History and Moral Responsibility

Ukraine in Focus

Referencing Adam Michnik’s idea of living “as if” – “we should live as if we were free subjects taking responsibility for our own choices, regardless of any socio-political constraints” – Shore argues that  “This should also be the model for Vergangenheitsbewältigung, replacing that of repentance for the sins of one’s grandparents. Neither guilt nor innocence can be inherited. We are responsible not for atoning on behalf of those who lived before us, but for seeing the past with eyes wide open. The source of responsibility is not personal guilt; the source of responsibility is being-in-the-world.”

Yet the need to privilege present moral obligations over a misguided understanding of the past is not always recognized; the German case is a prime example, as several authors have argued in recent days. As Vasyl Cherepanyn writes for Politico, "[D]espite its historical background, Germany has not only overlooked the new fascism breeding under Russian President Vladimir Putin, it has been feeding the aggressor from its own hands. […] Historical responsibility today requires doing everything possible to make Putin lose. United Europe and the free world came to being on the basis of anti-Nazism. If the political and economic foundations of the current variation of fascism remain intact, we soon won’t have a common world to live in."

Looking specifically at Germany’s relationship with Eastern Europe, for Project Syndicate, Sławomir Sierakowski criticizes Germany’s failure to deliver weapons to Ukraine, arguing that it will have long-lasting consequences for Germany’s reputation: “[T]he problem is that Germany’s pacifism is encouraging militarism. By refusing to stand up to the aggressor, Germany has exhibited an astonishing degree of moral desensitization. As such, Germany is heading for another grave historical humiliation for which it will spend years – if not decades – apologizing and correcting itself. But no one will believe that it is truly sorry, especially not in Eastern Europe, which is Germany’s biggest economic partner.” 

In Der Spiegel (in German), Yevgenia Belorusets reacts to an open letter from a group of German intellectuals opposed to supplying Ukraine with weapons: “Weapons do not prolong the war, but rather end it by stopping its movement. This forces the aggressor to stop. […] For years other countries have averted their gaze from Putin’s crimes, so as not to provoke him. But no one has found any way, any argument, to hold Putin back from this war. What will come next if Putin’s behavior continues to be allowed, forgiven, permitted? Are the great authors, artists, and all those who share their opinion in this open letter ready for the looming consequences?”

If this sort of response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is predicated on a distorted notion of historical responsibility and a misconception of the nature of the greater threat that this war poses, two ways forward might be a better understanding of Ukraine’s past, which helps us understand the nature of the current war, and deeper reflection on the social and intellectual environment that produced that war. In The New Yorker, Timothy Snyder writes that a clear look at history lays bare that this war is a colonial war, with the consequences that this implies. "As we see in the ruins of Ukrainian cities, and in the Russian practice of mass killing, rape, and deportation, the claim that a nation does not exist is the rhetorical preparation for destroying it."

This denial of the existence of a Ukrainian nation – the deadly consequences of which we are witnessing today – is part of a broader assault on the notion of truth. Shore refers to Peter Pomerantsev’s work on the “endless proliferation of untruths” that has enabled “Putin’s neo-totalitarianism,” a theme he continues to explore in his reporting on this war. In The Atlantic, Pomerantsev recounts the story of one family outside Kyiv, the Horbonoses, and their weeks-long cohabitation with occupying Russian soldiers. Through their interactions, the Horbonoses came to understand what motivated those soldiers and what they had been taught about their mission, and the soldiers themselves eventually apologized for the destruction they had caused and the senselessness of the war. Pomerantsev connects their conversations with Volodymyr Zelensky’s constant search for ways to connect with his many audiences (including the Russian people), arguing that it will take these sorts of messages to disrupt the Putinist system: “Zelensky, through his endless search for empathy, and the Horbonoses, through their remarkable dialogue with their Russian enemies, had shown us how this war could actually end.”

The responsibility that comes from being in the world, as Shore puts it, has been borne by Ukrainians over the course of the war as they demonstrate solidarity towards one another. Kateryna Mishchenko writes for NZZ (in German) of the many acts of care that Ukrainians have undertaken over these past months, finding ways to provide practical as well as moral support to their communities: “Looking out and caring for each other are proving themselves today as a radical counter to the cynical brutality aimed at destroying every form of civilized existence in Ukraine.”

It is this solidarity that is sustaining Ukrainians right now – solidarity that makes space for diversity and complexity. When we recognize this, we can begin to think about ways forward: as Snyder writes, "The war is fought in a decentralized way, dependent on the solidarity of local communities. These communities are diverse, but together they defend the notion of Ukraine as a political nation. There is something heartening in this. The model of the nation as a mini-empire, replicating inequalities on a smaller scale, and aiming for a homogeneity that is confused with identity, has worn itself out. If we are going to have democratic states in the twenty-first century, they will have to accept some of the complexity that is taken for granted in Ukraine."

Watch: Belorusets writes of her involvement in this year’s Venice Biennial; an opening discussion, hosted by the Ukrainian Institute, included Serhii Plokhii.

Listen: Volodymyr Yermolenko speaks with Ezra Klein about the war’s effect on perceptions of time and space, the consequences of Russian disinformation, and the relationship between Ukraine and Europe.

Read: Snyder’s Bloodlands, released this week in a second edition with a new afterword, helps to understand the context of 20th century mass killing in Ukraine.