“It feels like 1939,” commented Zvi to her neighbor, a 96-year-old Ukrainian who still remembers how European leaders had been unable to stop territorial annexations by the Third Reich until it was too late.
It was hard to believe, especially since Ukrainians voted for an openly pro-European prime minister in 2019, that Vladimir Putin would resume further actions after invading Crimea and supporting the Donbas’ independentist factions centered in Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014. That said, comparisons with the past are hardly accurate, despite parallelisms like unilaterally annexing territories amid an international passivity and Russia falling for a dangerous personality cult.
— John Markoff (@markoff) February 26, 2022
Like in the Balkans in the early nineties, Europeans cannot conceive of an open war among neighbors without feeling the anxious responsibility of reviving horrors that reshaped the continent and divided it into two antagonistic blocs, leaving deep wounds in the landscape, as well as an incalculable number of personal dramas.
Like in quantum physics, some phenomena issued from war can only be perceived in aggregate since the outcome carries more meaning than a mere mathematical addition of its parts. At the macro level, modern warfare transforms geopolitics, whereas it’s the micro-level that brings the forgotten personal pain and trauma. It has been 30 years since the Balkans wars shocked Europe and the world. Social media and pervasive live coverage help shape open conflicts & uprisings, whereas misinformation and improvised guerrilla warfare are often indistinguishable.
A 96-year-old Kyiv inhabitant
Paradoxically, the Russian attack reinforces the current Ukrainian aspirations to eventually join the European Union (born as a pragmatic framework for collaboration among old enemies which evolved into a political and economic union with common, harmonizing principles among its members,) and revives, if only temporally, the sense of NATO among its newest members, under the Warsaw Pact orbit during the Cold War.
Each generation perceives ongoing Russia’s aggression differently. Zvi is an anonymous citizen in Kyiv under siege and a survivor of a long-gone era in which Ukrainians paid a painful toll to repel Germans and during Stalin’s political purges. He who ordered the Russian attack was born in 1952, spent his formative years as a spy in East Germany, and held an ID pass that gave him access to classified material in the Stasi, the East German secret police. Vladimir Putin never lived the struggle of World War II, though he belongs to the generation who experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union and has tried ever since to restore Russian organizational credibility. Ukrainians from the same generation, like the former president Viktor Yushchenko, poisoned by the Russian secret services, learned the hard way Putin’s unwillingness to tolerate Ukraine’s aspiration to join NATO and the European Union.
Volodymyr Zelensky, the current Ukrainian Prime Minister who, along with his cabinet, has refused to leave the capital and called on social media to defend the country against the attack, belongs to yet another generation further away from the past’s traumatic events yet old enough to have lived in the Soviet Union. He is 44. A TV figure turned-politician much in the style of Italian showman Beppe Grillo, Zelenskyy had relied on a public image built upon social media engagement, allowing him to fight Russian AgitProp with a skilled determination.
Finally, young adults willing to stay in Kyiv and repel the attack state they want to defend the only country and reality they have known and experienced, sovereign to choose their future alliances democratically. Though, most of them are not naïve and understand the implications of energy and military geopolitics in the area. In return, whatever happens in Ukraine and Belarus will affect the complex equilibrium in the Baltic countries or even neutral Finland, not to talk about the street and political sentiment in the ex-Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Meanwhile, China has decided to stay by Putin in a clear sign of its further intentions regarding Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Not according to plan
February 2022 may be looking like September 1939, when the last survivors of such a dramatic era try to alert about the risks of a conflict that could get out of control. Europe and the world are not the same. Like in the events that followed 1939 and culminated in the Holocaust and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, mistakes made during the war never leave survivors, not even when things go back to normality, and everyone resumes their lives and endeavors.
Can people lead a daily life under siege? How does it feel to rest, play, cook, work or take care of children and the elderly in a European city under attack? What is “home” when your home can be bombed anytime, and you can feel the noise of open war in the background? And why does it seem we revisit such existential questions when those who suffer are Europeans and not refugees from other areas of conflict, sometimes as close to Western Europe as Ukraine itself?
