Warschauer Kniefall

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December 7, 1970. It was a crowning end to his first year in office. Later that day, Willy Brandt would signed a treaty in Warsaw, which effectively acknowledged the de facto post-war borders between Germany and Poland. But it was his act of penance at the monument to Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that spoke louder than any treaty.

The uprising inside the Warsaw Ghetto in then the Nazi-occupied General Government of Poland was the largest single revolt by the Jews during the Holocaust.  The effort to resist transportation of the remaining ghetto population to the Treblinka extermination camp was poorly armed and brutally crushed by the German troops. Brandt wrote in his 1992 memoir:

It was a great burden I carried with me to Warsaw. Nowhere had a nation and its people suffered as they did in Poland. The routine extermination of Polish Jews took bloodlust to lengths no one would have thought possible. Who can name all the Jews from Poland, and other parts of Europe, who were annihilated in Auschwitz alone? The memory of six million murder victims lay along my road to Warsaw, and the memory of the fight to the death of the Warsaw ghetto, which I had followed from my observation post in Stockholm, and of which the governments fighting Hitler had taken hardly any more notice than they did of the heroic rising of the Polish capital itself a few months later.

On the morning after my arrival, my Warsaw programme contained two wreath-laying ceremonies, the first at the grave of the Unknown Soldier. There, I remembered the victims of violence and treachery. The screens and newspapers of the world featured a picture that showed me kneeling — before the memorial dedicated to the Jewish ghetto of the city and its dead. I have often been asked what the idea behind that gesture was: had it been planned in advance? No, it had not. My close colleagues were as surprised as the reporters and photographers with me, and as those who did not attend the ceremony because they could see no ‘story’ in it.

I had not planned anything, but I had left Wilanow Castle, where I was staying, with a feeling that I must express the exceptional significance of the ghetto memorial. From the bottom of the abyss of German history, under the burden of millions of victims of murder, I did what human beings do when speech fails them.

Even twenty years later, I cannot say more than the reporter whose account ran: ‘Then he who does not need to kneel knelt, on behalf of all who do need to kneel but do not — because they dare not, or cannot, or cannot dare to kneel.’

At home in the Federal Republic, there was no lack of questions, either malicious or foolish, as to whether the gesture had not been ‘overdone’. I noted embarrassment on the Polish side.  The day after the incident, none of my hosts referred to it. I concluded that others besides ourselves had not yet digested this chapter of history.

Carlo Schmid, who was with me in Warsaw, told me later that he had been asked why, at the grave of the Unknown Solider, I only laid wreath and did not kneel. Next morning, in the car on the way to the airport, [Polish Premier] Cyrankiewicz took my arm and told me that the gesture had in fact touched many people; his wife hand telephoned a friends of hers in Vienna that evening, and both women shed bitter tears.

As Brandt remembered, 48% of West Germans 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; his reformist policies underscored that after years of evasion, Germany was finally ready to repent and commit to liberal values.  A few weeks after the Kniefall, he was Time magazine’s ‘Man of the Year’ and in 1971, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Various photos from several angles ran in the following day’s papers across the world. The photo above, by Sven Simon which ran on the cover of Der Spiegel, 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 maker of this photograph.