The Age of Apology: What Brandt’s Genuflection Can Tell About the Potential of Our Apologies

 

Willy Brandt’s Kniefall. © ullstein bild/ Sven Simon

By Renate Vink (guest writer) – 

 

We are all sometimes waiting for a ‘sorry’. In our world of conflicts, historical wounds and complexities, it seems hard to overcome the legacies of conflict from our past. How to break these spirals of revenge, anger, and shame over past injustices? Authentic, spontaneous, well-prepared or not; in our current so-called age of apology it appears that apologies or reparations are increasingly becoming the norm for addressing historical injustices. Although political apologies are nothing new, their use in Western politics seems to have increased over the last few decades. Northern Ireland, Australia, Canada; throughout all levels of politics – be it in local, national or international politics – we can find the use of apologies or reparations to address the black pages in history in order to move on.

However the potential for these apologies, what value can they really hold in the tough environment of (the aftermath of) conflict? Can states, as an entity, actually practice forgiveness? Although the direct effect of an apology is very hard to measure, symbolically it can be a very powerful tool. But could it indeed provide a way to ‘solve’ the past – and prepare for reconciliation to take place? Or should we look at it with cynicism and dismiss its potential? As only time can teach us, we can learn a lot from one of the earliest examples of a public apology in our age, as shown by the German Chancellor Willy Brandt in Warsaw, 1970. As Brandt spontaneously fell to his knees in front of the Holocaust memorial, his Warschauer Kniefall marked the beginning of the current ‘wave of apologies’ sweeping over (international) politics.

 

Der Kanzler hat gekniet

On his knees, Chancellor Willy Brandt showed the world in 1970 what forgiveness and facing the past could look like. The almost Christ-like image of Brandt on his knees in front of a memorial for the Jewish Uprising in 1943 was never planned and Brandt himself left only few words on his motivation. ‘Unter der Last der jungsten Geschichte tat ich, was Menschen tun, wenn die Worte versagen. So gedachte ich Millionen Ermordete.’ (Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fall short. This is how I remembered the millions of victims.)

Brandt had come to Warsaw as part of his Ostpolitik, which aimed at normalizing relations with Poland and signing the Treaty of Warsaw – and as a first official German visit since the war. When Brandt suddenly knelt down and in silence asked forgiveness for the wrongs of his nation – he set the tone for a Germany ‘which required that Nazism be remembered rather than forgotten’, according to historian Tony Judt. In other words, one of the first German steps towards facing its past.

It was the raw and uncomfortable version of what would later become a highly popular and much praised symbol of German Vergangenheitsbewältigung and provided an image of how Germany collectively faced its past. Der Spiegel reports after the event; ‘Dann bekent er sich zu einer Schuld, an der er selber nicht zu tragen hat, und bittet um eine Vergebung, derer er selber nicht bedarf. Dann kniet er da fuer Deutschland.’ (Then he commits himself to a debt, which he himself is not carrying, and asks for forgiveness, which he himself does not need. Then he kneels down for Germany.)

Although Brandt’s gesture today is literally set in stone, the response to his ‘silent apology’ has not always been positive. Apart from a few voices saying otherwise – the majority of Germans in 1970 found the Warschauer Kniefall exaggerated. Phrases such as ‘Wir liefern uns den Kommunisten aus’ (We are handing ourselves over to the communists) and listing Brandt as a ‘Verraeter’ (traitor) were no exception in the German press after December 10th, 1970. This is, however, not completely surprising, since Brandt’s Ostpolitik was heavily criticized in his homeland. In general, relatively little attention has been given to the Kniefall in the German press around 1970 – as it happened in the shadow of the signing of the Treaty of Warsaw, which was controversial enough in Germany at the time in light of the fate of millions of German Heimatvertriebenen.

