Karl Schlögel: “We have to fight for Ukraine to once again get in the center of attention in European affairs”
German historian on Ukraine on the European mental map and the challenges of the new historical situation
In his interview with The Ukrainian Week, German historian Karl Schlögel spoke of the need for the Germans and Europeans to return the issue of Ukraine to their mental map, overcome the monopoly of “Putin’s friends” in the representation of the Russian culture, and of the challenges of the new historical situation that have to be dealt with.
Can we claim that Western countries, shocked by the annexation of Crimea, the start of Russia's aggression against Ukraine in the Donbas and the tragedy in Syria, still lack a clear understanding of what future they want and are not ready to act decisively or take risks for it?
— I have to say that this situation is not unique: it was similar in 1989 when many felt like the ground was slipping from under their feet. But no tectonic catastrophes have happened. Psychologically, the world went through something similar on September 11, 2001, when, weary of aggression, nobody could think of two passenger airplanes hitting the Twin Towers in New York.
In my view, Western Europe had a thought entrenched in it for some time that things would stabilize somehow after the turbulence of 1989 and return to their natural course. Not without troubles and worries, but those would somehow be possible to tackle.
In fact, the current situation has new outlines. It’s something new for Ukraine, Europe, USA. The way Donald Trump behaves is not just his whim brought about by internal impulses, but a symbol of superpower that is trying to find a place for a new world order. This is also true about the post-imperial Russia. Everything is so fragile today and has to be defined once again. This is a complex problem, and not only for the political elite, but for the entire society, the intellectual circle and opinion makers.
All countries today, including Germany that is seen as a solid and stable state, need to deal with the new unusual situation. How Germany will respond is an open question. I have some optimism, but I need more serious reason to have more of it. I can say with confidence that the upcoming election campaign in Germany will not be an average one because a number of important topics will be activated. These are euroscepticism, Brexit, immigration crisis, as well as the Russian factor. A silent majority of the Germans support a quiet re-establishment of relations with Russia and a return to business as usual economically. This is not about the biggest political parties, i.e. the Social Democratic Party and the Christian Democratic Union that are trying to seek solutions for the issue. The Germans often lack an understanding of why they should risk stability and peace because of developments in Ukraine. “Let Ukrainians solve their problems on their own, and their problems are not in the epicenter of our attention anyway,” is the opinion I’m talking about. I don’t want to overplay it but such sentiments exist. If the election takes place as a competition between the conservatives and the center-leftists, Germany’s conduct about Russia will be the determinant factor.
Another important point is the discord between Germany and Turkey. For instance, a situation where 1.5 million people born in Turkey can participate in referenda and elections in Germany. These people are loyal not only to the country that is paying them money but to the country of their origin as well, and more loyal to the latter. This should be kept in mind. People with two passports are yet another issue for Germany. These include the Germans who also hold a Russian passport. Again, the number of Russian speakers in Germany is the highest among all EU member-states. I am sure that there are multiple things on which Putin’s Administration plays. A desire for normalization, renewed opportunities to do business together, as well as closer cultural ties between Germany and Russia, getting rid of problems on the periphery etc. We have to fight for Ukraine to once again get to the center of attention in European affairs after Brexit and the war in Syria have moved it aside. Returning it back to the mental map, the solution of the Ukrainian problem, Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian aggression should become the core of European thoughts.
A full-fledged attack of Russia against Ukraine, Baltic States and Poland remains an open option still. Is there recognition of this threat on the mental map of Europeans, including Germans?
— If Ukraine faces a full-fledged aggression, yet another shock after the annexation of Crimea, most will unanimously support defensive action, the idea that something has to be done. I don’t demonize Vladimir Putin. But he is a demon, an evil genius of modern times who is working on sinking the countries around Russia, the former soviet republics that gained independence. This is a matter of the future: Putin’s people, his agents and colleagues are provoking conflicts such as the one in the Ukrainian Donbas. But if he has an opportunity to undermine his neighbors without direct military intervention, then his goal is to get direct factual control over a given country.
I am confident that the West will counteract such intentions. There is no going back to a situation like the one that took place 25 years ago. Ukraine is mobilized today. It’s no longer the unarmed post-soviet country with no army. You have your army and volunteers; the country is ready for possible battle action. If Russia goes for a full invasion of the Ukrainian territory, then Ukraine will truly be in fire, but Eastern and Southern Europe will burn similarly. Russia’s current leader can take such actions after he deeply analyses and finds an internal weakness of those he has attacked. As we see in the past few years, he is fairly good at this. And yet, his intentions have also failed. All interferences with the French and American elections, and even the Syrian crisis have not played into his hands.
Sometimes there is an impression that the Ukrainian discourse revolves around the fact that there is stable government in Russia. But this is not a de facto situation even if 80% of Russia’s population support Putin. It is important to watch carefully what is happening there. The residents of various Russian cities, from Smolensk to Vladivostok, have taken it to the streets in a very long time. This is not a full-fledged protest, but there is no coming back to the Soviet Union.
Is Putin a sole conductor of the current developments? Or is it more of a command center of decision making in the top echelons of the Russian government, a system of its own that does not care much about who is at the top?
