Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, there has been a heated debate in Germany about leveling sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals, ending German dependence on Russian oil and gas, rearming Germany and delivering weapons to Ukraine. In a historic speech to the Bundestag on February 27th, three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz proclaimed a Zeitenwende—a “turn of the times.” He also announced an unprecedented financial push of 100 billion euros to beef up the German military. Instantly, it seemed to be clear to everyone what he was talking about. In part, this was because Zeitenwende evokes previous turns in German history, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, which came to be known simply as “die Wende.” At the same time, however, it was not at all clear what today’s Zeitenwende actually means. If Germany’s policy of pacifism and “Wandel durch Handel”—change through trade—with Russia has been mothballed, what new era has dawned?
In the first weeks after the Russian invasion, the debate focused on (relatively uncontroversial) sanctions against Russia, the tool of modern war, as Nicholas Mulder’s recent book calls them. By mid-April, however, the debate had shifted to the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine, and intensified. On the latter point, the German population seemed to be divided. Opinion depends massively on the question of how likely one sees the possibility of a nuclear confrontation or a third World War.
On April 28th, someone undoubtedly considered the most important German philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century—the 92-year-old Jürgen Habermas—entered the debate about an appropriate German reaction to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Given his advanced age, the essay came as a surprise, yet it also recalled previous interventions in Habermas’s career, from the student revolt in 1968 to the Historikerstreit about the German past in the 1980s. The essay, “Krieg und Empörung,” was published prominently on the first two pages of the cultural section of Süddeutsche Zeitung, the most widely read daily newspaper in Germany. An English translation was published the same day, entitled, like the German version, “War and Indignation.”
A text with the word indignation in the title almost never contains any such thing. Habermas’s focus is not the war, its reasons, its victims or its atrocities, but rather the developments and discussions about it among the German public. Does a nonagenarian like Habermas read Twitter, one may wonder? Does he go to coffee shops and bars undercover? (Surely not impossible, since even the most prominent philosopher of his generation would only be recognized in public by relatively few people.) Or does he have spies and a reliable network of people who serve as his antennae? In any case, Habermas hasn’t written an intellectual inside job, simply quoting texts he has read. Quite the contrary: he attempts to describe and criticize public opinion, especially the heated calls for Scholz to come forward and be more active in supporting Ukraine not only in word but deed. Scholz, he argues, is being confronted with a “shrill battle of opinion, fueled by the press, about the type and extent of military aid for the troubled Ukraine.”
Habermas explains and endorses Scholz’s deliberative approach. The decision not to become a party to the war is morally well founded, he says, but nevertheless the West has tied its own hands. Western nations are caught in the dilemma of supporting Ukraine, but only up to the point where Russia could consider them as being parties to the war. We need to find a constructive exit from this dilemma, Habermas counsels. This is the imperative that lies in the careful wording at the end of his essay: Ukraine “must not lose this war.”
Habermas’s piece certainly tests a reader’s attention: it is long, wordy and tries to take the viewpoint of the German government at a time when many readers might expect intellectuals to be entertaining contrarians. It is deliberative and sober in nature.
Habermas’s argument immediately attracted a lot of criticism. In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, traditionally the more conservative counterpart to Süddeutsche Zeitung, Cord Schmelzle wrote that Habermas’s historical assessment is “obviously distorted by German sensitivities.” According to him, Habermas equates the calls for greater support for Ukraine with the “caricature” of a “naïve ethic of conviction driven by emotion that does not care about consequences,” while ignoring the possible consequences of a position of restraint. Simon Strauss, also writing in FAZ, dismissed Habermas’s intervention as a sign of his increasing age: “The chief critic of Germany’s public sphere sees his luck run out. Everything Jürgen Habermas thinks he has achieved throughout his life as a political commentator is dissolving these days.” Yet one may wonder: How could Habermas provoke so much outrage by arguing in such a deliberative way?
