“Then he, who would not need to do this, kneels down in lieu of all those who should, but who do not kneel down” – Willy Brandt in Warsaw on 7 December 1970

Fifty years ago, the then Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Willy Brandt, came to Poland to sign an agreement on normalisation of mutual relations between both countries. This visit, as well as the most famous event related to it, were described by Prof. Grzegorz Berendt, a historian and vice-director of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk.

The meaning of a single poem can sometimes have more impact than a volume of scientific studies on the same subject. It is similar as in the case of gestures which are more memorable than any words. One of such gestures was the way of paying tribute to the victims of the Holocaust chosen by the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Willy Brandt, on 7 December 1970 in Warsaw.

For over two decades, the governments of the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic were led by people who opposed the Nazis during the Third Reich. Both countries condemned the persecution and extermination of Jews in the period of 1933-1945. However, it was the state authorities of the FRG who undertook to actively express repentance of the crimes committed on the Jewish people by the representatives of Germany. This was motivated by the fact that the Soviet Union adopted a deeply reluctant attitude towards Israel and the Zionist movement, even before the creation of the FRG and the GDR at the turn of 1948 and 1949. In this regard, the policy of the Soviet Union may be even referred to as one of the manifestations of the Cold War between the communists and democratic countries, independent of Moscow. This determined, among other things, the policy of GDR policy towards Israel, Zionism and the global Jewish organisations, independent of Moscow. The FRG, as a state that united the majority of the German lands and people, was not bound by the Soviet policy. For instance, it was not limited by any elements of its historical policy aimed at mediating the message about the extermination of the Jews as an exceptional crime, unprecedented in its character and consequences.

For several years, the face of German efforts to establish contacts and cooperation with the Jewish State and organisations operating in the Diaspora was the first Chancellor of the FRG, Konrad Adenauer. The stance he adopted, which was maintained by his successors, enabled him to establish permanent diplomatic contacts between the FRG and Israel. It might seem an impossible task, considering experiences of Jews at the hands of the representatives of the German Reich and the knowledge on extermination plans of the authorities of that country towards the entire Jewish nation. The Holocaust survivors did not forget this, and many of them perceived the establishment of a dialogue with the “nation of perpetrators” as misappropriation of memory of the murdered, and those who came out of the war alive yet robbed, destroyed and traumatised. The situation was not relieved by the fact that the citizens of the FRG still exhibited anti-Semitic moods nor by the occurrence of overtly anti-Semitic events which adopted the form of verbal and even physical aggression. After Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, both German countries raised voices of condemnation for the Jewish State. In the GDR, they were part of a choir conducted from Moscow. In the FRG, they came mainly from the extreme left-wing circles, sympathising with Arab states and Palestinian organisations, hostile to Israel.

The Christian, liberal coalition that ruled the FRG almost until the end of the 1960s, for nearly twenty years was held hostage by the so-called Hallstein Doctrine. According to the notion, the FRG did not maintain diplomatic relations with countries that recognise the state autonomy of the GDR. This was one of the reasons for the absence of formal relations between the FRG and the Polish People’s Republic. Another reason was that the government in Bonn emphasised a temporary character of the western border of Poland. In western Germany, one-third of the territory of the Polish People’s Republic was considered to be under “the temporary Polish administration”. Such a stance, which provoked strong opposition in Poland, resulted from the views of many millions of Germans who for almost two decades hoped to change the border status quo in the East. In this situation, there was no question of an intergovernmental dialogue between Warsaw and Bonn. Although since the late 1950s, the gestures of readiness to cooperate were made by certain circles of both Polish and German citizens, primarily religious ones, they were not made by the representatives of state agencies.

Fortunately for the mutual relations of Germany and Poland, during the first two decades of their existence, the FRG and the GDR managed to assimilate approximately 12 million refugees and displaced persons from Central and Eastern Europe. The rising standard of living in the FRG prompted its citizens to defend their possessions and not to generate a new European conflict. As a result, in the second half of the 1960s, more than half of the FRG’s citizens expressed their willingness to accept border changes in Europe based on the agreement between victorious powers regarding Germany, adopted in Potsdam in August 1945. The change in the position of the majority of public opinion on that issue constituted a premise for the FRG’s government to implement a new policy towards the countries of the so-called Eastern Bloc, beginning in October 1969. It was then that the social democrats and liberals formed a new government coalition, and the office of Chancellor was entrusted to the well-known SPD politician Willy Brandt. The new opening in the Polish-German relations was all the more possible because, in May of that year, the readiness to enter into a dialogue with Germany was publicly announced by Władysław Gomułka, the most important politician of the Polish People’s Republic at that time. The Hallstein Doctrine was soon to be replaced by the notion of “change through rapprochement”. It should not be forgotten that the change in relations with both the FRG and the GDR, as well as with other countries of the so-called Eastern Bloc, was supported by the United States – the main guarantor of the safety of Western European democratic countries.

