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Imagine this: You were just elected chancellor of West-Germany in 1969. You fought the evil regime of fascism all your life. You had to leave your home country, live in exile for a decade. But now it’s 1970 and you’re visiting Warsaw for the first time. Suddenly, you’re representing a country and its people that were responsible for the deaths of 6 million Polish citizens between 1939 and 1945. Most of the Holocaust killing camps were situated in Poland and almost 3 million Polish Jews were killed. After the war ended, Germans living in Poland had to leave the country and 1/4 of German territory was awarded to Poland. As you can imagine, the relationship between West-Germany and Poland was as bad as it can get.

On December 7, 1970, hours before Willy Brandt was scheduled to sign the peace treaty (Treaty of Warsaw), he laid down a wreath at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial. After putting the the wreath down, he walked back a few steps and then, 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.


He was one of the few Germans who didn’t have to kneel and express his sorrow, and acknowledge Germany’s horrific past. But he did it for all of the other Germans who should be there and didn’t kneel. Because they were too afraid, because they couldn’t, because they felt too ashamed, because they were not ashamed enough. As Brandt wrote in his memoirs: “Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fail them. In this way I commemorated millions of murdered people.”

He was rewarded for this gesture and all his hard work with the Nobel Peace Prize and the admiration of a young generation. And, he almost lost his job because the opposition portrayed the symbolic action as a sign of defeatism. He barely escaped a “No Confidence Vote” by 2 votes.

Leaders do what’s right. They don’t care about personal consequences. They care about responsibility for the greater good. And they make all of us better people.

“ll of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”

John Kenneth Galbraith

Thank you, Willy Brandt. You remain my hero and continue to show us what real leadership is all about.

(Below a video about the Warsaw event. Sorry, it’s in German.)