He reaches for the ribbon on the wreath. He takes two, three steps back, then pauses. Then, suddenly, the Chancellor falls to his knees, for what feels like eternity, his gaze lowered. And all around, astonished silence. No protocol department had planned his visit that way. Willy Brandt kneeling at the memorial to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto – his picture moves us today just as it did 50 years ago. “At the abyss of German history and burdened by millions of murdered humans, I acted in the way of those whom language fails,” wrote Brandt later on.
Brandt’s falling to his knees was an admission of German guilt – for the crimes of the Holocaust and the war of annihilation against Poland. The Chancellor bowed before Polish suffering and before the courage of the Jews who dared to revolt against the German occupiers in the ghetto uprising of 1943. Back at home, many accused him of exaggeration or even treason. The erstwhile exile bore no personal guilt. The Chancellor knelt, although he did not need to. He knelt for those who needed – but were unwilling – to kneel.
In 1970, Brandt signed the Treaty of Warsaw in the Polish capital – a turning point in German-Polish relations with the recognition of the Oder-Neisse border. The Nazis had unleashed their racial-ideological war of annihilation against Poland in 1939. Brandt’s falling to his knees at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto therefore acknowledged all Polish victims of the war – including the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. That is why it is so important that the German Bundestag finally decided to commemorate the Polish and all other Eastern European victims of the war of annihilation with dignified memorials in Germany in the future.
At the end of the day, Brandt’s falling to his knees stands for his new Ostpolitik, for looking to the future, which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. In the foreign policy revolution of the Eastern Treaties, the Federal Republic recognised the GDR and the territorial status quo in Europe. Brandt thus presented a new, peaceful Germany to Eastern Europe and the world. Moreover, the Federal Republic acquired the most valuable asset of diplomacy in the process – trust. This trust – together with the unshakable courage of many people on the streets – made reunification possible in 1990.
Today, we live in a Europe for which Willy Brandt laid the foundations – with the European Union, democracy, prosperity, peace. We’re building on his work with a new European Ostpolitik. Unlike Brandt, we no longer have to go via Moscow to talk to our eastern neighbours nowadays. Many partners in Eastern and Central Europe now view Russia very critically – and German foreign policy must take our neighbours’ concerns seriously. In addition to offers of dialogue, clear German positions vis-à-vis Moscow are therefore important for maintaining trust in Eastern Europe. Further reconciliation with our eastern neighbours – especially Poland – remains our great task. Willy Brandt’s legacy obliges us to do just this. And in so doing, we should be guided by courage and humility – just like Willy Brandt at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto 50 years ago.