It must be admitted that the pace of action of the new FRG’s government and the Polish authorities was very fast. Conversations between the representatives of Warsaw and Bonn authorities took place from February to October 1970. In November, the text of the agreement on the bases of standardisation and mutual relations between the two countries was ready to be signed. The lively German-Soviet diplomatic work continued independently, in August 1970, resulting in an interstate agreement. It was a signal that Moscow sent to all of its dependent countries. It certainly aided in successful finalisation of the Bonn-Warsaw talks. On 7 December 1970, Chancellor Willy Brandt signed the aforementioned agreement in Warsaw. His government recognised the border on the Oder and Lusatian Neisse as the western border of Poland. This subsequently resulted, among other things, in the establishment of interstate relations between Germany and the Polish People’s Republic.

The visit of the German government delegation to Warsaw was relatively short, yet the Chancellor decided to use it to commemorate the Polish citizens – victims of the genocidal policies of the Third Reich. Due to the Hallstein Doctrine, his predecessors were not able to do it on the Polish territory. Willy Brandt did not waste the chance. He laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and expressed his wish to do so in front of the Monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes. Both events were given a solemn character. In addition to politicians and diplomats, the numerous German delegation included journalists and people of culture, interested in the change in German-Polish relations, such as the writer and visual artist Günther Grass. Unexpectedly, after laying down the wreath, Chancellor Brandt knelt on both knees, remaining in this position for a long time. The opportunity to present this moment to the public all over the world is possible due to many photographers and film crews who recorded the event. The gesture of tribute paid in a kneeling position by a politician of this rank was a sensation. In historical terms, a researcher Christian von Krockow placed it at the same level as the kiss of fraternal reconciliation between President Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, symbolising the end of a hundred years of conflict on the German-French border.

Brandt was aware that by kneeling, he was not presenting this gesture as a private person, but as a representative of a state with more than 60 million citizens and, in a sense, a representative of the Germans who lived in and outside the GDR, condemning the crimes committed by their countrymen during the war. At the end of his life, he briefly referred to that moment in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in his memories. He wrote: “Faced with the abyss of German history and the burden of the millions who had been murdered, I did what we humans do when words fail us”. The Chancellor stated that by going in front of the monument, he had to do much more than lay a wreath and bend his head as he usually had done during such events. However, he did not consult his intentions with his advisors and surprised everyone with this gesture.

One of the commentators said: “Then he, who would not need to do this, kneels  down in lieu of all those who should, but who do not kneel down”.

There is an ongoing dispute over whether Chancellor Brandt’s gesture was an expression of homage and sympathy solely for the Jews – victims of the Holocaust – or all victims of the German occupiers in Poland, including the representatives of other nationalities. None of the Chancellor’s statements from the time immediately following his visit to Warsaw revealed that he addressed all categories of victims of the German-Nazi genocidal policy, including Slavs, and among them – Poles. Even though several years later, when journalist and publicist Adam Krzeminski suggested a more universal character of this gesture, Brandt liked the interpretation leading to the recognition of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes as “a proper place of homage to all victims of Nazi crimes.”

It is beyond discussion, however, that Willy Brandt was deeply convinced of the necessity to build good relations with the Jewish people, including Israel, regardless of the opinions of those fellow citizens, whose views on the issue were different. “Der Spiegel” weekly asked 500 readers about how they assessed the Chancellor’s gesture in front of the Warsaw monument. As many as 48% considered it exaggerated (übertrieben), 41% adequate (angemessen), while 11% had no opinion. These figures do not reveal any strong support for this step made by the head of the government. One could even say that German society was deeply divided on this issue. At that time, the nationalists from the NPD party won between 7 and 10 percent of the votes in the national parliamentary elections in individual federal states, while anti-Semitic acts occurred within the country. In the second half of 1969, the German supporters of Israel’s enemies interrupted the lectures given by ambassador Ashar Ben-Nathan with exclamations, indicating support for terrorist bombings against Israelis. At the University of Munich, the guest from Tel Aviv was loudly commented on: “The fact that this ambassador is speaking in front of us should be considered a provocation. This can only be compared to the situation in which Adolf Hitler came down from heaven to discuss the concentration camps with us.” The comparison of the Israeli representative to the person who committed one of the greatest genocides in the history of mankind was something extraordinary, demonstrating the ill will and the scale of incomprehension of the situation, in which the country lingered from the first moments of its existence. All of this happened in the federal state, where the most ardent German nationalists found refuge between 1919 and 1932. In the region, where the first Nazi concentration camp – KL Dachau – was established.

