The king on his knees – Demonstrating humility and penance in international relations

Students on my MA module ‘Medieval Diplomacy’ have again been working on drawing comparisons between modern and medieval diplomatic practices. Here, a first example from Hanna Nüllen.

The picture of then German chancellor Willy Brandt dropping to his knees in front of the Warsaw Ghetto memorial on 7 December 1970 is often counted among the most powerful images of post-war Germany. To this day, articles dealing with this gesture are published in regular newspapers and the photograph can be found in many German schoolbooks. The intention behind this genuflection is still debated and while many see it as a simple demonstration of Brandt’s personal feelings on the matter of the atrocities committed by the Nazi Regime, some suggest, that his motives might have been more complex. At the time Brandt was in the middle of signing a treaty with Poland and later described his genuflection as a reaction to the overwhelming weight of history.

Whatever his intentions, Brandt was not the first person who might have tried to make political and diplomatic gains out of a gesture of humility and penance. We find many instances of kings and other rulers publicly showing their humility throughout the Middle Ages not only as a demonstration of their kingly virtues but also to influence the outcome of negotiations or to regain their position. One such example is Louis the Pious, who publicly paid penance twice, in 822 and in 833, in order to maintain his position as the king of Frankia, which was beginning to fall apart. In contrast to Willy Brandt, who silently dropped to his knees as an acknowledgment of the crimes committed by Nazi Germany, Louis confessed to long lists of personal wrongdoings. While his circumstances were vastly different to those of Willy Brandt, in both cases the influence their gesture might have had on their and their people’s future is discussed in much the same way. Hence, even though showing humility is sometimes perceived to be a sign of weakness, it can often work to strengthen one’s position.

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