People sharing emotive images (fathers saying goodbye to their families while staying behind to fight, long lines of people trying to cross the border, children —the epitome of innocence to propaganda in the ’30s, as well as now— holding hands in front of armored vehicles leaving for the closest battle) don’t seem to feel the same level of empathy when the conflict seems culturally further away, even when it happens to take place on their immediate vicinity.
Western opinion condemns almost unanimously the Russian invasion of the former Soviet republic. Ukraine is the second biggest European country by land surface only after Russia’s European territories (Ukraine is bigger than France or Spain, which makes its invasion and virtual occupation very difficult using only 190,000 soldiers against a population of 44 million people willing to do what’s in their hands to repel the attack).
Germany’s historical pivot
Still perceived as a novelty in a social media environment that struggles to remain focused on geopolitical issues, the Ukrainian Administration tries to organize a resistance and demands help, both through formal channels (asking for armor, but also any intelligence and cyber intelligence aid) to other countries, and also demands any help informally through social media (asking citizens willing to join guerrilla-like defense forces, accepting aid in cryptocurrency, and welcoming foreigners —those inspired by the country’s unwillingness to ease the attack and occupation— willing to fight on their side, as if it were a 21st-century version of the International Brigades helping the Spanish republicans against Franco and Italo-German allies).
In a European context, asking for informal international help brings back media narratives that go back not only to the International Brigades fighting the nationalist attack in the Spanish Civil War but also the informal resistance of the anarchist and internationalist maquis or Partisans against fascists during World War II, and also those Partisans against Stalin’s Great Purge and the Soviet control of the Eastern bloc after Yalta’s Conference. Already a figure in global social media, Volodymyr Zelensky welcomes foreigners “willing to fight” against aggression.
As we assist from the comfort of our chairs to the first open conflict in Europe in the last 30 years, those old enough to have listened to the consequences of passivity against open aggression in the region fear for the reality those living in Ukraine, but also in Russia and Belarus, will face amid an ongoing pandemic and energy crisis. Winter is not over yet, and Russian gas is still essential for Ukraine and the rest of Europe (as the gasoduct Nord Stream 2 through the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany shows).
In a few months, Germany has gone from willing to secure a priority energy deal with Russia to announcing a 100 billion euros one-off investment into the military, with a long-term goal of 2% military expenditure, days after Emmanuel Macron stressed the need for European Union to increase its self-reliance and military power (after Brexit, France is the only nuclear military power within the EU).
A conflict (almost) nobody wants
From the cold perspective of world geopolitical affairs, wary of personal dramas and the suffering of civil societies, the conflict is relatively parochial, and neither sanctions against Russia nor its role in the map of European energy represent an existential concern. Supply chain issues already exacerbated worldwide will worsen now that the biggest air cargo vessels, the Ukrainian Antonov fleet (capable of carrying oversized objects like helicopters, fire trucks, turbines, etc.), have been damaged or destroyed.
But it’s the everyday lives of Ukrainians and Russians that will suffer most. Millions of people who didn’t have anything to do with such a conflict will struggle to keep their purchasing power once the invasion and the sanctions imposed upon Russian assets will trickle down to the real economy.
Zelensky hast not only found his voice in the conflict, but his call to foreigners resonates across time and brings back fears from the Cold War era, as Vladimir Putin announces the activation of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. As analyst Tom Nichols stressed at the beginning of the invasion, there are so many ways in which the conflict could escalate and eventually morph into a conflict we would not yet call World War III. Yet, nobody seems to want such a semantics discussion and what it would imply for Europe and the world.
Weather has not been particularly harsh in Eastern Europe and a few days of open conflict concentrated around eastern and northern Ukrainian urban centers, but as the conflict extends the region could face food, energy, and vaccine shortages that could increase as Russia targets production and logistics centers, as well as communication hubs.
