December 7, 1970. A picture can speak a thousand words, and that is what Willy Brandt had expected when he silently knelt down at the monument to Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The gesture of humility and penance was not favorably viewed by West Germans at that time. 48% thought the “Kniefall” was exaggerated. The opposition tried to use the Kniefall against Brandt with a vote of No Confidence in April 1972 which he survived by only two votes. However, Brandt’s Ostpolitik and Kniefall helped his reelection, as his reformist policies helped Germany gain international reputation, and he went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971.
The incident took place during visit to a monument to the Nazi-era Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in what was then the communist People’s Republic of Poland. After laying down a wreath, Brandt, very surprisingly, and to all appearances spontaneously, knelt. The largest single revolt by the Jews during the Holocaust, the uprising inside the Warsaw Ghetto in German occupied Poland during World War II resisted Nazi Germany’s effort to transport the remaining ghetto population to the Treblinka extermination camp. The poorly armed and supplied resistance was crushed by the German troops.
The above photo by Sven Simon has all the qualities of an alterpiece–the black bulk of the coat and religious connotations of the kneeling creates ephemeral and poetic moment. However, it was not Simon, or other photographers that defined that photo. It was Brandt, who was the true author of this photograph.