A Great Gesture of Reconciliation

Dec 3, 2010

Kniefall Brandt Enlarge image (© dpa/pa) Forty years ago this picture from Warsaw made headlines around the world: on December 7, 1970, the German Chancellor laid a wreath at the memorial to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto of 1943. He gently rearranged the black, red, and gold ribbon and stepped back a few paces. Then, surprisingly, he knelt down on the wet asphalt in front of the memorial and remained there with his head bowed and his hands folded. In doing so, Willy Brandt sent a signal that moved the world.

In December 1970 the SPD politician was the very first German federal chancellor to visit Poland. His visit was one of reconciliation after World War II and a contribution to détente in the East-West conflict. To this day, Brandt's demonstration of atonement in Warsaw has remained in people's memories as a great gesture. A German chancellor who, having been in exile was not personally involved in the crimes of the National Socialists, publicly apologized in this way for the horrors carried out by Germans and on behalf of Germany.

The Warsaw ghetto was established just a few weeks after Nazi Germany's attack on Poland, which had marked the beginning of World War II. The ghetto was where German occupying forces herded together Warsaw's Jewish population - some 350,000 people - in a very cramped space and sealed them off from the rest of the city behind high walls. Tens of thousands died from starvation, diseases and epidemics, or from the terror campaigns of the German occupiers. The Warsaw Ghetto is a horrific symbol of the Holocaust: from here the people were deported to Nazi extermination camps and forced labour camps. Only a few thousand of them survived.

Brandt's journey to Warsaw opened a new chapter in German-Polish relations: the Warsaw Convention was also signed on December 7, 1970. In the agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and the People's Republic of Poland, both countries renounced the use of violence and guaranteed the inviolability of the borders. The agreement was an important element in the "Ostpolitik" of the Brandt government from 1969 to 1973. This policy was based on the principle of "change through rapprochement" and sought a new balance with the Soviet Union and the eastern European states. In 1971 Willy Brandt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this policy of détente.

To mark the 40th anniversary of Willy Brandt's historic gesture, the German Federal President Christian Wulff will be travelling to the Polish capital, where he will join his counterpart, President Bronislaw Komorowski, to commemorate this key event in bilateral relations.

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Willy Brandt

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