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It’ll take more than tanks to ease Germany’s guilt

Vasyl Cherepanyn is head of the Visual Culture Research Center in Kyiv.

Like most of the West, Germany, one of the leading economic and political global powers, gave up on the war in Ukraine long before it even started. 

It would have been a hidden relief to many across the Continent if President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had chosen to respond to the Russian invasion by asking not for ammunition but for a ride — becoming instead of a war-time leader, a national politician in exile, like Svetlana Tikhanovskaya of Belarus. 

Western Europe then wouldn’t have had to deal with the mess of war. It could have been able to simply host refugees, provide humanitarian aid and feel pretty self-satisfied. But Ukraine’s willingness to resist and fight has complicated all foregone conclusions.

Germany has finally, and begrudgingly, been dragged to agree to deliver tanks to Ukraine as it battles against its oppressor. But that doesn’t eliminate the elephant in the room — that despite its historical background, Germany has not only overlooked the new fascism breeding under Russian President Vladimir Putin, it has been feeding the aggressor from its own hands. And as soon as Germany’s beloved Mutti left, the Kremlin leader unleashed his beastliness.

With Russia’s invasion on February 24, a new catastrophic reality, one that reenacted past genocidal fantasies anew, challenged the very integration principle of post-World War II Europe. The very foundations of the institutional order, as well as the political and ideological practices the European continent had since been based on, appeared under direct existential threat from the Russian state totalitarianism, which threatened the Ukrainian people with mass physical and political extermination.

But it was not only Ukraine but also German Geschichtspolitik, its politics of memory, that was forced to go to war. Germans are well-known as the world champions in acknowledging collective guilt and the burden of nationality it entails. It’s an idea that has long been pondered by the nation’s writers and thinkers, from Thomas Mann to Karl Jaspers, who insisted that no one could escape collective guilt and responsibility — that it is, unavoidably, always a personal one. It’s also a lesson to be learned by the Russians too, sometime soon.

However, Germany drew the wrong conclusion from its historical experience, having confused the causes and consequences of its famous pacifist stance, which was inscribed in modern Germany’s DNA. Pacifism and the pursuit of peace, the defining policy of Germany and other Western European governments, have become an international norm not because of the “dialogue” approach and appeasement attempts, but only thanks to the military defeat of aggressors on the battlefield. There would be no pacifism whatsoever if the Nazis won the war.

Germany’s “economy first” approach has also been considered part of its collective working through the past, simultaneously enabling the German people to transform their society and make their country the powerhouse of Europe. But this now appears to have been an Ersatzpolitik — a compensatory politics covering up historical traumas, substituting moral responsibility with business-as-usual.

Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Germany has been imposing neocolonial optics on its Eastern European “peripheries,” and on the post-Soviet space in particular, where Ukraine was long considered a gray buffer zone about which the EU was “deeply concerned.” Germany didn’t bother itself much with differentiating between former Soviet countries’ pasts. Even until recently, any Ukrainian agenda in Germany was often “balanced” with a Russian perspective, so as to not exclude the latter by any means.

But Wandel durch Handel, Germany’s change through trade, has simply been a maskirovka, a deception that has allowed German corporations to maintain ties with their Russian oligarch counterparts all this time. It has helped fend off efforts to counter Russia’s international crimes and its aggression against Ukraine. 

The tanks Germany is sending will be welcome, but they will not be enough. Historical responsibility today requires doing everything possible to make Putin lose. United Europe and the free world came to being on the basis of anti-Nazism. If the political and economic foundations of the current variation of fascism remain intact, we soon won’t have a common world to live in.

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