Letter, counter-letter, third letter – a debate is going on in Western Europe, which carries the apparent clarity of the attitude since the attack on Ukraine into broader fields. The peace movement is back, as is anti-Americanism. There are comparisons in the field, whether accurate or not. Allegations of warmongering and naive opposition to war are also common.
A look at what is happening in Ukraine shows that there is no sign of a quick end to the conflicts – especially since the speech by the Russian head of state Vladimir Putin on May 9, which was anticipated with some fanfare, but which was not noticed by the intensified war rhetoric expected in many places . According to the assessment of many analysts, Putin is counting on a longer war and, as the “Frankfurter Rundschau” (“FR”) recently wrote, “a sinking determination of the West”. The range of opinion could also broaden in the debates on the course of the war.
Extended debate for over a month
Voices advising against a clear pro-Ukraine stance could already be heard before the letter-return letter controversy. As early as mid-April, the writer Christian Baron stated that intellectual debates had lost “calmness” since the Russian attack on Ukraine: “The glowing, angry, burning tone reigns supreme.” At this point, the social psychologist Harald Welzer in the “Stern” was shocked at “how rapidly a narrative that originated before the First World War can be activated”. And Richard David Precht, who was never at a loss for an opinion in any field, had already received a rebuff for his statements. “Of course, Ukraine has a right to self-defense, but it also has a duty to be prudent when it comes to surrendering,” Precht said.
In fact, especially in the field of elites, the climate of opinion on Ukraine was not as clear as the women’s rights activist Alice Schwarzer recently argued in the suggestion for writing the letter in “Emma” also to the ORF. If you look at the returns of the most recently published article on ORF.at, the vast majority of reactions do not seem to be in Schwarzer’s field – however, the author was also urged to objectify the tone here.
Has pacifism had its day?
The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is not running out of reading material at the moment: last week he received an open letter from well-known intellectuals and cultural workers, including Alice Schwarzer, Peter Weibel, Lars Eidinger and Juli Zeh. They speak out against arms deliveries to Ukraine in the hope of preventing further escalation and the threat of a world war as a result. A media storm of indignation broke out over Schwarzer and Co. The accusation: Ukraine would be indirectly asked to capitulate.
Three publication tracks next to the excitements
In the field of debate between the letters, so to speak, three tendencies stand out:
- First, publications that try to do quick fact-checks – an example of this is the ex-“Standard” editor-in-chief Gerfried Sperl, who in the volume “Putin’s War Against Europe” (together with the Dossier platform) did a quick fact-check on the subject of Putin and NATO -East expansion attempted.
- Secondly, eyewitness accounts from the war zones, which contrast the analysis with the element of personal experience. As shown here on ORF.at, this happens in all types of media, not just in written form. “This is real life. This isn’t a movie. Or how life can change,” one reads in the story.one volume “24. February” based on the TikTok feed of Ukrainian Valeria Schaschenok (@valerisssh).
- And finally there are the meta-analyses, which want to look at the more fundamental aspects of the current war. As early as April 28, Jürgen Habermas published a fundamental discussion on the topics of “war and outrage” in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” (“SZ”).
At the moment the West can only choose between two evils, “the defeat of Ukraine or the escalation of a limited conflict into World War III”. According to Habermas, one had to learn from the Cold War that “a war against a nuclear power can no longer be won in a reasonable ‘sense’, at least not by means of military force within the foreseeable future of a hot conflict” – the According to Habermas, with recourse to the field of pragmatics, conflict can be ended “at best with a compromise that saves face for both sides”.
texts for debate
- Jürgen Habermas: War and Outrage. “SZ”, April 28, 2022.
- Marlene Streeruwitz: Handbook Against War. Bahoe Books.
- Alexander Bogner: The Epistemization of the Political. Reclam.
- Valeria Shashenok: February 24 … and the sky was no longer blue. Story.one.
- Gerfried Sperl: Putin’s war against Europe. Phoenix/Self Publishing.
Habermas: A generational issue
In any case, Habermas identified a gap between the generations when dealing with this war. Since the boys, who gave the impression “as if the completely new reality of the war had wrenched them out of their pacifist illusions” – with a young female foreign minister as the “icon” who “spontaneously identified with the impetuously moralizing urges of the Ukrainians determined to win leadership in a convincing form”.
