Jürgen Habermas

Germany’s crisis of conscience

An unholy alliance of Berlin capitalists and intellectuals has disastrously misjudged the Ukraine war

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The joke of John Cleese’s “Don’t mention the war” routine was aimed more at the British than the Germans. But nearly half a century after that episode of Fawlty Towers was first broadcast, the Germans are again thin-skinned about the war.

Not that war: guilt about the country’s past has run its course. German millennials seem as insouciant about antisemitism, especially the left-wing kind, as they are anywhere else. No, it is Russia’s war on Ukraine that has provoked the most intense spasm of moral introspection since the Berlin Wall fell.

Germany has prided itself in exporting a particular kind of moral earnestness

Then, as now, the intelligentsia was out of step with what was happening in the streets. The Nobel laureate, Günter Grass, was only one of the writers who, posing as the conscience of the nation, warned against unification, even as the process had already gathered irresistible momentum. The gravamen of Grass’s case was that a reunited Federal Republic might be tempted to abandon its unofficial motto, “Never again”, and revert to atavistic type. A few years later, it emerged that Grass had hidden his own Nazi past, as a teenage conscript in the Waffen SS during the last weeks of the war.

The Ukrainian war has turned into a crisis for Germany too, albeit one that is being fought in newspapers or television studios. Its targets go beyond Olaf Scholz, who succeeded Angela Merkel as chancellor just six months ago amid a wave of popularity. Initially proclaiming a Zeitenwende (literally, “epochal turning point”), Scholz’s abject failure to take a firm moral and practical stand on the war has cost him dearly.

Who is to blame for the fiasco? Chief among the culprits are the influential business lobbies who have invested everything in a labyrinthine nexus of trade connections with Moscow and Beijing.

Alice Schwarzer

For 70 years, German corporatism has been based on a neo-mercantilist model, fiercely protecting its domestic markets and industries while exporting superbly engineered goods produced with cheap Russian energy. The caution in Berlin about cutting carefully nurtured ties with Russia reflects angst about the dawning realisation that this much-vaunted business model is now obsolete.

Only the presence of the Greens in the ruling coalition has forced Scholz to concede that German dependence on Russian hydrocarbons is a fatal liability that must be ended. How soon that is possible is as much a political as an economic question. Russia’s unilateral cessation of gas exports to Poland has forced Warsaw to adapt, though Poles have not flinched at showing solidarity with Ukraine.

German politicians — who have long had a habit of adding insult to injury by lecturing their more impecunious EU partners, notably during the euro crisis a decade ago — are now balking at the prospect of much smaller sacrifices.

For generations, Germany has prided itself not only on being world champions in exporting cars, but also in exporting a particular kind of moral earnestness. Having committed the worst crimes in history during the first half of the twentieth century, in the second half Germans laid claim to be the world’s most exemplary citizens, under the mantra “Never again”.

Now, suddenly, the refrain rings hollow. “This year,” says Volodymyr Zelensky, “we say ‘Never again’ differently. We hear ‘Never again’ differently. It sounds painful, cruel. Without an exclamation, but with a question mark. You say: never again? Tell Ukraine about it.”

Yet “Never again” is the German intelligentsia’s raison d’être. They see themselves literally as the peacemakers and peacekeepers of Europe. Without their role as guardians of the national conscience, their power and influence would be no greater than it is in, say, Britain. For many German intellectuals, Zelensky’s critique, especially the implication that they have lost their moral compass and
should now rethink their role, is a “provocation”.

The word comes from Alice Schwarzer, who is invariably described as “Germany’s leading feminist”. She is certainly an able self-publicist. Now 79, she is more ubiquitous in the media than ever, but it is hard to point to many concrete achievements in her long career — apart, that is, from evading the German tax authorities for nearly 30 years, a serious fraud for which she was eventually fined a six-figure sum.

A few weeks ago Schwarzer’s magazine, Emma, published an “Open Letter to Chancellor Olaf Scholz” signed by a list of 28 intellectuals and artists. It has served as a catalyst to mobilise public opinion against those who want Germany to do more to help Ukraine to expel the Russians.