‘Er kniete auch fuer uns’, headlines Die Zeit in December 2010, when the 40th anniversary of the Warschauer Kniefall is celebrated in the German press. A few decades after the event the critical tone is completely gone and hardly a single negative comment is written on Brandt’s Kniefall. Headlines such as ‘Eine Kniefall macht Geschichte’ (the gesture that made history) and ‘Willy Brandt’s Kniefall ist zur Ikone geworden’ (the gesture that became an icon) underline this dramatic change and stress the sense of uniqueness that comes with the image of the gesture nowadays. ‘Die Kraft der Demut’ is another title illustrating the change in the media from the Kniefall being a humiliating gesture on enemy ground into a symbol that stands for power and courage, an icon within 20th century German political history even speaking of a collective nation on its knees. One could say it is the childlike simplicity of the image, the complex history it was able to summarize in one picture and the room for interpretation it left that added to the popularity of the image in the media over the years.

The radical change in meaning and interpretation of the Warschauer Kniefall over 40 years can be explained by a combination of two factors. Firstly, the German unification and the end of the Cold War allowed for a different way of looking at historical events without the context and influence of uneasy East-West relations. Secondly, new developments of facing the role and place of the Holocaust as part of German history had taken place over the years, leading from a place of collective ignorance and amnesia towards acceptance and memorialization, almost at mass scale - read more about post-war ignorance of the Nazi atrocities in this article by Laurien Vastenhout and Marieke Zoodsma. A renewed and more glorified interpretation of the Kniefall as the result.

Certainly these developments help us understand the process of image iconization, and how it allowed for the German public to reconsider its initial interpretation of their leader on his knees. However, perhaps most relevant within today’s age of apology is to look at the growing popularity of the Kniefall through the lens of politics of redress – a form of politics focused on making amends as a way of dealing with our dark past. This is often practiced through public apologies and showing remorse for the past, but also through making financial or material reparations.

Examples of recent apologies in international politics include British prime-minister Cameron officially apologizing for the role of the British army on Bloody Sunday in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. As with Brandt’s Kniefall, we see a political leader apologizing for the injustice caused by his nation in the past, even though he was not personally involved in the wrongdoings. Another example is the Canadian official apology towards survivors and descendants of the residential schools, which lasted over a long period from 1840-1990s. A similar public apology was issued in Australia in 2008, when prime minister Rudd apologized for the history of the ‘stolen generations’ in a well prepared speech and event in front of the entire nation. Furthermore, the mere fact that we live in an age of apology is marked by the very existence of the ‘truth and reconciliation commission’ in South Africa, which dealt with the wrongdoings from the Apartheid regime.

The fact that there is such an increase in issued apologies within Western politics since the 1990s and that they are valued nowadays as a sign of respectability can be explained by the slow shift from Realpolitik, a form of ‘hard’ diplomacy based on given factors and circumstances rather than ideological or ethical reasoning, towards a more emotional and ethical kind of politics over the last few decades. It reflects an increasing willingness to meet certain criteria of moral respectability within politics. However, despite the commonality of public apologies, and the fact that they are sometimes even in demand – how seriously should we treat them? Are they merely an act of self-reflection, or indeed a valid potential for reconciliation? Surely, it is difficult to generalize on the effect of apologies – and it would be too early to draw conclusions on the effect and outcomes of today’s reparations. Nevertheless, what the Warschauer Kniefall teaches is that we cannot simply dismiss the value and potential of such gestures or apologies by merely looking at our current (political) circumstances. Even though heavily criticized in 1970, the meaning of the Kniefall changed as history was reinterpreted over the years – and thus we can only start to understand the value and true impact of apologies and other forms of reparations by looking back.

Therefore, time will tell if our apologies today have the potential to heal old wounds and if we can indeed overcome the ugly parts of our history through our public outings of remorse today. But as long as the Kniefall is able to tell the story of how a small, quiet and humbling gesture has the ability to grow into a meaningful symbol of forgiveness, able to re-direct the course of history, it will most likely continue to inspire other leaders and their nations to show remorse for the past – in the future.

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