After the end of the Second World War, diplomatic relations between West Germany and Poland had ceased. In 1970, German Chancellor Willy Brandt travelled to Warsaw and decided to make a historic gesture: in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, he dropped to his knees in order to beg forgiveness for the crimes of the Nazi era. We remember this moving moment with which the then Chancellor marked the legacy of his ‘Ostpolitik’ (‘policy towards Eastern Europe’) 46 years ago.

As Willy Brandt walks towards the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes on 7 December 1970, the grey and frosty weather could hardly be more apt. Although the German Chancellor is here to sign the Treaty of Warsaw and therefore declare West Germany’s acceptance of the border with Poland, the delegations of the two countries are – despite the attempts to achieve a detente – only speaking to each other when absolutely necessary. Polish memories of the Second World War are too oppressive; the brutal suppression and atrocities of the Germans are still too raw.


Surrounded by politicians, journalists and photographers, Brandt approaches the monument, situated in the heart of Warsaw, on this gloomy day. He straightens the ribbon of the funeral wreath, which is adorned with white carnations, and takes a few steps back. As the ashen-faced Chancellor touches the wreath, it happens: Willy Brandt, almost 57 years old and the first Social Democrat Chancellor in the history of West Germany, drops to his knees. It occurs so suddenly and comes across as so authentic and honest that those present immediately fall silent, with the silence only interrupted by the frantic clicking of camera shutters. Brandt stays down on his knees for around thirty seconds, which – owing to the tremendous humility of the gesture – feels like an eternity. As the Chancellor rises to his feet, he has made history. From this day on, the world will talk about the ‘Kniefall von Warschau’ (‘the Genuflection of Warsaw’).


Perhaps it needed someone like Willy Brandt to apologise for the unimaginable, the unspeakable, as Brandt himself, who was born in 1913, bore no guilt for the crimes for which he was seeking forgiveness. Back in April 1933, shortly after the Nazis seized power, Brandt – a committed opponent of the new regime – left his home town of Lübeck to set up a foreign stronghold of the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (‘German Socialist Workers’ Party’) in Norway. In 1936, he spent several weeks in Berlin as a spy before covering the Spanish Civil War as a war correspondent the following year. After the German invasion of Norway, he fled to Sweden in 1940, were he worked for an international collective of socialists. He only returned to his homeland in 1945, once the Allies had brought the terror of Nazi rule to an end.

When Brandt defeated his predecessor as Chancellor – former Nazi Party member Kurt Georg Kiesinger – in an election 24 years later, a new and different vision of Germany entered Bonn’s Palais Schaumburg. Brandt and his social-liberal coalition wanted to bring about radical change in German politics – and did not shy away from controversial issues.


A key item on the agenda of Brandt’s cabinet was the new direction of Germany’s policy towards its eastern neighbours, which involved seeking detente with Moscow and other member states of the Warsaw Pact. Relations with Poland were particularly complex. In addition to the fact that no other country endured such suffering under the brutality of the Nazi regime as Poland, Germany’s forced surrender of several territories after the war was still a huge point of contention in both countries. Brandt’s predecessors, all of whom were Christian Democrats, left Poland out in the cold in terms of foreign policy. Furthermore, Poland’s membership of the Eastern Bloc made it impossible for the conservatives to pursue diplomatic relations.

Now, Brandt travelled to Warsaw, went down on his knees to beg for forgiveness and accepted that Germany’s former eastern territories had been lost forever. This was met with hostility in parts of West Germany. In particular, Brandt’s actions were greeted with dismay by those expelled and by the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), who still sought to reclaim the territories beyond the Oder–Neisse Line. The Chancellor himself, however, responded in a statesmanlike manner: ‘With this Treaty, nothing has been lost that has not been long squandered.’


Many Germans, however, took a dim view. When ‘DER SPIEGEL’, a magazine that tended to be favourable towards Brandt, conducted an opinion poll of its readers shortly after the event, only 41 per cent said that the Chancellor should have gone down on his knees. 48 per cent disapproved of the gesture. This was in stark contrast to the western media outside Germany: influential US magazine ‘Time’, for instance, named the German Chancellor its ‘Man of the Year’ on account of his gesture of repentance. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Stockholm a year later, it became clear that Willy Brandt – by asking for forgiveness and reconciliation – had brought about lasting change to Germany’s image in the world.

This did not stop the Christian Democrat opposition from vociferously stirring up protest against the social-liberal Ostpolitik. When it was signed, they criticised the Treaty of Warsaw as a ‘sell-out of German interests’ and feared that it would not only signal acceptance of the Oder–Neisse Line as the border with Poland, but also recognition of East Germany as a second legitimate German state. They also argued that West Germany was not entitled to renounce its claim to territories east of the Oder–Neisse Line without having first signed a treaty with the victorious Allies. Following one of the most acrimonious political confrontations between the government and parliamentary opposition ever witnessed in the former West Germany, the Treaty was finally ratified in May 1972, one-and-a-half years after Willy Brandt sank to his knees. With ratification of the Treaty, West Germany recognised the Oder–Neisse Line, even before a formal peace treaty had been agreed upon.

Despite the successful resumption of diplomatic relations, there were still tensions between Germany and Poland. Issues such as compensation for Polish victims of the Nazi regime harboured a high potential for controversy. The fact that the two countries belonged to different sides of the Cold War was a further complicating factor in their relations. But thanks to Willy Brandt, the first step had been taken.


Even today, discussions still rumble on as to whether the then Chancellor’s gesture was an impromptu idea or whether it had been planned in advance. Eyewitnesses such as then Foreign Minister Walter Scheel (who would later go on to become German President) and publicist Hansjakob Stehle had no doubt that the Chancellor acted in the moment. Brandt himself confirmed this view in his memoirs, which were published in 1989. Here, the former Chancellor explains what prompted the gesture: ‘At the abyss of German history and burdened by millions of murdered humans, I acted in the way of those whom language fails.’ By falling to his knees as he did, Willy Brandt showed the world a peaceful Germany – and gave us one of the most symbolic images of the 20th century.