Jürgen Habermas and Ukraine

Germans have been involved in the war, chiefly on the wrong side

Von Timothy Snyder
, 15:30
Destroyed facilities are seen at the Azovstal steel plant during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol
Jürgen Habermas defends the German Chancellor’s hesitating attitude towards Ukraine. But his historical errors minimize Germany's responsibility for the current state of affairs. An answer to Habermas.

Jürgen Habermas, regarded as the greatest political philosopher in Europe, has written a text on its major contemporary crisis, the war in Ukraine. His thesis is that history recommends German „Besonnenheit,“ which in practice has meant little German action but much German talk during the first four months of the most important conflict in Europe since 1945.

Though Habermas makes his case on the basis of historical argument, it is striking that he has nothing to say about the Second World War. This is the conventional starting point for discussions of German responsibility, and it is more than usually applicable to Ukraine. Hitler portrayed the Ukrainians as a colonial people, and sought to displace them, starve them, and enslave them. He intended to use Ukrainian food supplies to make of Germany an autarkic world empire. Vladimir Putin has raised Hitlerian themes as justification for his war of destruction: the Ukrainians have no historical consciousness, no nationality of their own, no elite. Like Hitler, and for that matter like Stalin, he seeks to use Ukrainian foodstuffs as a weapon. But a reader of Habermas were not asked to consider these resemblances, nor to inquire whether as Germans they might bear responsibility towards Ukraine: a country where Germans killed millions of people, not so very long ago.


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Habermas's guidepost of civilization is rationality, but he makes no effort in his text to identify Ukrainian rationality. I would suggest that the omission of a reference to the Second World War makes the identification of Ukrainian rationality more difficult, since it is a rationality grounded in existence. We do not learn that Putin denies the existence of a Ukrainian state and nation, and that the official Russian press service writes of resolving the Ukrainian question, that Russian television regularly spreads genocidal language, or that Russian soldiers use genocidal hate speech in their justifications for murder and rape, and so on. Ukrainians have concluded, with reason, that they are fighting for national survival. Habermas alludes to the Ukrainian predicament in remarks about heroic and post-heroic generations, but this German way of casting the problem nudges the reader away from Ukrainian experience, and perhaps from the most important issues. I think of Roman Ratushnyi, who was killed in combat, just short of his twenty-fifth birthday. Roman was a sixteen-year-old civic activist in 2013, when he protested in favor of a closer association of Ukraine with the European Union. He then became known in Kyiv as an ecological activist, defending green spaces from dubious plans for development. His life and his activity were oriented towards the future.

Timothy Snyder is teaching History at the University of Yale. His monography „Bloodlands“ is considered to be a major work about Eastern Europe.
Timothy Snyder is teaching History at the University of Yale. His monography „Bloodlands“ is considered to be a major work about Eastern Europe. Bild: EPA

I am sure that Habermas is right that older and younger German generations should make a greater effort to understand one another, but this is not where we find the most pressing issues. The Russian-Ukrainian war is a conflict of generations in a far more direct way, in that the men who matter in Russian politics are a full generation older than the men and women who lead Ukraine. Putin fights his war in the name of a mythical past: referring to the tenth century (a baptism by a Viking) or the eighteenth century (Peter the Great) as justifications for a war of aggression in the twenty-first century. The Ukrainian generation now in power is the first one formed after 1991, and its courage resides in the defense of what has been built up since then, and in the defense of a vision of a normal European future. The men and women fighting the war, some young and some less so, connect national survival, understandably enough, with normal life and a future in the European Union. They risk and lose their lifes for this. That can certainly be seen as heroic, but perhaps in a way we can understand. It has little to do with debates in German about heroism, which in a German context is contaminated by Nazi language. But is it really the German linguistic context that should guide German judgements about other peoples? But when Habermas dwells only within the problems this raises between his and younger generations, he eludes any confrontation with the rationality of Ukrainian resistance.


„We are frightened, too“, says the mayor of Bucha

Early in the war, Katja Petrowskaja published a short text called „Amulet for the Ukrainian Resistance“, which including the striking observation that it was friends in Kyiv who were comforting her in Berlin. This has been an experience for many of us who have remained in contact with Ukrainian colleagues during the war: that their level of discourse has been less emotional and more rational than that which prevails in our own countries. Reading Habermas, I thought of some of the exceedingly rational discussions I have had with Ukrainians since the war has begun. As the a rule, the dominant themes are: the sovereignty of the state, its future in Europe, and the need to protect the coming generations.

When I asked the mayor of Bucha what I should tell people in Europe, he gave the matter a few minutes' thought, and then said to tell them that „we are frightened, too“. He was trying to reach out to westerners, to show that he understood that Germans and others could be frightened by the war. This was a generous gesture, since the fears of the people in his own town (and his own country) are justified by the experience of mayhem and murder, whereas those of Germans are speculative, and can be self-indulgent. The mayor's next sentence was: „We are fighting because we have to.“ Bucha and Irpin, which we know now as sites of atrocity, were before the war normal suburbs of a capital city, from which people commuted to work every day. The war has deprived people in those places of their lives and their property, but also of something that seems less dramatic but which is a great human loss: the sense of everyday normality, of achievable prosperity, of a future that could be better than the past. In Ukraine, this is particularly poignant, since catastrophes of terror and war have meant that these last thirty years have seen the first true chance to create generations oriented towards the future.


