B. and B. in Bonn

At the Chancellor’s residence in Bonn, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt speaks with the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. On the far right is German Foreign Minister Walter Scheel; surrounding them are interpreters and other members of the government, but at the back, you can see another photographer, shooting the back of Brezhnev’s head.

The photograph was taken by Barbara Klemm, chronicler in black and white of West German history. In addition to being in the room with Brandt and Brezhnev, she took the photos of left-winger Joschka Fischer being sworn in as environment minister while wearing trainers; the student revolts in Frankfurt am Main in 1968; and the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of the lesser known versions of the above photograph also shows Egon Bahr conversing with Andrei Gromyko on the lefthand side — a true meeting of powers behind their respective thrones.

Bahr devised Brandt’s revolutionary — and domestically controversial — Ostpolitik, the policy of détente with the Eastern bloc. Brezhnev’s five-day visit in May 1973, historic as the first ever by a Soviet leader to West Germany, marked a pinnacle of Ostpolitik, but by this time Brandt had overplayed his hand. He may have been Germany’s first left-leaning chancellor but Brandt proved to be unpopular with his party’s leaders in the parliament. The next year, he resigned, after one of his top aides was arrested on charges of spying for East Germany; however, Ostpolitik survived, in one way or another, until the end of the Cold War.

Brezhnev and Brandt had a great relationship, something akin to what Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin had thirty years later. Brezhnev later noted that Brandt was his favorite head of state to work with.A Western diplomat confided, “It is easier for Brandt to talk to Brezhnev than to Nixon.” Two ambitious politicians who came from lowly backgrounds and who struggled with alcoholism surely must have sympathized with each other a great deal. However, back in May 1973, the press was more concerned with two leaders’ striking similarities than what they actually discussed at the summit meeting. Burly constitutions of two leaders were compared, and the German press remarked upon the fact that Brezhnev was a head shorter than Brandt.

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.

Willy Brandt, Man of the Year

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In 1969, Willy Brandt became chancellor as West Germany veered to the left with the Social Democrats. His main interest was foreign policy–Ostpolitik–which led to the rapproachment with the East; however, he was less successful in dealing with domestic matters. At the end of 1970 he signed a treaty with Poland that recognized Poland’s rights to the German territories Poland had annexed after the war. Brandt also visited Moscow that year to sign a treaty with the Soviet Union in which Germany agreed to respect the frontiers and territories of all states in Europe. By this act Germany renounced all claims to Polish and Czechoslovakian territory and recognized the boundary between West and East Germany. However, Brandt refused to recognize fully the claim of East Germany to be a sovereign, independent state, as this would put the stamp of approval on the partition of Germany. Both Germanys, however, joined the United Nations separately in 1973.

The gesture of humility was not favorably viewed by Germans but was welcomed by the West. Willy Brandt, on holiday in Kenya, finds himself named Time’s Man of the Year (1971). Later, he would win the Nobel Peace Prize. Eventually, Brandt’s Ostpolitik would help his reelection.