Germany, Ukraine and Russia: What Is To Be Done? The Habermas Factor

Extracts from an article, by a favourite historian and (to use a horrid term) public intellectual, with some complex argumentation and moral considerations–at the New Statesman:

After the Zeitenwende: Jürgen Habermas and Germany’s new identity crisis

The 92-year-old philosopher has warned Germans not to allow anger at Russia and admiration for Ukraine to displace their country’s hard-won focus on dialogue and peace.

By Adam Tooze [his webpage here]

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has upended world politics and nowhere more so than in Germany. Addressing an emergency session of the Bundestag on 27 February, German chancellor Olaf Scholz declared a Zeitenwende, a turning point in history. Russia’s attack on Ukraine meant Europe and Germany had entered a new age…

More than anywhere else in the West, the entire German intellectual class, and every TV talk show and newspaper has been mobilised to debate and criticise Germany’s performance. The situation has been aggravated after Volodymyr Zelensky’s attack on Germany’s long-running détente with Russia in a speech to the Bundestag in March and a stream of remarkably forthright comments from Ukraine’s ambassador to Berlin. You can tell matters are becoming really serious because Jürgen Habermas, the 92-year old doyen of German philosophy and political commentary, has entered the ring, for once on the side of the government.

Russia’s aggression poses such fundamental questions for Germany because the nation in its current form owes its existence to the peaceful end of the Cold War that enabled reunification. The success of 1989-90 was prepared by almost two decades of Ostpolitik, in which trade and détente with the Soviet Union worked to draw back the Iron Curtain. Maintaining good relations with Moscow has always meant making a pact with the devil, first with the repressive Soviet regime in the 1970s and 1980s and then with Vladimir Putin since the 2000s. After Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and after the poisoning of Alexei Navalny in 2020, Berlin has repeatedly shrugged and carried on. But Putin’s assault on Ukraine and Ukraine’s remarkable resistance have made that approach impossible.

The question is particularly explosive because in the late 1960s it was Chancellor Scholz’s party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), then led by the charismatic Willy Brandt, that launched Ostpolitik. Détente runs deep in the SPD, as personified by Gerhard Schröder, ex-chancellor and unrepentant chairman of the board at Russian state oil firm Rosneft [a recent post: “Gorgeous Gerhard’s Embrace of Bad Vlad“]. But the attachment is not confined to the social democrats. Voices on the German right have long favoured a modus vivendi with Russia, whether under the Tsar, the Soviets or now under Putin. For them, Bismarck is the model in balancing between East and West…And, as has become embarrassingly clear in recent months, there is a general disregard on many sides in Berlin for the national rights of “smaller” east European states – notably Poland and Ukraine – that have the misfortune to find themselves wedged between Germany and Russia [emphasis added]. Meanwhile, German industrial firms such as Siemens look back on 150 years of doing profitable business in Russia, relations which they are unwilling to have disrupted by a bagatelle like the annexation of Crimea.

…In 2022, Habermas…again fears a recrudescence of the right under the mantle of enthusiasm for Ukraine’s resistance. And once again his long and thoughtful article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 28 April has been met with a storm of disapproval. As has often been the case, this outrage has been given a platform in the pages of the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. This time Habermas stands accused of defending a battered and discredited tradition of West German politics, conniving with Putin, and clinging to old nostrums about nuclear war while patronising the Ukrainians and their supporters among younger generations of Germans.

…Every right-thinking person can clearly agree that Putin’s aggression must not be allowed to succeed. But we should also agree that a war with Russia is unthinkable. Russia is a nuclear power and escalation is an appalling risk. Any good-faith political intervention, Habermas insists, must squarely face this dilemma.

For the West, Habermas wrote, “having made the decision to not intervene in this conflict as a belligerent, there is a risk threshold that precludes an unrestrained commitment to the armament of Ukraine… Those who ignore this threshold and continue aggressively and self-assuredly to push the German chancellor towards it have either overlooked or not understood the dilemma into which this war has plunged the West… because the West, with its morally well-grounded decision to not become a party in this war, has tied its own hands.”

In light of this dilemma, the impatience of Scholz’s critics, who include not just Ukrainian spokespeople and right-wing hawks, but many former pacifists in the ranks of the Green party, is not innocent. What is being called into question, Habermas fears, is “the broad pro-dialogue, peace-keeping focus of German policy”, which should never be taken for granted. It was hard won and, as Habermas notes, has “repeatedly been denounced from the right”…

Ukraine is at the stage of making a nation state, Germany is well beyond that. In checking their spontaneous reactions of enthusiasm and solidarity with Ukraine, Germans and the rest of us in the West would be well advised to consider this gap and what it implies. We thrill to the heroism of the Ukrainians, which puts into stark relief the deflated state of our own politics. But our post-heroic culture cannot simply be cast off in disgust. It is a logical historical effect of the Nato umbrella that we continue to live under. Ukraine’s desperate courage, on the other hand, is a reflection of the fact that it does not. Under those circumstances, Habermas asks, “is it not a form of pious self-deception to bank on a Ukrainian victory against Russia’s murderous form of warfare without taking up arms yourself? The bellicose rhetoric is inconsistent with the bleachers from which it is delivered.”

…One might say that Habermas is urging us to figure out the politics of allyship on the international stage and under the shadow of the nuclear threat.

What is clear is that we must find a constructive way out of the dilemma posed by the war, a way out that must, as Habermas says in his final line, be defined by one basic aspiration: “Ukraine ‘must not lose’ this war.” Its project of building a nation state must continue.

For Europe itself the task is different. What the contrast with Ukraine ought to reveal is not so much the lack of a properly heroic national identity, but the lack of post-national capacities at the EU level. As Habermas remarks, there is a reason why those who have declared a historic turning point are those who have for a long time argued that Europe must be able to stand on its own feet militarily if it wants to ensure that its “social and political way of life” is not destabilised from without or hollowed out from within. That would not answer Ukraine’s heroism in kind but it would at least allow Europe to decide on its policy independently both of the US and Russia. Right now, American politicians are falling over themselves to provide tens of billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine in its fight with Russia. That they can agree on that and not on healthcare or climate change policy is a sign of America’s own dysfunction. But what US politics will bring in the near future is anyone’s guess. Soon Europe may be facing a disorientating clash of historical temporalities and political time not in eastern Europe but across the Atlantic. As Habermas reminds us, Macron’s re-election opens another window of opportunity. Will Europe seize it?

Has Putin unintentionally but effectively ended a particular German Sonderweg (the article at the link, by a German, is a very good companion to Adam Tooze’s piece)? Meanwhile, can the EU ever really get its defence/foreign policy act together?

UPDATE: Very relevant tweet:

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

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