7 Dec 1970, a cold and wet day in Warsaw. German Chancellor Willy Brandt lays down a wreath at the memorial of the Jewish ghetto. He adjusts the wreath, steps back, and falls to his knees in front of the memorial. He remains completely still for half a minute on the wet stone floor.
The amazing thing is that Willy Brandt was part of the resistance against Hitler. Hermann Schreiber, a reporter who witnessed this event, wrote a week later in the magazine Spiegel:
If this man, who wasn’t responsible for the crime, who wasn’t there in those years, now decides to walk through the former Warsaw ghetto and to kneel down – then it’s clear he doesn’t kneel there for his own sake. Then he kneels, the one who doesn’t need to, for all those who do need to but don’t kneel there – because they dare not or cannot or cannot dare. So he confesses a guilt that he doesn’t have to carry, and he asks for a forgiveness that he himself doesn’t need. Then he kneels there for Germany.
Willy Brandt himself wrote in his memoirs: “At the abyss of German history and the weight of millions of murder victims, I did what humans do when words fail them”.
This gesture was highly controversial in Germany at the time, with 48% of West Germans disapproving and 41% approving. People debated whether a head of state has the right to kneel (as with Obama bowing to the Saudi king). The opposition claimed Brandt was selling out Germany, especially since he signed away a lot of German territories in the east during the same visit.
Today, most people agree that it was a great gesture that only Willy Brandt could have pulled off with any amount of authenticity. It showed the world that Germany was no longer as they thought.
Willy Brandt was in the news again a lot recently because of the 100th anniversary of his birthday. Also, he figured prominently in Navid Kermani’s amazing speech on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the German constitution – Navid Kermani said that it was Brandt’s gesture which gave modern Germany its dignity.
Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!