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

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - In­ter­viewed by Hanna Tre­hub

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.

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