Peter Boenisch, the editor-in-chief of the “Bild” magazine, commented on the Chancellor’s actions: “This Catholic nation [the Poles] knows that one should kneel only before God. And here comes some socialist from the West, probably not associated with the Church, and bends his knees. It moves the nation. But does it also move the victims of Stalinism?”. By saying this, the well-known journalist questioned the entire policy of dialogue with the Communist Bloc. When Brandt learned of the Beonisch’s commentary, he reacted very emotionally, and perhaps this reaction shows how important for him personally was what he did. He was then to tell a close colleague in person: “What these f…rs may know about whom I bowed to”. Without a doubt, the former, declared, radical opponent of Nazism knew well how terrible a price the world paid for 12 years of Adolf Hitler’s reign. Although he himself was not at fault, he felt co-responsible for what was done on behalf of all Germans.

The media coverage in the People’s Republic of Poland limited the information about the Chancellor’s behaviour in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes to a minimum. The picture of kneeling Brandt was published in “Życie Warszawy”, the “Forum” weekly, where a review of the global press opinion was presented, and the “Fołk-Sztyme” magazine, which constituted a body of the Social and Cultural Society of Jews in Poland. However, it was missing from the Polish Film Chronicle, a popular review of the most important events from the country and the world, shown before each film screening. So far, the sequence of decisions that generated this situation, bound to be made at the highest level, has not been examined. They were certainly part of the historical policy practised at the time in the Polish People’s Republic, which ignored the unprecedented nature of the Holocaust and considered Jews only one of many categories of victims of the Polish hecatomb. The most explicit example of the fact that the war-time fate of the Jews was left unsaid, was writing about the “6 million of Poles who were murdered and died during the Nazi occupation”. For many years, the Jews disappeared from the basic, synthetic, textbook message about the losses of Poland during World War II. In this respect, the historical message in the People’s Republic of Poland has, to some extent, become similar to the one which has been present in the Soviet Union since the late 1940s.

The Chancellor’s gesture, although immediately disseminated through the mass media around the world, in those December days, was not the most important topic for the German public opinion in the context of the Warsaw visit. The consequences of the German-Polish agreement were significantly more important. Many Germans believed that the Chancellor had betrayed the interests of the German national community by agreeing to a lasting relationship between a significant part of the former Reich territory and postwar Poland. People who shared this opinion expressed it loudly, without sparing harsh words. The leading figures included the activists and publicists from the nationwide, the so-called Federation of Expellees. They did not understand that exhibiting the willingness to compromise is what the Western partners, as well as the Soviet Union expect, and what will ultimately help them to gain their support for the German reunification. As a politician who adapts tactics and rhetoric to the current situation, Brandt believed that “small steps are better than big words.” One can say: better than big but empty words.

The Chancellor’s gesture in Warsaw may also be interpreted in the context of political pragmatism. Bogdan Musiał points out that it was “empty”, with no practical meaning, since the SPD party, in which Brandt was an important figure, in 1949-1970 tolerated the gross tardiness of the German justice system in prosecuting its own citizens, who contributed to the crime of genocide during World War II. However, it must not be forgotten that in a situation, where millions of former members of Nazi organisations had electoral rights in Germany, a strict policy directed towards them might have resulted in the seizure of power by forces, which did not want to condemn the Nazi regime at all. Therefore, also in this matter, it was necessary to apply the “little steps” tactics. For example, the NPD party could not be allowed to become an important part of the German political scene. And it worked. Ultimately, the Warsaw agreement and the Brandt’s gesture of 7 December 1970 became milestones in the process of abandoning the Nazi past and its consequences by Germany.

The visionaries and statesmen must indicate the right directions and models of action for the communities they are responsible for, regardless of current difficulties. History has acknowledged Brandt’s rightness both in his arrangements with Poland and act of penance, directed towards victims of the Holocaust. The new eastern policy of the Social Democratic Party enabled the FRG’s Chancellor to travel to the capital of the country, which experienced a hecatomb between 1939 and 1945, and where the occupiers murdered most of the Holocaust victims. There is no indication that Willy Brandt, with his moving gesture, was acting against his convictions. On the contrary. At the same time, he showed that seizing control of the government by the new team would not stand in the way of reconciliation and cooperation between democratic Germany and the Jewish people, even if this were to happen without the support of some compatriots. Such a course of action of the German government is maintained to this day.

Grzegorz Berendt