Habermas gives no Ukrainian a name or voice

The Ukrainian president, who goes unnamed in Habermas's essay, figures only as someone „who understands the power of images.“ From such a description the reader would never guess that Zelensky had made some rather telling philosophical arguments during this war about the relationship between self-deception and war. It is a curiously limited description of Volodymyr Zelensky's talents, one that falls flat amidst a reality that is far more horrible than the images that actually reach Germans. Habermas does grant that behind what he complacently calls the „familiar scenography“ there is real human harm. Yet we are left with a German philosopher describing a Jewish president who is at the center of world history as a kind of Hollywood producer. This is an uncomfortable place for the discussion of Zelensky to end, but end there it does.

Philosopher Jürgen Habermas defends the „Besonnenheit“ of chancellor Olaf Scholz concerning the war against Ukraine
Philosopher Jürgen Habermas defends the „Besonnenheit“ of chancellor Olaf Scholz concerning the war against Ukraine Bild: dpa

Nothing in German discourse prepared Germans for the reality of a Russian attack and the reality of Ukrainian resistance. Given that double failure, it would seem reasonable to ask whether there might be something fundamental within German discourse that might be repaired, perhaps by attended to discourses and rationalities beyond Germany. It is the first rule of post-colonial discourse that the colonized are to be allowed to speak. Yet Habermas gives no Ukrainian a name, let alone a voice. The one east European who has a name and a voice in Habermas's essay is Vladimir Putin. It does not seem to occur to Habermas that for decades the „power of images“, in the form of fiction, has worked for Russia in Germany. Indeed, in his irritation that Zelensky has been noticed in Germany, Habermas seems to forget that Germany was been flooded by Russian propaganda for thirty years. Over the decades, Russian tropes have been far more important in Germany than has Ukrainian reality.

A defeat for Russia will not lead to nuclear war

A student of discourse might consider that problem. Habermas instead repeats and endorses Russian propaganda about the risk of nuclear war, while ignoring the basic structure of Russian political discourse. He seems to believe in a scenario in which Putin could be somehow cornered by his own war, and be forced to escalate. We know that a humiliating defeat for Russia will not lead to nuclear war. Russia was defeated and indeed humiliated in the Battle of Kyiv, but did not use nuclear weapons and did not escalate. Instead, it deescalated, as Russian propagandists reframed the story of the war on Russian television. Russian troops cannot be cornered, since they can retreat to Russia. Putin cannot be cornered, since he governs on the basis of a virtual reality created by a media he himself controls. We know that he can fail to attain his own announced goals in a war (as he did in Ukraine in 2015) and simply change the subject. He can have his entire propaganda apparatus insist that a new invasion of Ukraine is impossible (as he did in 2021) and then order an invasion of Ukraine. If he believes that he is losing in Ukraine, he will have his television channels announce a victory and change the subject. That is how Russian discourse works, and Putin's own rationality can be understood only within it.


Rather than considering these twenty-first century Ukrainian or Russian rationalities, Habermas makes his case within the comfortable nest of West Germany during the Cold War, a period when Germans were less responsible for the fate of Europe, and no German intellectual was expected to think about Ukraine. This is an ethnographically very specific setting, which Habermas seems to confuse with universal reason. Younger generations do not understand, Habermas would have us know, the fundamental lessons of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Unfortunately, what he says about the period is, in fact, always erroneous. Habermas bases his entire argument on the historical claim that the Cold War demonstrated that no nuclear power could lose a war. This is incorrect. Both the Soviet Union and the United States lost major wars during the Cold War (and for that matter both the United States and Russia have lost wars since then). America was beaten by North Vietnam, the USSR by Afghanistan, and so on.

Habermas has made Ukraine's defeat more likely

Habermas treats his subjective experience of West Germany during the Cold War as historical truth, and draws from it the lesson that Ukraine cannot today defeat Russia. On the basis of mistaken reasoning, he defends a German foreign policy based upon that proposition. In helping to move part of German public opinion towards the proposition that Ukraine cannot win the war, and in thereby helping to delay the delivery of the necessary weapons, Habermas has made Ukraine's defeat more likely. And in that way, he has made the collapse of Europe more likely. The damage does not end there. In and of itself, Habermas's (incorrect) argument about the power of nuclear weapons in international affairs is highly dangerous. If it is believed, it tends to make an actual nuclear war more likely. Treating nuclear weapons as a kind of sacred object that makes its owner invincible amounts to propaganda for nuclear proliferation.

Bild: Silke Werzinger

Habermas describes the Cold War as a time of „peace“. This is an example of what non-European thinkers might call „Eurocentricism“, or what east European leftists call „westsplaining.“ In his Habermas's view, one that is familiar to anyone who has been subjected to EU propaganda over the decades, Europeans in general and Germans in particular learned from the Second World War that conflicts must be resolved by peaceful means. In fact, European peoples learned no such lesson from the Second World War. During that war, Germany fought for colonies until it was exhausted and defeated. Even in his prison cell in Poland, Jürgen Stroop mused about Ukraine as a land of milk and honey. After the Second World War, other European states fought colonial wars around the world until they were defeated, or could no longer afford to do so. Just as European integration has allowed Germans to forget the colonial aspect of their war, so it has allowed west Europeans to forget their colonial wars of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. When the colonial wars were lost, European leaders changed the subject to Europe.