What modern warfare takes from us
At 96, Zvi is among the population suffering the toll of the conflict, as well as some of his old Russian friends facing the consequences of Putin’s attack. When news coming from Ukraine lose their freshness among the audience, and social media pundits move on, difficulties will have only begun for those who decided to stay in Ukraine and not flee to the Polish border. As they cross the border, young mothers with children who left behind those willing to stay and fight state that they didn’t have time yet to cry or analyze what’s happening.
Soon, there will be time to talk about exhaustion among the population, but few will care. And, if a conflict they didn’t choose intensifies, Russian-speaking people outside their country will be bullied because of their nationality or language. Even fewer people will take into consideration the economic suffering and mental health consequences of a war that comes after two years of a global pandemic. Such considerations don’t make important news or good memes to share on social media.
When suffering happens among the innocent population, the motives that escalated the conflict always seem abstract and rather absurd. In his novel Soldiers of Salamis, Spanish writer Javier Cercas decided to talk about the anonymous, pervasive suffering of war among the protagonists and those cursed to be living in a moment and place they did not choose. In the rear of any war, there are only vanquished spectators and there’s no place for the glorious redemption of epic poems.
There’s a key scene in Soldiers of Salamis. We are in Spain, in the second half of the Thirties, and the Civil War is ending; Franco has pushed the Republicans to the border. In a desolate place not far from Girona, a republican soldier spots a prominent Falange (Spain Fascist party) ideologue, Rafael Sánchez Mazas, fleeing a firing squad that is shooting the fascists before their withdrawal. The eyes of the two enemies meet. But the “good” soldier decides to let him escape and thus to save his life.
Some personal accounts of the horrors that can derive from an excessive personality cult at the top have the ability to teach us how to avoid the fine line between an open conflict that maintains the possibility of negotiation and a Dantesque scenario where industrial-scale obliteration takes the shape of the Holocaust or the Gulag. Once a war is over, its consequences remain.
When Paul Celan visited Freiburg
A Central European Jewish who experienced first person the horrors of the camps, both his parents died in the camps; Paul Celan’s father, Fritzi Antschel, was born in Sadhora, Ukraine. A poet in German language, Paul Celan (interested, like any complex thinker, in the meaning of place, home, and belonging), awaited all his life for an apology from German philosopher Martin Heidegger for his connivance with the Third Reich (though he soon left the position, Heidegger had been appointed dean of the University of Freiburg after Hitler’s electoral victory in 1933).
Heidegger kept an uncomfortable silence regarding the nazi excesses after World War II, including a silence (that to Paul Celan became deafening) concerning the Final Solution. Celan had read Being and Time, the influential book by Heidegger, and the German philosopher appreciated Celan’s poetry.
The two men met only once, more than two decades after the end of World War II. Celan had been invited to deliver a lecture at the University of Freiburg on July 24, 1967. The day after, Celan visited Heidegger at the philosopher’s “hutte” in the nearby mountains of the Black Forest. At Todtnauberg, the two men shared a day that left an old intellectual conversation standing.
Soon later, Paul Celan wrote Todtnauberg, a poem in which he addresses the pain of living in a world marked by the scars of cruel, inhuman events that had taken place only two decades before in the heart of “civilized” Europe. Events that did not bring Heidegger to consider an apology. Heidegger’s silence concerning the Final Solution reveals the impotence of individuals to grasp or even acknowledge what can happen when modern, industrial-scale warfare blends with messianic cultism and lack of democratic accountability.
A Fountain near a hut in the Black Forest
From the concealed meaning and guilt of silence in a pleasant conversation between a philosopher and a poet during a morning of bad weather in July 1967 at a wooden cabin with a fountain on its side (“the well with the star-die on top”) in the mountains of the Black Forest, there’s a testimony, Celan’s poem Todtnauberg:
Arnica, eyebright, the
draft from the well with the
star-die on top,
written in the book
—whose name did it record
in this book
the line about
a hope, today,
for a thinker’s
in the heart,
forest sward, unleveled,
orchis and orchis, singly,
raw exchanges, later, while driving,
he who drives us, the mensch,
he also hears it,
trails on the highmoor,