Obviously, one has to keep in mind that it is a kind of sport among journalists to rise to the challenge of an intervention by Habermas every ten years. Attacking established intellectuals is like “climbing up the date ladder,” as someone once told me. There is a kind of halo of glory that comes from having once in a lifetime written a reply to Habermas—or at least a prickly Twitter thread. In his tweeted reaction to the SZ essay, the journalist Christoph Kucklick leans neatly out of the identity politics window: “In sum: old left-wing male rationality against alleged clueless female emotionality.”
Kucklick is referring to a passage in which Habermas is quite bluntly describing what nobody actually would deny, but which may sound a bit arrogant to some ears: the media-savvy and determined Ukrainian leadership has swayed “younger members of our society” in particular and “torn them out of their pacifist illusions.” In this context, Habermas explicitly mentions “Germany’s newly iconic foreign minister” who “gave authentic expression to the shock.” Indeed, just as Scholz is being mocked on the internet, there are numerous euphoric tweets with the same ironic twist, like “So glad we have a female chancellor again,” referring to the foreign minister Annalena Baerbock. Her surprise visit in May to Kyiv, where at one point she was decked out in black, down to her helmet and flak jacket, was remarkably well received in Germany. Scholz himself finally visited Kyiv on June 16th.
After the initial fireworks, a summary and analysis of Habermas’s essay was offered by Adam Tooze in the New Statesman. It’s notable that this calm, well-composed commentary appeared outside Germany. Tooze quite rightly makes clear that Habermas is by no means putting forward the idea that Ukraine should surrender for the greater good: “One might say that Habermas is urging us to figure out the politics of allyship on the international stage and under the shadow of the nuclear threat.” Habermas is certainly not a staunch pacifist and not generally against arms deliveries. As Tooze recalls, Habermas came out in favor of military intervention in earlier conflicts, such as NATO’s bombing of Yugoslav forces in Kosovo in 1999.
Tooze rightly points out that Habermas is primarily concerned with distinguishing between clashing mentalities in the debate on Ukraine. There is the “widely admired, heroic resistance and self-evident willingness to sacrifice displayed by the Ukrainian population,” and in stark contrast to this, the “post-heroic mentality” of our Western societies and old nation-states in which we count on our professional militaries and do not feel much need or passion for nationalism. Instead of saying which mentality is the better one—which may be what readers expect from such an analysis—Habermas stresses that “such differences should be accepted as fact,” and that “allies should not reproach each other for different political mentalities that historically do not match in view of being still involved in the becoming of a nation state or having passed that kind of formation process.”
Consequently, what worries Habermas most is “the self-assurance with which the morally indignant accusers in Germany are going after an introspective and reserved federal government.” Habermas seems to aim his criticism mainly at those whom I like to call the newly converted, who used to be pacifists or simply disinterested in violent conflicts (or simply disinterested in the whole of Eastern Europe, for that matter) until just now.
What is true for religious experiences is true for political conversions as well: the often very bold self-assurance of new converts tends to be full of fervor but unstable, temporary. It is only a matter of time until new converts are “converted yet again,” and then, not infrequently, perceive themselves as having been deceived.
I wonder, for example, if anybody still remembers the wave of sympathy and solidarity with Afghanistan that swept through German society in the summer of 2021 (this is only one year ago!). People were furious in their calls for support of Afghan families who had worked for the German troops and were abandoned to the Taliban to be persecuted as traitors. Now, when I talk to the civil servant in my hometown who is responsible for organizing the private accommodation of Ukraine refugees, he says he’s desperate. People come to him to offer their private homes, but if he says he has an Afghan family instead of Ukrainians in need of housing, the host’s willingness vanishes into thin air. Anybody with an attention span of over one year must be hesitant about the longevity of the sudden German enthusiasm for helping Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees.
