Today in History
7.12.1970: Willy Brandt Falls to His Knees
Those who witnessed the scene were awe-struck: a politician actually displayed his emotions by confessing to guilt and begging for forgiveness. With his head bowed low, he froze in this position for twenty or thirty seconds.

"I have been often asked what the gesture was all about. Was it planned? No, it wasn't."

This is how Willy Brandt described the situation many years later in his memoirs: "As I stood on the edge of the Germany's historical abyss, feeling the burden of millions of murders, I did what people do when words fail."

Without directly mentioning his spontaneous act on that day, he said, "We must look to the future and recognize morals as a political force. We must break the cycle of injustice."

The next day, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote, "He must have felt a pervasive feeling of guilt and there was no other German attending who did not feel the same."

There was no doubt about it, Willy Brandt surprised everyone. Communist politicians in Poland at the time were astonished by the brief gesture. Polish intellectuals, however, have highly revered Willy Brandt ever since.

The National Socialists penned up over a half a million Jews in the Ghetto. The SS mercilessly struck down the insurrection of April 1943. There were hardly any survivors.

But Brandt's kneeling in front of the monument in remembrance of the victims also brought made him a target for hostility. "There was no lack of derisive or dim-witted questions about whether or not the gesture was exaggerated," said Brandt in retrospect.

He even became an object of hatred to part of the population and he received many anonymous letters from people saying that they'd like to see him hanged or they'd like to pinion him against a wall. According to opinion polls in Germany at the time, the majority of Germans felt that his humility was exaggerated.

In retrospect, history supported Brandt. Many people no longer think that the fall of the Iron Curtain began with the Polish union Solidarity or the fall the Berlin Wall. Poland's first ambassador to the reunified Germany, Janusz Reiter, expresses the utmost respect for Willy Brandt's deed without mentioning his name.

"We have a strong tendency to view the year 1989 as the beginning of European development, basically, the beginning of our new political era. It's true that this is the turning point in Europe. If you open your eyes wider, the year 1970 was the turning point in Polish-German relations in the political sense."

Brandt's trip to Warsaw was a turning point in German-Polish relations. Poland's party leader, Gomulka, and prime minister Cyrankiewicz signed the so-called Warsaw Treaty with Germany. The Moscow treaty was also signed in August that same year so the normalization of relations to the Soviet Union was about the begin. At the same time, Bonn recognized the Western Polish border, the line along the rivers Oder and Neisse, according to international law. It was a slap in the face to millions of displaced Germans who had left the former eastern regions.

"Traitors of the home country" was one of the most harmless names he was given by his opponents. And finally, bitter disputes over eastern European policy took place in German parliament between Brandt's Social Democrats, his coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats and the opposition CDU/CSU.

He survived the eastern European policy that he himself established, even though the opposition held a vote of no confidence against him. His fall from grace came years later because of an espionage affair which was not his fault. But episode didn't harm his popularity, and he even had an opera written for him. John Dew, initiator of the project "Der Kniefall von Warschau" stated, "I wanted to create a type of monument for a key figure in the post World War Two era, to show Brandt's despair, depression and his helplessness. But the man had a vision and this vision helped defeat the Cold War."
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