Jürgen Habermas, regarded as the greatest political philosopher in Europe, has written a text on its major contemporary crisis, the war in Ukraine. His thesis is that history recommends German „Besonnenheit,“ which in practice has meant little German action but much German talk during the first four months of the most important conflict in Europe since 1945.
Though Habermas makes his case on the basis of historical argument, it is striking that he has nothing to say about the Second World War. This is the conventional starting point for discussions of German responsibility, and it is more than usually applicable to Ukraine. Hitler portrayed the Ukrainians as a colonial people, and sought to displace them, starve them, and enslave them. He intended to use Ukrainian food supplies to make of Germany an autarkic world empire. Vladimir Putin has raised Hitlerian themes as justification for his war of destruction: the Ukrainians have no historical consciousness, no nationality of their own, no elite. Like Hitler, and for that matter like Stalin, he seeks to use Ukrainian foodstuffs as a weapon. But a reader of Habermas were not asked to consider these resemblances, nor to inquire whether as Germans they might bear responsibility towards Ukraine: a country where Germans killed millions of people, not so very long ago.
Habermas's guidepost of civilization is rationality, but he makes no effort in his text to identify Ukrainian rationality. I would suggest that the omission of a reference to the Second World War makes the identification of Ukrainian rationality more difficult, since it is a rationality grounded in existence. We do not learn that Putin denies the existence of a Ukrainian state and nation, and that the official Russian press service writes of resolving the Ukrainian question, that Russian television regularly spreads genocidal language, or that Russian soldiers use genocidal hate speech in their justifications for murder and rape, and so on. Ukrainians have concluded, with reason, that they are fighting for national survival. Habermas alludes to the Ukrainian predicament in remarks about heroic and post-heroic generations, but this German way of casting the problem nudges the reader away from Ukrainian experience, and perhaps from the most important issues. I think of Roman Ratushnyi, who was killed in combat, just short of his twenty-fifth birthday. Roman was a sixteen-year-old civic activist in 2013, when he protested in favor of a closer association of Ukraine with the European Union. He then became known in Kyiv as an ecological activist, defending green spaces from dubious plans for development. His life and his activity were oriented towards the future.