The event took place on December 7, 1970, in what was then the Communist People’s Republic of Poland during a visit to a monument to the Nazi-era Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
After laying down a wreath, Willy Brandt, the German chancellor at the time, 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.
Brandt had actively resisted the early Nazi regime and had spent most of the time of Hitler’s reign in exile.
The occasion of Brandt’s visit to Poland at the time was the signing of the Treaty of Warsaw between West Germany and the People’s Republic of Poland, guaranteeing German acceptance of the new borders of Poland.
The treaty was one of the Brandt-initiated policy steps (the ‘Ostpolitik’) to ease tensions between West and East during the Cold War.