It is for Germans, among others, to decide whether Ukrainians should submit to Putin’s diktat

The letter called on the chancellor to give no heavy weapons to Ukraine, lest this “make Germany a party to the war”, urging him instead to bring about an immediate ceasefire. The presumptiousness of Schwarzer & co is breathtaking: not only do they claim that “even justified resistance to an aggressor is at some point unbearably disproportionate”, but also that moral responsibility for ending the suffering of Ukrainian civilians should not be left to their own government alone, because “morally binding norms are universal in nature”. In other words, it is for Germans, among others, to decide whether Ukrainians should submit to Putin’s diktat.

The condescension of this open letter, which at the time of writing had gathered more than 250,000 signatures, is only credible in the context of German political culture, in which intellectuals have usually been treated with undue deference.

They have not, of course, always been pacifists. In October 1914 the “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three” was addressed by 93 German academics, writers and artists “to the civilised world” to protest against accusations (or “lies and calumnies”, as they claimed) against Germany, including atrocities in Belgium. Alas for them, the war crimes were not fabricated and the racist language of the letter (accusing the Entente allies of “inciting Mongolians and negroes against the white race”) has not worn well.

Harald Welzer

The open letter to Scholz does not treat Ukrainians as Untermenschen, but it implies a denial of their right to resist mass murder and rape, perhaps even genocide. This implicit denial also underlies the Berlin authorities’ refusal to allow Ukrainian flags at the official commemoration of the end of the Second World War on 8 May.

This felt like a “slap in the face” to the Ukrainian Ambassador in Berlin, Andrij Melnyk. He called for a memorial to be erected in Berlin to the eight million Ukrainians killed in the Second World War by the Germans. Having been subsumed into the Soviet total, which most Germans have tended to equate with Russia, these Ukrainian victims of Hitler were rendered invisible and silent. Now the same thing is happening again to the victimsof Putin at the hands of German intellectuals, who treat Ukrainians as though they have no right to speak.

Live on German television, the sociologist Harald Welzer literally wagged his finger at Melnyk, lecturing him about how German wartime experiences somehow justified their descendants’ refusal to give arms to Ukraine. With mordant wit, the ambassador replied to the professor: “I am your student.”

Perhaps the most professorial of all German professors, Jürgen Habermas, joined the chorus of condescension with a long article for the Süddeutsche Zeitung in which he praised Scholz for his reluctance to risk escalation. Rather than focus on the Ukrainians (except for a sarcastic reference to Zelensky, implying that he is manipulating the media), let alone the Russian aggressors, Habermas reserves all his ire for those who “aggressively and self-assuredly push the German Chancellor toward” the threshold of war.

Habermas, like Schwarzer and her co-signatories, favours “a compromise that allows both sides to save face”. He argues that it is for Putin to decide whether and when the West has crossed the threshold, meaning that “the indeterminacy of this decision allows no room whatsoever for risky speculation”. He accuses Scholz’s critics of being “incoherent”, of “bellicose rhetoric”, and of “wild speculations” about Putin.

Habermas notes “the astonishing conversion of erstwhile peaceniks” who, in his view, are demanding an end to “the peacekeeping focus of German policy”. He is appalled by Annalena Baerbock, the Green foreign minister, because “she lent a convincing voice to the spontaneous identification with the vehemently moralising insistence of a Ukrainian leadership that is determined to win the war”.

The former pacifists are confused and don’t realise that Germans are living in a “post-heroic” age, unlike Ukrainians whose mentality is still at the nation-forming stage. Their demand for Putin to be tried at The Hague for war crimes ignores the fact that “an end of the war, or at least a ceasefire, must still be negotiated with him”.

From his stratospheric philosophical height, accentuated by prophetic old age (he is 92), Habermas dismisses the “brusque withdrawal of the invitation to the German President [Steinmeier] to visit Ukraine” as a “mistake” caused by “the neglect of historically founded differences in the perception and interpretation of war” between the two nations. In other, simpler words: Ukrainians, please don’t mention the war: we are too sophisticated to be impressed by your primitive heroism.

