A Time for Courage
By Roger Cohen
Nov. 21, 2013
HAMBURG, Germany — It being the 100th anniversary of Willy Brandt’s birth, the image has been much present in Germany: the former chancellor on his knees in the Warsaw ghetto in the silent act that defined German shame for the Holocaust. As Brandt later said, “Carrying the burden of the millions who were murdered, I did what people do when words fail them.”
Such symbolic acts carry enormous importance. They enter the realm of myth by connecting with a human place beyond and before words. The image from 1970 is riveting, a German driven by emotion and conviction to a spontaneous personal gesture toward slaughtered Jews. Other such moments come to mind: Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president, addressing the Knesset in 1977; François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, the French and German leaders, holding hands at Verdun in 1984 in the place where hundreds of thousands of their countrymen died fighting each other in 1916; the enough-of-blood-and-tears handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993 — before more blood was spilled between Israelis and Palestinians (and among them).
And then, as if in the image of that failure, a blank comes. Our age is not rich in such solemn, iconic moments of conciliation or contrition. Perhaps it is that calculation and spin have trumped conviction and so buried the spontaneous in public life. Perhaps it is the obsession with control — and multiplication of means to ensure it — that have made politics more arid. Perhaps it is the postmodern death of political idealism. Or perhaps it is the sheer volume of images that makes it difficult for a single one to define historical shift. The most powerful image of the 21st century remains the planes-turned-missiles hitting the Twin Towers in 2001. Far-flung wars since then have produced no hands outreached in peace, no consolation or resolution. Barack Obama, focus of dreams, has proved a tiptoeing president.