It is legitimate to point out the danger of an uncontrolled escalation of the Ukraine war. But behind many leftists’ rose-tinted view of Putin lies a stubborn refusal to come to terms with their own ideological delusions.
If we do not stop Putin now, not only Ukraine will be destroyed. Then the “jihad against Western liberalism” proclaimed by Putin’s chief ideologist Alexander Dugin in 2015 will also have been successful.
Since the Maidan revolution in 2014, Ukrainians have been fighting for their nation’s right to self-determination, and the continuation of their path to the West—to freedom and democracy. Putin’s response to this was the annexation of Crimea, that is, his “green men” who “liberated” the supposedly pro-Russian territories in the eastern part of the country.
The Putin-understanders and Putin-servants in the West by no means only wanted cheap gas for Europe. They still think in terms of imperial spheres of influence and repeat the fairy tale of how Putin was humiliated and offended because NATO had expanded eastward. After the annexation of Crimea, Helmut Schmidt expressed sympathy for Putin’s actions and denied the Ukrainians the right to be a nation.
Incredible Mental Reversal
This benevolent view toward Moscow has a long tradition, especially in Germany. Immediately before the imposition of martial law in Poland and the suppression of the Solidarity movement in 1981, Schmidt said in an interview that he could understand if the Soviet Union got involved, because it had to “keep its house in order as a leading power.” In June 2015, Frank-Walter Steinmeier—despite protests from the U.S., East-Central European countries, the Baltics, and Ukraine—called the Nord Stream 2 agreement a “bridge between Russia and Europe” that would serve peace.
In the meantime, there has been a bit of an apologetic response to the obvious failure of the bridge policy; and Olaf Scholz, in his speech on the anniversary of May 8, 1945, demonstrated support for Ukraine, even with heavy weapons, with the new motto of “freedom and security.” Under public pressure, SPD chairman Lars Klingbeil announced a new Ostpolitik.
But the prolonged wavering casts doubt on a fundamental mental conversion—not only in the Social Democratic Party, but also among intellectuals who are now calling, without mincing words, for Ukraine’s surrender in favor of world peace. Social Democratic parties in particular have never come to terms with their ties to the communists in Moscow and later to Putin. Peace was always more important to them than freedom, even in the days of détente. The status quo of the postwar order was not to be disrupted—Change through reconciliation and liberalization through stabilization.
Left-Wing Intellectuals’ Refusal to Face Reality
In the end, however, it was not so much Michael Gorbachev that ensured a different course of history, but the NATO Double-Track Decision and the resolute deterrence policy of the West and Ronald Reagan, as well as the peaceful revolutions of the civil rights movements in 1989. Social democrats and many intellectuals had long regarded the East Central European dissidents as dangerous disturbers of world peace and the policy of détente. As late as 1990, Günter Grass justified the Wall and the division of Europe as punishment for Auschwitz. And Jürgen Habermas mocked the “DM [Deutschmark] nationalism” of the East Germans in the face of reunification.
In response to the reproach of Adam Michnik (Polish historian and dissident) as to why there was no fundamental discussion of Stalinism in his work, Habermas replied in 1993 that fear of applause from the wrong side had kept him silent, that he had not wanted to “get into anti-communist waters.” Before 1989, anyone in the Federal Republic who supported the dissidents’ anti-communist uprising against the communist dictatorship was considered a cold warrior, reactionary and right-wing in the left-liberal intellectual milieu and by many Social Democrats.
Only a minority on the left saw it differently. The end of the Iron Curtain and the fall of the “anti-fascist wall” did not arouse great enthusiasm among many intellectuals. They resented the unified nation and saw a new nationalism emerging. On the other hand, those who considered nation-states obsolete and sang the praises of post-nationalism, and the European federal state, were considered progressive.
Many did not like the fact that during the peaceful revolutions of 1989, the agenda explicitly included “civil” liberties, one’s own nation, and a return to the Western community of values. It also caused unease that with the end of Soviet rule, the moral abyss of communist crimes was again a topic of public debate, at least for a short time. After all, the student movement of 1968 had brought about a drastic paradigm shift that dissolved the anti-totalitarian consensus of the postwar period.
Anti-Fascism Rhetoric, Anti-Western Resentment, and Historical Lies
The renaissance of Marxism at universities and in social debates put an end to the Western liberal theories of totalitarianism, which featured comparative analyses of National Socialism, fascism, communism, and Stalinism. Various theories of fascism now dominated the discourse, while Stalin’s crimes were left out.
A melange of anti-fascism, anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism, and anti-Americanism—as a result of the Vietnam War—condensed into a pronounced anti-Western resentment that could be found in social democratic circles as well as in intellectual circles. At the same time, it was considered chic to propagate a generalized suspicion of fascism against the Federal Republic. A purifying intellectual self-reflection has yet to take place.
Obviously, Putin’s anti-fascist rhetoric still touches this blind spot among leftists, social democrats, intellectuals, and cultural influencers, and thus it catches on. The focus of historical perception is less on the Western Allies in the fight against Hitler than on the glorious Soviet Union with its Red Army. The myth of the victorious defeat of fascism ennobled the Soviet Union as the great anti-fascist liberator.
The Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 remained underreported, as did the Soviet Communist Party’s successful practice of instrumentalizing Western intellectuals and artists (Pablo Picasso, Leon Feuchtwanger, André Gide) as Fellow Travelers at its anti-fascist writers congresses.
rying the momentum of the magnificent parades in Moscow on May 9, 1945, to celebrate the victory over fascism, the millions of victims of communist crimes have been forgotten over ensuing decades, the atrocities downplayed or denied. The myth of the anti-fascist liberator and founder of world peace is still powerfully effective and distorts leftist views of Russia.
Vladimir Putin, with his historical lies and reversal of the perpetrator-victim relationship, still conjures up the image of Russians as the main victims of the Nazis. Although the German war of extermination and atrocities particularly affected Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine, four million Ukrainians died in the famine initiated before that by Stalin. Today, Putin calls Ukrainians fascists and Nazis who planned genocide against Russians and wants to eradicate their nation and culture.
A New Anti-Totalitarian Consensus Is Needed
It is legitimate and necessary to point out the dangers of an unpredictable escalation and expansion of the war. But Jürgen Habermas and the intellectuals calling for Ukrainian surrender are falling into Putin’s anti-fascist propaganda trap if they accept his threat of nuclear war out of fear.
Fearful retreat will not satisfy the emperor’s hunger but will instead increase it. If we do not stop Putin now, Ukraine will not be all that is destroyed. Then the “jihad against Western liberalism” proclaimed by Putin’s chief ideologue Alexander Dugin in 2015 will also succeed. The crisis and war over Ukraine have only just begun. We urgently need a new, anti-totalitarian consensus throughout the West to robustly defend freedoms and confront daunting challenges.
This article originally appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on May 14, 2022, p. 21, under the title “Peace of the Comfort Zone” and online at nzz.ch.
Translation from German by Thomas and Kira Howes.
Note: Ulrike Ackermann’s new book Die neue Schweigespirale. Wie die Politisierung d er Wissenschaft unsere Freiheiten einschränkt (WBG, Darmstadt).