• Willy Brandt kneels at the Warsaw memorial

    'I did what people do when words fail them.'

    This was how Willy Brandt, Chancellor of West Germany at the time, explained his unexpected - and apparently spontaneous - gesture of penance and humility in Warsaw on 7 December 1970.

    He was visiting Poland to sign the Treaty of Warsaw between West Germany and the People's Republic of Poland, guaranteeing German acceptance of the new borders of Poland. This treaty was one that Brandt had initiated in the hope of easing tensions between East and West during the Cold War – part of his 'Ostpolitik'.

    During his visit he laid a wreath at the Ghetto Heroes Monument in Warsaw and stood back. It was then that to the surprise of the assembled dignitaries and press photographers he sank to his knees and remained there silently for a short time.

    The Ghetto Heroes Monument is located on the site of the former Jewish ghetto in Warsaw where the first armed clash took place in the uprising of 1943. This uprising occurred during the Nazi military occupation of Poland and the monument commemorates those who were killed by the German troops suppressing the uprising, as well as those remaining ghetto residents who were deported to concentration camps.

    At the time, there were few positive reactions in Germany to Brandt's gesture at the memorial. However, it was later recognised as a small step towards bridging the divide between Germany and Eastern Europe that was one legacy of the Second World War.

    Willy Brandt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for his efforts to achieve reconciliation between West Germany and the countries of Eastern Europe. As Herbert Sulzbach insisted,

    'Not enough people in Britain realise that since 1949 a new Germany has come into existence - a Germany which is facing the terrible past of 1933 to 1945.'

    He wrote a sympathetic letter to Brandt after his Warsaw gesture, and received a friendly reply. Sulzbach emphasised again and again what Brandt had once said,

    'A good German can only be one who is also a good European.'

    (photo: Willy Brandt kneels at the Ghetto Heroes Monument in Warsaw, 07.12.1970.)

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