Kniefall von Warschau (German for "Warsaw Genuflection") refers to a gesture of humility and penance by social democratic Chancellor of Germany Willy Brandt towards the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
The event took place on December 7, 1970 in what was then the Communist People's Republic of Poland during a visit to a monument to the Nazi-era Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. After laying down a wreath, Brandt, very surprisingly, and to all appearances spontaneously, knelt. He remained silently in that position for a short time, surrounded by a large group of dignitaries and press photographers.
Brandt had actively resisted the early Nazi regime, and had spent most of the time of Hitler's reign in exile. The occasion of Brandt's visit to Poland at the time was the signing of the Treaty of Warsaw between West Germany and the People's Republic of Poland, guaranteeing German acceptance of the new borders of Poland. The treaty was one of the Brandt-initiated policy steps (the 'Ostpolitik') to ease tensions between West and East during the Cold War.
On the same day, Brandt signed the Treaty of Warsaw, which acknowledged the Oder-Neiße-Line as the final German border with Poland. Both actions attracted controversy within Germany, much like Ostpolitik in general, gaining only a narrow majority in public opinion. It was disputed within his own party, which had had (compare Herbert Hupka) a significant share of voters within former expellees which mostly went to the conservative parties.
According to a Der Spiegel survey of the time, 48% of all West Germans thought the "Kniefall" was excessive, 41% said it was appropriate and 11% had no opinion. The Kniefall was a symbolic action the opposition tried to use against Brandt, e.g. within a Constructive Vote of No Confidence in April 1972 which he survived by only two votes. The "Willy-Wahl", Brandt's landslide win in following elections was as well based on most German views that Brandt's Ostpolitik—symbolized by the Kniefall—as well as his reformist domestic policies was helping Germany to gain international reputation and was to be supported. It led his SPD party to its best-ever federal election result in late 1972.
While at the time, positive reactions may have been limited, his show of humility was a small but vital step in bridging the gaps World War II had left between Germany and Eastern Europe. In historical terms, Brandt gained much renown for this act, and it is thought to be one of the reasons he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971.
Brandt was repeatedly interviewed about the genuflection and about his motives. He later noted that:
- (German original) "Unter der Last der jüngsten Geschichte tat ich, was Menschen tun, wenn die Worte versagen. So gedachte ich Millionen Ermordeter."
- (English translation) Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fail them. In this way I commemorated millions of murdered people.
- The Nobel Peace Prize 1971 Presentation Speech (from the Nobel Prize website)
- Digitized edition of "DER SPIEGEL 51/1970" (German)
- Kniefall in Warschau (German) (from the willy-brandt.org website)
- Unofficial translation of the above lines in a German interview of Brandt
- Photo of the Kniefall
- Cover of German news magazine "Der Spiegel" with image of Brandt in front of the monument