German: better than Konrad Adenauer, who appointed Hans Globke, a former anti-Semite and Nazi, as Secretary of State in his Chancellery; better than Brandt's predecessor, the CDU's Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, a former NSDAP member.
And the Poles?
The genuflection by German Chancellor Willy Brandt at the monument commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in December 1970 was not widely reported or acknowledged by official Polish media or the communist government in East Germany. Only a Yiddish newspaper covered the event in detail.
The communist leadership in Poland, keen on maintaining anti-German sentiments and avoiding discussion of the country's own 1968 anti-Semitic campaign, saw Brandt's act of reconciliation as a threat to their justification for their regime and the continued use of "German danger" as a rallying point.
The workers' strikes that broke out shortly after Brandt's visit also overshadowed the event. While some Poles, particularly intellectuals, viewed the genuflection as a positive gesture of hope, others criticized it for appearing to focus solely on Jewish victims and not all Polish victims of the Holocaust. To West Germans, the genuflection was seen as a gesture to the Polish nation, but most Poles saw it as a gesture to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Not one shared memory, but two national memories.
As an act promoting a culture of remembrance, Brandt's gesture actually started two parallel paths and two (national) memories that still struggle to reconcile today.
Willy Brandt's kneeling at the memorial for the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising did not become a widely recognized "place of remembrance" in Poland at the time.
The racist war of extermination against the entire Polish civilian population, including non-Jewish individuals, which began shortly after the invasion of Poland, is a more widely acknowledged and recognized collective "place of remembrance" in Poland and is a blind spot in German collective memory. In Germany, the 1943 Ghetto Uprising is often confused with the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, and the fact that in addition to the three million Jewish Poles, another three million non-Jewish Poles were also murdered is not widely acknowledged or remembered in German collective memory.
“For me, [the genuflection] is a paradoxical event. Willy Brandt has set the beginning of a German culture of remembrance. But at the same time, with this act, with this gesture of remembrance, he has pushed something into oblivion, and that is the relationship of the Germans to the Polish victims. He inscribed the Jewish victims at the site of the resistance of the ghetto fighters very strongly in the memory of German society and at the same time erased another uprising... I would almost say: erased, without his wanting to do so, namely the [non-Jewish] Warsaw Uprising a year later.”
Aleida Assmann, in “Fünfzig Jahre Kniefall von Warschau: Ein "dolles" Ding” 6.12.2020
“In Wroclaw, the director of the Willy Brandt Centre, the historian Krzysztof Ruchniewicz, explains to me that Helmut Kohl is far more popular in Poland than the role model of my West German, peace-moving generation. It is true that Brandt recognised the Oder-Neiße border, but later did not support the anti-communist opposition and refused to meet Lech Walesa, winner of the Nobel Fire Prize, during his visit to Poland in 1985. If I were to ask around on the square in front of the synagogue, where we are sitting in one of the cafés, hardly anyone would know the name of the Federal Chancellor, and that would be the educated. After all, hardly any Poles had heard of the genuflection in 1970, Ruchniewicz notes: the photo was published once in a Jewish newspaper and then only retouched or half published - Brandt without a knee.”
From: Navid Kermani, Entlang den Gräben, 2018 (Along the Trenches - A Journey through Eastern Europe to Isfahan)
British historian and expert on Poland, Norman Davies, noted: "While Willy Brandt's kneeling was admirable, he missed an opportunity to acknowledge the efforts of the Home Army or even to make a brief reference to the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Ex-insurgent veterans, who were killed by the Nazis in the thousands and in far greater numbers than the Ghetto fighters, were not represented. They had fought and died for their capital, and now, at the moment of reconciliation, they were officially ignored." (From: Thefirstnews.com by the Polish Press Agency).
It is worth to remember that nowhere did the Germans inflict more devastation during the Second World War than in their eastern neighbour, and no other country was occupied for longer. Six million Poles were killed between 1939 and 1945; in terms of population, the Nazi tyranny caused more victims than any other people in Europe.
Thus, even the memory of the Polish Jewish victims and the destruction of the entire country, and of Warsaw in particular, is still divided:
"While the Jewish victims have entered the general consciousness within the framework of an international culture of remembrance, the younger generations in Germany know next to nothing about the Polish or Russian victims of German warfare. While the bombing of Dresden is firmly anchored in German national memory, hardly anything is known in this country about the destruction of Warsaw by the Germans in retaliation for the Warsaw Uprising (1944), which is usually confused in this country with the Ghetto Uprising (1943) made famous by Brandt's genuflection (1970)."
A. Assmann, Der Europäische Traum, 2018
On the other side of the border, in Varsavia, there are hardly any traces of the Jewish population left. It was not until 1988 that a memorial was erected at the former transfer point where Warsaw Jews were picked up for deportation:
Divergent memories make the present difficult to manage.
In December 2000, on the thirtieth anniversary of Brandt's genuflection, a monument was inaugurated in Warsaw to honour and commemorate the gesture. The modest scale of the monument contrasted sharply with the list of authorities and prominent guests who attended the event, including German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, Willy Brandt's widow Brigitte Seebacher-Brandt and Günter Grass.
However, monuments are not enough. Since 2000, the path to building a common memory has taken some steps forward and others resoundingly backward. In 2004 Poland joined the European Union, with a difficult path. In 2005, the right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS) came to power; it is in power again today.
But the fear of the Germans has changed. Anti-German sentiments today are not primarily linked to the fear of a supposed German overwhelming power in Europe, as they were in the past. Instead, they are related to different perspectives on managing migration and protecting culture and lifestyle. This topic is complex and cannot be fully discussed here, but the fact that war reparations are being discussed again shows that there is still no consensus on creating a shared historical memory and taking the reconciliation process to completion.
The German parliament's plan to construct a memorial for Polish victims of Nazism in 2020 has also become a contentious issue. At the time, Ukraine's ambassador to Germany expressed concerns that the memorial would not recognize victims from Ukraine or Belarus. Is it possible to create a separate memorial for every group affected by Nazi atrocities? The memorial has not yet been built.
"When I make a Polish memorial, I can't help but also make a memorial for the Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian victims. And then I immediately come up with the cynical question: are we only building a memorial in Germany, where the victims are counted in the millions?"
The former DDR civil rights activist and SPD member of parliament Markus Meckel told Deutschlandfunk Kultur in 2019.
Today: how to further develop Europe without a common remembrance?
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine is revealing unresolved tensions that past agreements, gestures, and monuments have failed to address.
In fact, the Ostpolitik - and its master Willy Brandt - is even being criticized for paving the way for a dangerous proximity to Russia. The ease with which history is being reinterpreted based on current events highlights a lack of shared and deeper memories of European history over the past thirty years.
It is crucial that the renewed focus on the history of Eastern Europe and the last century brought about by current events be used as an opportunity to forge a European collective memory that can be used to build a stronger, more aware Europe.
Where to go from here? Suggested readings.
Willy Brandts Ostpolitik und der Kniefall von Warschau (Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik and the Kneeling in Warsaw) 08.10.2022
Geschichte der Entspannungspolitik (History of the Détente), 14.12.2022
Memorials and the Cult of Apology, 09.2020
Poland: 50 years since 1968 anti-Semitic purge, 03/08/2018March 8, 2018
What’s that for? “Travel Document” of a Polish woman of Jewish background, 21 September 2022
Konflikt an der falschen Front, Reparations demands on Germany: conflict on the wrong front, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 14. Oktober 2022
Vom Vertrag zum Vertragen, From treaty to the Treaties, The German Poland Institute and German-Polish relations
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