Among the people in Germany who are experiencing a personal change of heart as a result of the war in Ukraine are “the Baerbock converts”—or Baerbockbekehrte, as I have taken to calling them. I find the phenomenon so widespread and remarkable that I would like to elaborate on it. Directly after the Russian invasion, in March, April and May, I had the somewhat dubious good fortune of campaigning for the Green party in the small town of Dinslaken in western Germany. The election was on May 15th, for the state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia. And it was of special interest because it was the first major election since the new administration—the first one not led by Angela Merkel, who had been chancellor for sixteen years—had taken office in autumn. The election was rightly seen as a test for the new government, especially since North Rhine-Westphalia is the most populous state in Germany, and often considered to be a bellwether.
It was the third election year in a row for the town of Dinslaken, and for me as a punching bag at the campaign booth. In 2020 there were local elections, and these were “the good old days,” as we call them, since our campaign was met with interest and goodwill, partly due to the drought in the region and the Fridays for Future protests. This was followed by the 2021 Bundestag elections, where we were confronted with rude criticism, outright hatred and absurdist fake claims to an extent we had not known before. One day it took me a while to understand why a young woman was so angry at me: probably for some internet-related reason, she thought the Green party was about to ban pets.
Throughout the summer of 2021, the harshest attacks and insults were aimed at the Greens’ candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock. I was told countless times that she was incompetent, mendacious and obsessed with power. In September, despite the Bundestag election being a huge success in the Greens’ political history—14.8 percent, coming third after the center-left SPD (25.7) and the conservative CDU (24.1)—she failed to become chancellor but nevertheless was appointed Germany’s foreign minister in Scholz’s three-party coalition government. (This is a very prominent position: traditionally, whoever is foreign minister is seen as the chancellor-to-be). Then something else happened: in the campaign for the 2022 election in North Rhine-Westphalia, roughly seven months after Baerbock had taken office, people approached me at the booth of their own accord to say that they had been wrong and were sorry for their misjudgment in 2021. Strangers told me with affection that Annalena Baerbock is very competent and authentic. To me, this looked a lot like a 180-degree change of opinion, a veritable conversion experience. Some people added that they trust Baerbock more than any other politician to hopefully give “the Russian” what he deserves. Because “the Russian” only understands violence. Everything once bad about her seemed to be good all of a sudden. To be obsessed with power was suddenly something to cheer, apparently.
In these conversations, I listened in friendly silence and needed to take a shower afterwards. This applause for Baerbock—regardless of what I personally think of her as a person, of Russia or the war—was a special kind of alienating experience. I find it much harder to bear than the scorn heaped upon her last year.
To be fair, there were also people approaching our booth and criticizing the Greens and Baerbock for betraying the party’s traditional pacifist stand. Some of those people, however, did not give the impression that they had ever voted for the Greens, but rather had found a new reason, next to rocketing gasoline prices, to never vote for them and always see them as the harbingers of what they often call a “climate dictatorship.” When I read Habermas’s essay, especially his words on the “shrill battle of opinion,” I thought of the “Baerbock converts” I had met on the streets of my very boring, very middle-class, very average hometown. When he wrote that the foreign minister “has become an icon,” I did not interpret this as a backhanded compliment or misogynist comment about Baerbock herself, but rather as a fitting description of how people’s minds had changed toward her person.
If the critique of self-assurance and emotionality is never easy to take, one still wonders why Habermas’s text has attracted so much criticism. Habermas, one should know, is not an intellectual who thrives on fringe opinions or contrarian moves. When I studied philosophy in Hamburg from 2011 to 2015, we students spent much of our time fighting about philosophers and their raison d’être in our curriculum. Nietzsche, Marx, Heidegger, Adorno and Derrida were regularly debated. Jürgen Habermas, however, was no man’s land. He was not contested terrain. With a paper on Habermas (or John Rawls, for that matter), one could be sure not to get into hot water with any professor. The consensus view of his work consisted of deep respect and quite a bit of boredom. Habermas is the king of ponderous thoughts, as my friend Tobias Haberkorn once said: if Habermas is arguing in favor of something, you can be sure that an “on the other hand” is waiting to greet you around the corner. Among us students, Habermas seemed to be unable to provoke any ardent feelings at all.