— It is difficult to forecast what Putin will do next. It is much easier to be prepared for any course of events. Putin as such is not a specific individual. He is a symbol of a certain political system. Obviously, there is demand for him in the Russian society. The 80% support of him as President among the Russians reflects their sentiments and aspirations. Then comes the matter of psychology: I don’t think many psychologists could tell with certainty what is going on in the head of Russia’s current leader. I don’t believe that the rallies in almost 60 Russian cities which we have seen this year can somehow change the situation in Russia towards democratization. The plans that Putin is harboring have their limits. Sometimes he succeeds in implementing them, and sometimes he makes mistakes. Like any player, he is not omnipotent.
In Ukraine’s case, despite the Russian aggression, somehow contact should be maintained with the “other Russians” (although I now cannot imagine how this could be done). How this is done is an open question. Don’t think that you are the only ones facing this difficult task. Germany has an urgent need to ruin the monopoly of so-called Putin’s friends in representing the Russian culture. The contact should not be with the empire, the FSB or the oligarchs. It should be with the alternative, including in culture. I don’t mean romantic things or expectations, nor Akhmatova or Shostakovych. I mean people working at Levada Center, Novaya Gazeta and the like.
The image of the “other Russians” shaped in the eyes of Ukrainians is of what we call Russian liberals. Indeed, they want to see a Russia without Putin. Yet they see Ukraine not as a separate sovereign state with its own development agenda, but a platform for the creation of a new Russia or a part of a new Russia. Is constructive dialogue possible in such circumstance?
— The question is whether Kyiv can be imagined as an epicenter of the Russians in exile. In 2014, I had a feeling that many Russians saw the capital of Ukraine not only as a place for comfortable emigration, but as a place where they could create something. Today, I see many of them heading farther, to Berlin for instance. I don’t know what this will lead to. But there is a critical mass of those who have left Russia by now.
I agree that this group includes Russian liberals who don’t recognize a self-sufficient and independent Ukraine. The paradox is that when they think of Ukraine’s independence, national autonomy, it somehow limits the project they are working on.
But Russia is not Putin alone. The entire huge country is not only about him. There are other voices and people, and they should not be ignored.
After World War II, people like Bohdan Osadchuk and Jerzy Giedroyc were working on the Ukrainian-Polish reconciliation. Does it make sense to draw historic parallels and seek intellectuals who could do something similar in the current Ukrainian-Russian situation? Is this necessary?
— There are people who treat this problem with all due seriousness and depth. They are few. One is Lev Shlosberg who was trying to dig into the fact of the death of the Russian military in 2014, apparently, in the Ukrainian territory.
I think it would be incorrect to recommend Ukraine anything or decide something for it. It’s Ukraine’s business. But if we speak about European historians and writers, their task is to speak out and explain our societies about what’s going on here today. They have to create an image of the current developments that has to be placed and kept on the mental map of the Europeans, and to protect that stable solution from Russia. That would be more effective than merely to say something good about Ukraine somewhere. For Germany and Europe overall, it is important to keep sanctions against Russia in place and to recognize that these are thought-out ultimate decisions and actions.
I am not a politician. I’m a writer and a historian. I have limited capacity. My dream is to show Ukraine to the world. It is important for Ryanair and other low-cost carriers to fly from Berlin to Odesa, Lviv and Kharkiv, for young Germans and Europeans to be able to come here and see for themselves that it’s a comfortable place for traveling, friendship and various contacts. It is important to show more cultural centers, not just the capital; to discover Ukraine rather than do propaganda. You have what I call the “alternative Europe”. Not everyone understands why I love Kharkiv, for instance. I do because it’s one of the most important cities in Europe in terms of the 20th century architecture. But Ukraine is not working with this.
I would like a Munich Oktoberfest to somehow take place in Kyiv. You know, it’s not just a feast where people drink beer. It’s the most important cultural event of Munich that can offer many opportunities for cooperation and stabilization. What you need is the artists and writers who come to your country for a few days upon the invitation of the Ministry of Culture of the MFA, not on their own. You need people who have their interest in the country, work with the locals. How to do this is the question.
The visa free regime with the EU is very important for Ukraine. The main thing is not to turn this chance into a trouble for it. The Baltic States are now facing a situation where the most active people who are the most needed in the economy or politics have already left or are leaving. That’s a tragedy. The freedom to travel is an important thing. But I would like to see the energy necessary for reform and regeneration of your country to not be washed away from it.
The intellectuals who were shaping public opinion in the 20th century, the creators of powerful narratives didn't have social media at hand. Are blogs, tweets and Facebook posts enough today to explain and analyze reality? Do we need a turn towards a new type of comprehensive narratives?
— I think that the long narrative remains important. 2530 years ago, the discourse was centered around the thought that the time of grand narratives was over. The epoch of post-modernism allowed us to understand certain things, to revise them. We are not going back, but moving ahead towards grand narratives. I don’t know who makes the grand narrative today. The old generation has done its cause. Sometimes quite well. It cleared the space in many ways. The interim generation to which I attribute my generation of historians, it was important to determine certain things. But we don’t have a loud enough voice to define the world that is emerging today. WWII was followed by the Cold War and postSoviet world. What world will come now is still unclear. We are entering an entirely new situation. And we need to find a language that will meet the demands of time, of this post-modernism. I can only outline what new approaches are necessary. Realism is one. My generation has left the safe postwar world, pacification and guarantees of nuclear peace. Today, things are different because the phenomenon of violence has returned. My generation has no experience of violence. Yours does. People of my age have learned about civil war and revolutions from TV and news, not from their personal experience. The generation before us had this firsthand experience, and the current one does too. I’m sure that the current confrontation will forge a world reality that will bring something new.