analysis | Germans are waging an open letter war over Ukraine and Russia


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Controversies among German intellectuals are usually so frivolous, pretentious, and painful to look at that even their worst enemies are hesitant to experience it. But I’m making an exception to a phenomenon I’ll call open letter wars.

This ongoing philosophical conflict concerns Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine and the appropriate response of Germany and tacitly the Western allies to it. Surprisingly, this debate has the potential to be enlightening.

It started with a preface thesis by Juergen Habermas, one of Germany’s most famous and overrated philosophers. Even a courageous attempt to translate it into English does not justify the jumbled arrogance of successive sentences in the original text, made with the intention of avoiding criticism that follows for its accidental clarity.

In short, Habermas argues that it is wrong for critics of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to demand clearer communication and more drastic action when sending arms to Ukraine. Because Habermas thinks the subject is so complex that a philosopher like him needs to explain it.

Yes, he admits, Ukraine has the right to defend itself. But if we (Germany and the West) do what Putin chooses to interpret as participating in the war, we could suddenly get caught up in World War III and Putin could nuclear us. Therefore, Scholz is right to take small steps and stick to the nuances.

Inspired by Habermas’ words, a group of mostly left-wing celebrities around Germany’s most prominent feminist, Alice Schwarzer, issued an “open letter” to Scholz. More than 260,000 signatures as of Tuesday.

Signatories urge Scholz not to provoke Putin by returning to his original policy of not sending weapons to Ukraine, rekindling the dangers of World War III and nuclear Armageddon. They add that the responsibility for the nuclear escalation rests not only with the “original aggressor” (ie, Putin), but also with “the motivators with their eyes wide open.” It’s probably us who helped the Ukrainians defend themselves.

it gets worse The authors believe that the decision to measure the cost of living for Ukrainians is “universal” rather than “exclusive” in Ukraine. Obviously we will all vote when enough, and it’s time for Ukraine to surrender. The signatories conclude by urging Scholz to negotiate a peace deal. They seem to think that the outcome no longer depends on Putin, but on the powers of the German Chancellor.

Such timid moralization would have been natural in post-war Germany’s fake pacifist tradition before February 2022. But after February 27 – when Scholz declared a “demarcation line” in Germany’s Russian policy – it sounds dissonant. Online, many Germans mocked the open letter’s “sofa pacifism”.

But to get the first good jab, I needed a man who looked and sounded like a real Ukrainian hero. Wladimir Klitschko is a former world heavyweight boxing champion like his brother Vitali, who is mayor of Kyiv. The two are now defending the country. They also speak fluent German. So Vladimir took the Op-Ed page of a German newspaper and responded to the open letter.

After listing the atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine up to that point, Klitschko reminded the letters that the Ukrainians did not start this war. Yes, they will continue to defend themselves. And they need weapons. And no, they will not give up their existence as a nation and democracy to satisfy “intellectuals who have lost both reality and reason.”

With this, Germany has prepared the next open letter to Scholz (which already has more than 64,000 signatures as of Tuesday). This is written by other intellectuals across the spectrum. It praises Scholz’s new policy of arming Ukraine and advises fortitude. Then we get to the point.

“The threat of nuclear war is part of Russia’s psychological warfare,” writes the author. But “the success of Putin’s armed revisionism in Ukraine increases the risk of the next war on NATO territory.” If he wins now, he will go on to Moldova, the Baltic States. They concluded that “the risk of a key escalation must be met with credible containment”.

What they couldn’t say but could add is that Putin isn’t the only one who can count on nuclear blackmail in this new and frightening era. There are currently nine countries in the world that have nuclear weapons, and probably many more. If Putin appears to have won by threatening a “tactical blow”, he and others will be tempted to do the same in subsequent clashes. Giving in to his bullying now won’t keep us safe. It will put us all at greater risk.

And the sparring continues as the duel signers move from one TV talk show to another. What began as a mighty impetus blooms in the mud, but like a lotus that blooms in the sunlight, it is slowly elucidated with clear insight.

Scholz, the nominal addressee of the letter, has to be cautious, but now tells the Germans that “we cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear” and that Putin must not win. 77 years after the end of the German World War, he says, this is what he meant “never again.”

About this author and more from Bloomberg Opinion:

Putin’s Parade Can’t Hide Lost Victory: Clara Ferreira Marquez

Give up ‘the West’ to save democracy and defeat Putin: Andreas Kluth

There is only one thing that helps Ukraine right now. Weapon: Therese Raphael

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP or its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. Former Editor-in-Chief of Handelsblatt Global and author of The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.

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