• Oliver Lawrie

Brandt’s Kneefall 51 Years Later: A Cautionary Tale of the Power of Symbolic Politics?


Photo credits: https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/warschauer-kniefall-1970/


“At the abyss of German history and under the weight of millions of murdered people, I did what people do when language fails.[1]” Willy Brandt


Images Speak Louder Than Words


It was on Monday 7 December 1970 that language failed German Chancellor Willy Brandt. While on an official visit to Poland, with his government in Bonn hanging by a thread due to his divisive foreign policy with Eastern Europe, Brandt visited a monument commemorating the German occupation-era Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. After laying a wreath at the foot of the monument, Brandt fell to his knees, lowered his head and remained still for half a minute, while dignitaries, and more importantly the press, watched on.


It could only ever have been Brandt to make such a gesture[2]. He was not implicated in any Nazi crimes after spending the second war in Norwegian exile. Further, having no religious affiliations, the catholic symbol of kneeling at a Jewish memorial was irrelevant. The result? International media attention for an action that what would later become a ’paradigm for a successful ’conciliation gesture‘, offered by Germany’s leader of state to those affected by the crimes of their Nazi past.


This seemingly insignificant action would be the catalyst for marked change in German society. While Brandt profited on a personal level from his genuflection[3], this symbolic gesture was also instrumental in transforming German post-war memory. Rather than Germans considering themselves as victims of the Nazi regime, Brandt’s ‘kneefall strongly symbolized the transformation from disclaiming the past towards an acceptance and acknowledgment of “national guilt[4]”’.


Political Symbolism Through The Years


Symbolic politics, or gestural “speech acts” which achieve meaning by doing instead of describing’[5], can paint a performer in a favourable light[6]. Brandt himself has proven this to be a potent political weapon in the arsenal of any politician, with his actions being praised by the German press[7] and the image of him kneeling making front page news across all of Europe. That power, however, works two ways. Given the power of symbolic politics is at the mercy of how the media portrays a gesture, this can also have exactly the opposite effect.


Failed conservative chancellor candidate Armin Laschet has experienced the dangers of symbolic politics. Whilst German President, Frank Walter Steinmeier, was delivering a speech to flood affected communities in July, the heir to Merkel’s conservative throne, Armin Laschet, can be seen laughing in the background[8]. We don’t know what was said that caused Laschet to laugh, but the cause is immaterial: the symbolism associated with laughing during such a speech was enough for the media to make it headline news, both domestically[9] and internationally[10]. The media’s response, which shapes the opinions of millions of voters, may have even changed the course of the German election. There is, of course, more than one factor at play here, but polling trends show that after mid-July, Laschet’s party began rapidly losing support[11]. Could 5 seconds of laughter, or one symbolic gesture, have been the deciding factor in Germany’s future political direction?


Photo credits: Marius Becker / Marius Becker / DPA


Symbolic Politics is Future Politics?


From Japanese Prime Minister, Yukio Harayma, kneeling[12], through to Donald Trump standing in front of St John’s Church amidst societal unrest[13], it is clear that what Erving Goffman calls ‘symbolic interactionism’[14] in the political sphere is far from a German phenomenon. This allows these two antithetical examples of symbolism to illustrate why, in an international political sphere that is increasingly defined by social interconnectivity and capacity for mass communication, symbolic politics have never been a more potent factor in controlling our collective political existence.


On the anniversary of Brandt’s kneefall, and with recent examples of this symbolic interactionism in mind, a quote by another much admired German chancellor Angela Merkel places this issue in our time more than fifty years after the historic moment. In Merkel’s final major speech as chancellor of Germany, she said the following:

‘Our democracy thrives on the ability for critical discourse and self-correction’[15] [16]


Democracies in Europe and beyond must remember the power of gestures both for better and worse. The continued digitisation of democratic discourse increases the capacity for effective symbolic politics[17], and therefore has, and will continue to, revolutionise existing opinion formation processes.


Through this aforementioned critical discourse and self-correction, however, society can reduce the influence of symbolism in politics to the point where they play a complementary role in a healthy functioning democracy, rather than an overarching one that serves to undermine it. So next time you yourself are the subject of a symbolic interaction, be not only aware of the gesture itself, but also critique its intended message within its contextuality. An emphasis on education will enable this to happen, thereby restoring political power to the rightful holders in a representative democracy: the people.

[1] Willy Brandt: Erinnerungen. Frankfurt am Main u. a.: Propyläen 1989, S. 213–215. [2] ‘Nur Brandt hat das machen können’ in: 'Ein Stück Heimkehr', Spiegel Nr. 51, 13.12.1970, 57-62 [3] Brandt and the SPD (Social Democratic Party) secured their best electoral result in the following 1972 general election. [4] Valentin Rauer (2006), ‘Symbols in Action. Willy Brandt's Kneefall at the Warsaw Memorial’, in: Jeffrey C. Alexander, Bernhard Giesen and Jason L. Mast, eds, Social Performance: Symbolic Action, Cultural Pragmatics, and Ritual, Cambridge UP, pp. 268-269. [5] Rauer (2006), ‘Symbols in Action’. [6] William C. Wohlforth, Benjamin de Carvalho, Halvard Leira, and Iver B. Neumann, Moral authority and status in International Relations: Good states and the social dimension of status seeking Review of International Studie, 44:3 (2018), pp. 52–46. [7] Rauer (2006) p. 267 [8] DW News. 2021. German chancellor candidate Laschet laughs during somber flood speech | DW News. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_5RxD3Q58E> [9]Der Spiegel. 2021. Steinmeier spricht Flutopfern Beileid aus – und Laschet lacht im Hintergrund. <https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/armin-laschet-lacht-im-hintergrund-als-frank-walter-steinmeier-den-opfern-sein-beileid-ausspricht-a-0025f0be-0dc8-453a-b9a0-51a218106bab> [10] Cavanagh, N. 2021. ‘UNFORGIVEABLE’ Outrage as German minister is caught LAUGHING on visit to town devastated by floods as death toll rises to 143. <https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/15621059/german-minister-laughing-floods-death-toll/> [11]Walker, B. 2021. German election 2021: The New Statesman’s poll tracker. <https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2021/08/german-election-2021-new-statesman-s-poll-tracker> [12] Hongo, J. 2015. Former Prime Minister Hatoyama Kneels at Wartime Prison in Seoul. < https://www.wsj.com/articles/BL-JRTB-20587> [13] Rogers, K. 2020. Protesters Dispersed With Tear Gas So Trump Could Pose at Church. < https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/01/us/politics/trump-st-johns-church-bible.html> [14] Goffman. (1990). The presentation of self in everyday life. Penguin. [15] DW News. ​​2021. Watch live: Farewell honors for Angela Merkel - live coverage from the ceremony in Berlin. < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtmZgAj2WUA> [16] DW News. ​​2021. Watch live: Farewell honors for Angela Merkel - live coverage from the ceremony in Berlin. < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtmZgAj2WUA> [17] Danielson, A., & Hedling, E. (2021). Visual diplomacy in virtual summitry: Status signalling during the coronavirus crisis. Review of International Studies, 1-19.

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