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.
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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, as did Ostpolitik in general, favored only by a narrow majority in public opinion. It was disputed within his own party, whose voters had included a significant proportion of expellees from the formerly German territories in Poland, most whom then 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, as in a Constructive Vote of No Confidence in April 1972, which Brandt won by only two votes. Brandt's landslide win in the next elections in late 1972 was also due to the growing view among voters that Brandt's Ostpolitik—symbolized by the Kniefall—and his reformist domestic policies were helping to boost Germany's international reputation and should be supported. The SPD won its best federal election result ever.
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)
- "Willy Brandt-'Warsaw Genuflection' (Eng&Ger Subs)". 100 Years - The Countdown - 1970. YouTube / Zolcer TV / ZDF History. Retrieved 20 February 2014.
- 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, Photographer Engelbert Reineke
- Cover of German news magazine "Der Spiegel" with image of Brandt in front of the monument, Photographer Sven Simon