Russia is fighting a colonial war against Ukraine

The just-so story of nation-states learning from 1945 is gratifying to Europeans generally, because it allows them to ignore colonial atrocity. But forgetfulness about colonial war enables forgetfulness about its lessons. Russia is today fighting a colonial war against Ukraine, with rhetorics and tactics which ought to be familiar from five hundred years of European history (and in particular from Nazi colonial rhetoric in the East). Because Europeans in general (and Germans in particular) have not processed their own colonial history, they sometimes miss an obvious lesson of the Russo-Ukrainian war: the empire has to lose a colonial war if it is to cease being an empire.

Habermas seems nostalgic for a time when everyone understood the things that he regards as self-evident. But he should not expect people to understand things as self-evident when they have not experienced them, and when his characterizations of them are erroneous. His Germany is impotent in international affairs, and its domestic politics is about talking. But it really does matter where the conversation starts, and how it is guided. If it is meant to run in circles, it is not at all neutral, and certainly innocent. Treating talk as the end in itself can use up the time that is needed for action. Talking about weapons but not delivering them, for example, creates the impression that something has been done, which can salve consciences and warp discussions about the course of a war. As Habermas himself has always maintained, the form discourse takes is very important. Once we understand the power of discourse, then we understand the power of those – for example, respected moral authorities – who police its boundaries, manipulate historical memory, and exclude the voices of the vulnerable.

The decision to build NordSteam 2 was scandalous

Habermas's historical errors minimize Germany's responsibility for the current state of affairs – or rather, and quite oddly for a philosopher, the responsibility of a specific politician. Writing from the perspective of a sentimentalized West Germany in the 1970s, Habermas presents Germany not as a major democracy with power and responsibility, but instead as the Kremlin would like for Germans today to see it: as a pawn in a larger game, with no choice but to submit to larger realities. This posture of submission is perhaps comfortable, since it allows Habermas to ignore the sovereign decisions that even the West Germany of the 1970s was capable of making, such as the decision to engage with the Soviet Union. That tradition of Ostpolitik morphed, with far too little reflection, into the new Ostpolitik of buying Russian hydrocarbons from an oligarchy moving steadily towards imperialism and towards the extreme right. Given that thoughtful members of the SPD Ostpolitik tradition have been reflective about their own past, it does seem worth asking whether unreflective German engagement with Russia made this war more likely. But we get no reflection on this point from Habermas.

Habermas does not acknowledge 1989, 1990, of 1991 as important turning points. In Habermas's portrayal, Germany did not do much of anything these last thirty years. Habermas mentions in passing the „failure of German governments“ to avoid dependence on Russian oil and gas. But that was an active German choice, when plenty of others were available. The decision to abandon nuclear energy was baffling; the decision to build NordSteam 2 after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 was scandalous. These German choices, had disastrous consequences. The choice to depend upon Russian energy exports also compromised German political discussion. For all of his attention to discourse, Habermas seems not to have noticed this. German policy choices of the twenty-first century mean that, even today, Germany is financing Russia's war of destruction. So long as that is true, Germans cannot claim to be uninvolved in the war. They have been involved, chiefly on the wrong side.

Discourse is important. Talking things through can be very important in politics. In this sense Habermas has always been right. But he has always been wrong (in the Historikerstreit of the 1980s as he is now) to draw a German national border around discussions. In the discussion of the Holocaust back then, as during the discussion of Ukraine right now, Habermas errs in thinking that German common sense is to be trusted, and that emotional voices from the east can only disturb a rational German elite. No sensible national discourse can take place within an exclusively national container. In particular, every country with a colonial history must attend to the voices of people who have been colonized. As a former colonial power in Ukraine, and as the economic partner of the current colonial power in Ukraine, Germans were doubly obliged to listen to Ukrainians, ideally before the war, and at the very latest in the days and weeks after the war broke out. This simply did not take place.

For Habermas, a major problem in German political life is that critics of German policy are too shrill. But those critics were correct. Germany came to the brink of making the kind of mistake that its neighbors will never forget. Habermas is deeply wrong in his assessment of the duty of the intellectual in a time of war. In his labors to referee the German discussion, he misreads contemporary history, sets aside recent German failures in Russia policy, excludes unfamiliar perspectives, and categorizes ethical argument as image or emotion. Discourse is important, as Habermas has always argued, because it can generate the concepts and values that enlarge a sense of solidarity and responsibility. But this is only possible when the past is present and the other is heard. What Habermas has done is to direct German discourse away from the realities of past and the possibilities of the present and towards national self-regard. In so doing, he has delayed German reckonings with the past, wasted time when important decisions need to be taken, and helped bring Germany to the threshold of another moral collapse.

Quelle: FAZ.NET
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