by Manfred Henningsen
Emeritus Professor of Political Science, University of Hawaii, Honolulu
Whatever the explanation for the alleged withdrawal of president Steinmeier’s invitation may have been – and official Ukrainian stupidity or arrogance are possible answers – his proximity to his former mentor and ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his strange friendship with Putin are well known and may have played a role. His participation in negotiating in 2008 the Minsk agreement as the former foreign minister and his support for sustaining the crucial energy supply connections with Russia may have underscored his negative image in the Ukraine.
Nevertheless, there is a substantial reason for Germany to demand the immediate admission of Ukraine to the EU. This is not just a matter of finally removing the historic mortgage left by the German terror regime in Ukraine during the Second World War. At this political moment, when Putin succeeded Hitler with the delusional obsession of a “mad tsar,” as Navalny called him, the German government should make this demand the primary goal of German foreign policy.
In the last seven weeks, the Ukrainians have proven what can be said of only a few members of the EU, and certainly not of their neighbors Poland and Hungary, why the EU’s role in the survival of a civil political culture in Europe is not only necessary but must be expanded. They risked and sacrificed their lives thousands of times every day, and with millions of refugees who proved that Putin’s ‘Greater Russian Empire’ cannot compete with a free and democratic Europe. Ukrainians are in the process of giving the EU’s institutional skeleton a spiritual backbone. They alone show the member states of the Union that have forgotten the anti-totalitarian intentions of its founding after the Second World War or have never understood why it is crucial to enrich this EU with political and spiritual substance.
Whatever the political arguments of Angela Merkel and other German and European politicians from 2008 to 2021 may have been to oppose Ukraine’s membership, these objections have become irrelevant. The Russian invasion and Putin’s megalomaniacal aspirations have shown that there are no limits to him. NATO should have been reinvented, as it were, in order to stop Putin. If it was the oligarchs’ influence on Ukrainian politics and the general susceptibility to corruption that strengthened Merkel and others in their opposition, these deficiencies will not survive Russia’s imperial assault. The country will find itself in a tabula rasa state, which in some respects will be reminiscent of Germany in May 1945.
The crucial difference between the two situations, however, will be that Germany had to be liberated from the outside, while Ukraine liberated itself. The consequences of total destruction did not lead, as Harald Jaenner recently traced in his book Wolfszeit (2019), to the immediate self-purification of the country and, above all, not of the political, bureaucratic and intellectual elites. This process took place for decades in both parts of Germany, while the Ukrainians are in the process of going through this process as parallel phenomena to the war.
During a two-week trip through Ukraine in the summer of 2016, which began in Lviv and led via Kyiv to Odessa, my brother (Prof. Bernd Henningsen, Humboldt University) and I experienced again and again in conversations with academics and citizens the amazing commitment to Europe and the expectation of being accepted into the EU soon. This incessant confirmation of their European identity was coupled with an astonishing contempt for Putin’s Russia, which has been killing Ukrainian soldiers in the Donbas region since 2014.
The illustrated memorial plaques in Maidan Square in the center of Kyiv did the rest to underline the contempt. But it was the discovery in a Maidan boutique of a roll of toilet paper with the image of Putin on the outer paper and foul remarks in Cyrillic, reminiscent of a famous Goethe line from his play, Goetz von Berlichingen, which illustrated the contempt particularly vividly.
Traveling as a German in Ukraine, which Timothy Snyder describes in his book Bloodlands (2010) as a major region of Stalinist and Nazi terror, is constantly commemorated by memorials to the millions of victims of both regimes, the Holodomor and the Holocaust. Even in the gorge of Babi Yar, where thousands of the Jews remaining in Kyiv were rounded up and shot by the Germans in September 1941, two monuments stand side by side today. They commemorate the Holocaust and the millions of victims caused by the famine by the Stalinist forced collectivization of agriculture, the Holodomor.
When we asked our interlocutors how they get along with Germans and Russians today, we were regularly surprised by the spontaneous answer. The Germans have come to terms with their past, while the Russians have learned nothing from their history. Putin’s attempt to forcibly revive a defunct empire confirms Anne Applebaum’s characterization of such attempts in her book Twilight often Democracy (2020) as “restorative nationalist nostalgia.”