Though an enthusiastic admirer of the Germans, who has devoted a lifetime writing about their history and culture, I sometimes feel as if my love is not merely unrequited but unmerited. It is sobering to be reminded that some of the Federal Republic’s most eminent intellectuals are in the camp known as Putinversteher, “Putin-understanders”.

Is there in reality a Machiavellian streak in Germany’s contemporary culture that draws its intellectuals to make excuses for sinister forces and behave as though Germany, rather than Ukraine, had been victimised? The raw nerve touched by this war has inflamed the unhealed wounds of the last one.

The crisis of conscience caused by the German trahison des clercs could allow a new leadership to emerge

Now 95, the most controversial of the original signatories of the open letter is Martin Walser. A member of Gruppe 47, the postwar coterie of writers who reinvented German literature, Walser made himself notorious with a 1998 speech in Frankfurt, in which he protested against the “instrumentalisation of our shame for current goals”. He claimed that Auschwitz had become a “moral club” for the purpose of “intimidation” and that the (then new) Holocaust Memorial in Berlin had made the centre of the capital of reunified Germany into a “concrete nightmare…turning shame into monument”.

Since then, Walser has repeatedly clashed with his critics, notably Jewish ones such as Ignaz Bubis and Marcel Reich-Ranicki. Only in 2007 did documents emerge proving that in 1944 Walser had become a card-carrying Nazi. True, he was only 17 at the time, but his indignant claim not to have known about his party membership was implausible, especially as he had later fought in the Wehrmacht.

The novels that once made Walser’s name have since been overshadowed by his querulous quasi-legitimation of those who are still in denial about the unique responsibilities that flow from the past for Germany today. No surprise, then, that Walser, the self-appointed praeceptor Germaniae, is among those who would prefer Ukrainians to pipe down and make peace with Putin.

None of this would matter very much, were it not for the influence wielded by intellectuals in das Land der Dichter und Denker (“the land of poets and thinkers”). If England was once the workshop of the world, Germany is still the showroom of Europe.

Martin Walser

Yet the last three German Chancellors — Schröder, Merkel and Scholz — do not bear comparison with their predecessors, Brandt, Schmidt and Kohl. For those who doubt this, I strongly recommend Not One Inch, the last volume of a magisterial trilogy by the American academic, M.E. Sarotte; earlier volumes recount the history of the fall of the Berlin Wall (The Collapse) and post-Cold War Europe (1989). Her new book explains how in early 1990 Helmut Kohl bounced Mikhail Gorbachev into conceding German reunification without conceding neutrality in return.

The Russians later claimed the West had broken its promise not to expand NATO into the former Warsaw Pact states. That claim was false, as Professor Sarotte shows, but the end of the Soviet empire spawned a mythology that still haunts us. The post-1989 Russian retreat from Mitteleuropa underlies Putin’s revisionist history, his irredentism and his imperialism. His propaganda exploited festering Russian resentment. And, as she writes, “Ukraine was left in the lurch.”

The German role in this story is pivotal. Without Helmut Kohl’s boldness, the integration of central and large parts of eastern Europe into the free world might not have happened. Like Bismarck, who seized his chance to engineer Germany’s first unification, Kohl accomplished the second one — this time without blood and iron.

But his successors entrusted their destiny to a Russia that could not be appeased. They misread Putin’s malign intentions. Now Scholz is dithering between those who, like his colleague and rival Annalena Baerbock, have been mugged by reality and see that Russia must be resisted, and the unholy alliance of capitalism and the intelligentsia, desperate for dialogue, however dishonourable.

In May, voters in Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine Westphalia roasted Scholz and boosted Baerbock. The crisis of conscience caused by the German trahison des clercs could allow a new leadership to emerge: one that is unafraid to mention the war and even to help the Ukrainians to win it.

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