According to Habermas, the core of the conflict lies in the foundation of experiences: here those “who empathetically but suddenly take the perspective of a nation fighting for their freedom, their rights and their lives”, as those “who, from the experiences of the Cold War, learned a different lesson and (…) developed a different mentality”.
“One can only learn from war how to make peace,” Habermas quotes Alexander Kluge, who co-signed the “Emma” letter. By this he means the “post-heroic mentality” of the West, which developed in the second half of the 20th century “under the nuclear protective umbrella of the USA” and which, mindful of the possible devastation caused by the option of nuclear war, “generally only end international conflicts through diplomacy and Sanctions” wanted to solve. According to Habermas, the fact that there is currently talk of a “turning point in time” can be explained by “a confusion between the two simultaneously clashing but historically non-simultaneous mentalities”.
In the center: Arms up, arms down – What will bring us peace again?
An open letter to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz sparked heated debates. A group of well-known intellectuals led by women’s rights icon Alice Schwarzer called for no more “further heavy weapons” to be delivered to Ukraine and for efforts to be made for a swift ceasefire. The letter found tens of thousands of digital supporters, also in Austria, but it also met with heavy criticism. A reply was the result.
“War, the most stable model of how history is made”
The writer Streeruwitz wants to turn against an age cohort reading of the war in the sense of Habermas. “War is the most stable model of how history was made and therefore the most stable institution in our cultures,” she now writes in her “Handbook Against War”, which was created and published within a few weeks. “We don’t know about peace. We don’t learn peace,” she writes in this book, which packs her basic considerations into sentence-like chapters. According to Streeruwitz, war is the “only reported event in our understanding of history”.
The logic of war, which all generations in our culture have learned, as Streeruwitz could summarise, reverses all the fundamental logics of life, including all of life’s needs. For her, the history of the war includes economic history, “which only reports how people were overwhelmed by what is called economic development”.
“War is made,” says Streeruwitz, who advises, as always, to distrust the narratives, no matter which side they may come from. For her, the war turns all the logic of life upside down: “Our tears over the tears of the war victims,” says the author, confirm the violence used: “We are all drawn into this abuse by the war. (…) In the perversion of war, all our small efforts to help count as booty for the belligerents. (…) This is the extreme form of blackmailing the well-meaning by the violent.”
A debate and assessment of the facts
In view of the intensity of some debates in recent weeks, it is doubtful that the debate on Ukraine, the war and the West’s attitude towards this conflict in the coming weeks and months will be based on reliable facts. On the other hand, this is also the normal aggregate state of democracies in the digital age, as the Austrian sociologist Alexander Bogner has shown in his Reclam volume “The Epistemization of the Political”, published in 2021 in the shadow of the pandemic even before the Ukraine war. According to Bogner, knowledge is “not always a robust resource”. Often “the validity of knowledge is disputed, sometimes uncertain or ambiguous”.
Especially in a historical debate, the validity of the factual is easily challenged by new frames. And the generational model mentioned by Habermas may play a role. In the course of this debate, university-established experts in the rank of professor are part of the 50+ age cohort – and they take a different framework into account when evaluating the facts, such as their own experiences of the Cold War. At the same time, this elite is used to placing the mindsets of the younger generation under a blanket assumption: “A Ukrainian president who is familiar with the power of images delivers impressive messages,” writes Habermas, and locates a “self-reinforcing echo” that the destruction found “in the social media of the West”.
But, as the sociologist Bogner reminds us, there is also a general skepticism in society about expert knowledge, the roots of which go back to the 19th century. “Today,” says Bogner, “the anti-authoritarian revolt against science has a strange, alien face” because it is no longer just supported by well-known groups such as “rebellious students, critical intellectuals and socio-ecologically motivated people”. “The general belief in the omnipotence of knowledge,” says Bogner, “spurs a general rejection of the experts.” But, he adds, “the fight against the typically expert claim to better knowledge (emphasis added, GH) is therefore seen as an expression of true democratization on all sides of the political spectrum.