War and indignation

At the end of April, the world-famous German philosopher Jürgen Habermas commented in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on the attitudes of the West and Germany towards the war in Ukraine and criticism of the cautious attitude of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Here are excerpts from his text.




A fierce, media-fuelled debate has erupted in Germany over the type and extent of military aid Germany should provide to Ukraine. The demands for help coming from the embattled Ukraine, which has unhesitatingly turned the political missteps and flawed policies of former German governments into moral indictments, are as understandable as the emotions, empathy and need for help. Nevertheless, I am bothered by the confidence with which the morally indignant go about blaming a restrained Federal Government.


In an interview with the news magazine Der Spiegel, the Chancellor summed up his policy in a single sentence: ‘We are confronting the terrible suffering that Russia is inflicting on Ukraine with all possible means, without triggering an uncontrollable escalation that would cause immeasurable suffering on the entire continent, perhaps even the entire world.’ Given that the West has made the decision not to intervene in the conflict as a belligerent, there is a threshold of risk that precludes unbridled involvement in arming Ukraine. This threshold of risk has come back into focus as a result of the solidarity shown by the German government with its allies at the Ramstein meeting and the Russian foreign minister’s renewed threat of possible nuclear escalation. Those who ignore this threshold and continue to aggressively push the German Chancellor towards it have either overlooked or misunderstood the dilemma into which this war has plunged the West – the West has tied its own hands with its morally based decision not to become a party to this war.




On the one hand, we learned during the Cold War that a war against a nuclear power can no longer be “won”. (…) The nuclear threat means that the threatened party, whether it has nuclear weapons or not, cannot end the unbearable destruction with victory, but at best with a compromise that allows both sides to save face. Neither side is forced to accept defeat or leave the battlefield as the ‘loser’.


The ceasefire negotiations that take place alongside the fighting are an expression of this recognition; they allow, for the time being, a reciprocal view of the enemy as a possible negotiating partner. The potential of the Russian threat depends on whether the West believes that Putin is capable of deploying weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, the CIA has warned of the dangers of using ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons (weapons that were apparently developed only to enable nuclear powers to wage war against each other). This gives the Russian side an asymmetric advantage vis-à-vis NATO, which does not want to become a party to the conflict because of the apocalyptic scale of a potential world war – involving four nuclear powers.


Now it is Putin who decides when the West crosses the line defined by international law – he already formally considers the West’s military support for Ukraine as participation in the war. (…) The West, which has left no one in doubt about its de facto participation in the conflict with the drastic sanctions it imposed at the outset, must therefore carefully consider each additional level of military support to see whether it might cross the indeterminate threshold of formal entry into the war – indeterminate because it depends on Putin’s definition.


On the other hand, the West – and Russia knows this well – cannot be blackmailed all the time. If the allies were to leave Ukraine to its fate, it would not only be a scandal from a political and moral point of view, it would also be contrary to the interests of the West. Because then it would have to be prepared to play Russian roulette in Georgia or Moldova and other countries.




The decision to avoid participation in the war does not mean that the West will leave Ukraine to its struggle until the moment of imminent entry into the war. Arms supplies can clearly have a positive effect on the course of the war. But is it not a form of pious self-delusion to bet on a Ukrainian victory over a murderous form of Russian war without taking up arms ourselves? War rhetoric does not match the platform from which it is spoken.





The West’s dilemma is to signal to Putin, who can accept nuclear escalation, that it insists on the integrity of its borders in Europe, by only providing limited military support to Ukraine, which remains on the safe side of the red line defining involvement in armed conflict.