There is, however, a paradoxical phenomenon. Sometimes it is precisely sobriety, detachment and deliberateness—the absence of feelings—that can trigger a wave of emotion. A few weeks ago, a book was published in Germany, Denken ohne Trost, which happens to be my translation of Tough Enough (2017), by the literary scholar Deborah Nelson. In her astute analysis of this paradoxical phenomenon, Nelson examines the “unsentimental style” she sees in the work of Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus and Joan Didion. All of these artists and intellectuals relegate feelings, especially compassion and indulgence in expressions of solidarity, to the back seat in their work. They deem it necessary to confront the world and suffering without taking the feelings of anybody into consideration. All of them—especially since as women they were expected to be compassionate—were heavily attacked for this “coldhearted” approach. The scandal around Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is only the most prominent example.
One German reviewer, writing in April, came to the conclusion that Denken ohne Trost was “a book of the hour,” by which she had in mind the heated debates about Ukraine and German pacifism. I thought it was a book of the hour, too, when I translated it, but that was during the last three months of 2021. At that time, it was the heated debates about the pandemic that were on my mind. Yes, we live in particularly galvanized times. Yes, it is a book of the hour. But which hour is it exactly?
Maybe the pandemic and the war, however, are not such independent phenomena as they might seem. Even though, historically, pandemics used to occur after wars and troop movements and not before, I wonder if historians will one day unearth the deep connections between these two events. I wonder if the one lesson people have learned from the past two years of precautions taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is this: the more quickly and comprehensively measures are taken and enforced, the more effective they are, and the sooner they can be lifted again. This is certainly true for pandemics. The measures that were enforced during the past two years might have been more or less effective in fighting the virus, but at least it is safe to say that they did not help it spread.
Yet if you transfer the logic of measures for containing a contagious disease to the goal of ending a war, you may get into trouble. It is not pacifist or Putinist to state that in warfare, strict and urgent measures to end things as quickly as possible may lead to the very opposite: escalation and prolongation. It’s like shouting at kids to stop them from shouting at each other: it sometimes works and sometimes makes everything worse. If taken much too seriously, this logic could even make a preemptive nuclear strike on Moscow look plausible. Am I wrong to say that “ending the war as soon as possible” has been the reasoning behind dropping nuclear bombs in the past, just like “preventing war” has been the reasoning for building them?
It does seem probable to me that the experience of the pandemic not only involved ever more heated debates and ever more socially distanced filter bubbles, but also massively heightened the sense that there’s no longer time for deliberation about an overwhelming threat. The background noise of imminent climate collapse adds to the general feeling that deliberation is not only useless but harmful. There is a general feeling that “we should have acted long ago,” that “now is not the time to take time.”
In his essay, Habermas is not campaigning against action. He is campaigning for taking time for deliberation before acting, and for letting leading politicians like Olaf Scholz take their time too. Does anybody want to hear this? Paradoxically, and a bit cynically, one might argue that the public indeed wants to hear this, and that the scorn for Habermas is only a sign of how desperately we want it. If Habermas’s text has fulfilled a function in this contemporary hunt for immediacy, it is this: by harshly criticizing him, we can indulge in the feeling that we did, indeed, deliberate before taking action. Taking aim at Habermas makes us sleep better because we can be sure we didn’t call for arms without thinking it through. Of course, even Habermas’s harshest critics would never say they don’t deliberate. It is deliberation that leads them to be against deliberation, at least the kind of deliberation that is putting reflection first and taking action second. Habermas, for them, is the perfect philosopher for this role, since he represents precisely the consensus and deliberative style that “has landed us” in this situation where there is “no time left” for deliberation.
Habermas’s text is now almost two months old, and at least on the surface, nothing has changed much in the meantime. Scholz announced heavy arms deliveries to Ukraine—an air defense system (IRIS-T), three missile launchers (MARS II), seven tank howitzers (Panzerhaubitzen 2000) and thirty Gepard tanks. The first delivery finally arrived last week; but despite all the clamor in the spring, few seemed to notice.