Anniversaries & holidays

Willy Brandt’s tribute at the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes

Zdjęcie archiwalne biało-czarne z 1970 roku, na którym kanclerz RFN Willy Brandt wykonuje symboliczny gest - klęka przed pomnikiem Bohaterów Getta w Warszawie, oddając hołd ofiarom Zagłady.
Fot. Stanisław Czarnogórski_PAP

On 7 December 1970, Willy Brandt, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, knelt at the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes. “Staring into the abyss of history, bearing the burden of the murdered millions, I did what people tend to do when they are lost for words,” Brandt recalled this very moment in his autobiography. 

Willy Brandt’s visit to Warsaw was a breakthrough in the Polish-German relations. Twenty-five years since the end of the war, Poland and Germany negotiated  a treaty “concerning the basis for normalizing their mutual relations.” Its main provisions were: Germany accepting Polish border along the Rivers Oder and western Neisse, and relinquishing all territorial claims to Poland. Two years later, the two states would renew their diplomatic relations. 
In line with the protocol of top-level state visits, signing the agreement was preceded by laying flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and—upon the Chancellor’s specific request—at the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes. While there, following a ritual of straightening ribbons on the wreath, Willy Brandt did more than merely nodding his head, as expected. Instead, he knelt on both knees and continued to kneel in silence for what seemed a good while. Such unforeseen breach of protocol and abandonment of diplomatic routine was a testament to how truly unique this particular moment was. Willy Brandt’s gesture was clearly an act of public expiation. It signified accepting the blame and asking for forgiveness. 

An antifascist and persecuted political émigré, Willy Brandt was not personally tainted with the legacy of Nazism. By atoning for the Nazi crimes in front of Nathan Rapoport’s monument, he acted on behalf of the German state and nation. Der Spiegel weekly commented on the event in Warsaw as follows: “[Brandt] knelt, even though he didn’t really have to, on behalf of all those who should have knelt but never did.”

Social-democrat Brandt considered reconciliation with Poland a moral and political imperative. Taking over power by the SDP in 1969 offered an opportunity to improve relations with Poland. At the same time, Brandt’s atonement in Warsaw, back then not entirely obvious, set the tone for an impending moral watershed. A new era was dawning in West Germany. In the second half of the 1960s, along with the young generation—born already after the war—finding its voice, a two-decade long code of silence was coming to an abrupt end, and a debate on Nazism was about to begin. 

German public opinion was split over the Chancellor’s gesture. His kneeling in front of Rapoport’s monument had a both moral and political dimension—it lent credence to an agreement whereby Germany relinquished their claims to the land they had lost in the East. Part of the German society considered it a national treason. The gesture provided the opposition Christian Democracy party with a weapon to combat the ruling Social-Democracy. These political perturbations resulted in a two-year delay in ratification the Polish-German pact and in establishing diplomatic relations between PRL and BRD.  

German Chancellor’s gesture of expiation at the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes was problematic for the Polish administration, too—that is precisely why it did not receive much media attention. Firstly, it refuted the argument on a threat posed by German revisionism which the Communist authorities used gladly to enforce their legitimization among society. Secondly, even though it seemed obvious that Brandt paid tribute to all Polish victims of Nazism (of which Jews constituted a vast majority), the event took place against the backdrop of the antisemitic campaign launched by the Communist authorities. One of its leading motifs was the question of who suffered the most: Poles or Jews. Some of those in power would comment that Brandt knelt at a wrong monument.

The moral implication of Willy Brandt’s gesture was fully appreciated many years later. In the year 2000, Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder unveiled a statue which commemorated the tribute Brandt had paid at the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes. The square where the statue is located has been named after the German Social-Democrat. 

Author: Krzysztof Persak