The prevailing image of Putin as a determined revisionist requires, at the very least, a confrontation with a rational assessment of his interests. Even if Putin regards the collapse of the USSR as a huge mistake, the image of an eccentric visionary who – with the blessing of the Orthodox Church and under the influence of the authoritarian ideologue Dugin – regards the gradual restoration of the Russian empire as his political life’s work can hardly reflect the whole truth of his character. Such predictions, however, provide the basis for the widespread assumption that Putin’s aggressive intentions extend beyond Ukraine, into Georgia and Moldova, and perhaps even to NATO member states in the Baltics. The image of a deluded ruler eager to turn back the clock stands against the biography of a calculating KGB-trained power-seeker whose anxiety about political protests in increasingly liberal-minded circles in his own country has reinforced Ukraine’s turn to the West and the political resistance movement in Belarus. From this perspective, his repeated aggression might best be understood as a frustrated reaction to the West’s refusal to negotiate on Putin’s geopolitical agenda.




How then to explain the heated debate that has erupted around the policy – repeatedly confirmed by Chancellor Scholz – of solidarity with Ukraine in line with Germany’s EU and NATO partners? The younger members of our society, brought up to be sensitive to normative issues, do not hide their emotions and are most vociferously demanding stronger support for Ukraine. It gives the impression that the new reality of war has snapped them out of their pacifist illusions (see Foreign Minister Baerbock).




This brings us to the heart of the conflict between those who have vigorously attacked their own perspective of a nation fighting for its freedom, liberty and life – and those who have taken different lessons and mentalities from the Cold War experience. One group views war only through the lens of victory and defeat; the other knows that war against a nuclear power cannot be “won.”


This difference is obvious when we compare the admired heroic resistance and willingness to sacrifice shown by the Ukrainian population with what one would expect from ‘our’ Western European population. Mixed into the admiration for Ukraine is amazement at the certainty of victory and the courage of soldiers and recruits of all ages determined to defend their homeland against a militarily superior enemy. We in the West, on the other hand, rely on the professional soldiers we pay to ensure that, should such a situation arise, we do not have to take up arms ourselves.


This post-heroic mentality may have developed in Western Europe in the second half of the 20th century under the US nuclear umbrella. The view that international conflicts can only be resolved through diplomacy and sanctions – and that if a military conflict breaks out, the war must be settled as quickly as possible, as victory/defeat is no longer possible – became established among the political elites and the vast majority of the population. As Alexander Kluge put it, “War can only teach us to make peace.”




Calls for Putin to be handed over to The Hague spread after Buche. This call testifies to the complacency of the normative standards we have come to apply in international relations – that is, to the real extent of the shift in people’s corresponding expectations and humanitarian sensibilities. But at my age, I cannot deny a certain astonishment: how inverted must be the soil of our political culture, norms and value orientations on which our children and grandchildren live, if even the conservative press is calling for prosecutors at the International Criminal Court, which has not yet been recognised by Russia and China, or even by the US? Unfortunately, even such facts reveal the hollow-sounding foundations of a passionate identification with the increasingly spasmodic moral accusations of German restraint. Not that the war criminal Putin does not deserve to be put on trial, but he still has veto power in the UN Security Council and can continue to threaten his opponents with nuclear war. An end to the war, or at least a ceasefire, has yet to be negotiated with him. I do not see a convincing justification for the demands for a policy that would – despite the unbearable suffering of the victims – de facto jeopardise the well-founded decision to avoid participation in this war.


This realization sheds a more sober light on the conversion of the former pacifists… They have not turned into realists, but rather are brimming with idealism. It is no coincidence that the authors of the “breakthrough” are leftists and liberals who – in the face of a drastically changed international constellation – want to act seriously in response to a belated realisation: namely that the European Union, which does not want its social and political life to be destabilised, will only gain the necessary political agency if it can stand on its own feet militarily. The re-election of Macron in France provides relief. First, however, we must find a way out of our dilemma. This hope is reflected in the careful formulation of the objective that Ukraine ‘must not lose’ this war.


The text was published on Süddeutsche Zeitung on 28 April 2022 and edited and translated by editors from casopis Pritomnost. 

Author: Jürgen Habermas

published: 16. 5. 2022

Datum publikace:
16. 5. 2022
Autor článku:
Süddeutsche Zeitung