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14 March, 2011  ▪  Olena Chekan

Learning Democracy

German historian Frank Golczewski talks about political technologies from the WWI era, how to build a new empire and the benefits of pluralism

Frank Golczewski is a professor at Hamburg University and a renowned expert in the contemporary history of Eastern and Central Europe. Prof. Golczewski explores confluence of historical circumstances within where specific personalities acted, but his greatest interest is the factors that affect this system of “historical coordinates.” Golczewski likes to search for historical finds and paradoxes. And he believes that historical memory is part of our guard against the mistakes of civilization.

U.W.: Recently in Der Spiegel you said that Europe treated Ukrainians, a nation that has the right to self-determination, as something that the Germans invented during WWI. What did you mean?

–At that time, the Germans used a political technology of sorts. They put prisoners of war of a certain nationality in one place and worked with them. The prisoners were told they belonged to a certain nation and had to fight for their independence against those who were oppressing them. This was how they evoked a feeling of national identity to use the captive soldiers for their own purposes later. Nationalism played a key role here, but it was never intended to support real sovereignty, only to serve the interests of others.

This kind of deliberate policy was not only applied to Ukrainians. Polish soldiers who served in the German army and fought against France were also involved in the experiment. When the French took them prisoner, they were put in camps and eventually turned into “real” Poles. This approach was used to create Jozef Haller’s army. And the Russians did the same, using captive Czech and Slovak Austrian troops to set up the Czechoslovak Army. The Germans put Ukrainian, Finnish and Georgian prisoners in different camps. Here, the Ukrainians studied Ukrainian language and history and were told that they were an independent nation.

But the Germans never helped anyone, nor did they want to. They just behaved more wisely during the WWI than in WWII because they knew that they could lose the war. And if that happened, prisoners of war would have come in handy as they were already trained to be patriots in their own countries and would be prepared to fight against Russia. This is the first part of your question.

The other point is that, after WWI, war broke out between Poland and Western Ukraine. The Polish were trying to get the support of Western Europe and to that end they started a propaganda campaign in Paris to the effect that Ukrainians did not exist as a nation but were just something the Germans had invented.

U.W.: Why does the UPA1 bother the Russians more than ROA,2 which also fought alongside the Nazis? Why does Russia get so enraged over Ukraine’s desire for its own identity?

– The UPA fought for Uk­­raine against Russia, while the ROA fou­­ght only for Russia. A different Russia, but Russia just the same. Nationalism as belonging to a certain state or nation is very important to people. And once a national consciousness dominates, it doesn’t matter any more who is in power—communists or national socialists. This is what allowed Stalin to switch from communist slogans during WWII to “For the Fatherland! For Stalin!” These have nothing to do with communists or anyone else. There’s Stalin, the leader of the nation, and there’s the Fatherland, where I was born. Then people start thinking more in terms of their nation than in terms of ideology. That’s exactly what is happening today.

U.W.: You mean that a new Russian Empire is being built?

– Yes. And it’s clear why Ukraine’s desire to find its own identity rouses this reaction in Russia. It’s very simple. “Kyiv is the Mother of all Rus Cities.” Only now it’s over there, in another country our mother has been stolen! Russians have a hard time accepting this, and perhaps they can’t. This belief is very firm in the people’s minds and Russia’s leaders encourage them to think that way.

U.W.: Do you think civilized relations between Ukraine and Russia are possible with such opposite visions of the future? 

– Yes, of course. Such relations are possible, even necessary. But it will take some time and a lot of effort. Eastern Europe is used to a one-party system where coordination is critical, while the West, with its centuries of pluralism, needs no coordination whatsoever. There’s a nice saying: Let’s just agree to disagree. In the West, parties struggle for power: some win, others lose, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the country that much and democracy doesn’t disappear. That’s what’s missing in Russia. Everyone there has to have a common viewpoint, and only that viewpoint is correct. The viewpoint of a political opponent becomes a criminal offense. But for us, viewpoints are just viewpoints, numerous and different.

The truth is that democracy must be learned. There’s no other way. This may be the most important task facing Ukraine today. It needs to debate all urgent and painful issues and hold a dialog both internally and with Russia. Scholars should start the ball rolling because ordinary voters don’t know everything that really happened. Those over 30 today were educated in ordinary soviet schools and they still believe on some level in what they were taught there. They were not taught to analyze or that there are many truths. The truth is not invariable. It can be subjective. The values of my family are different from the values of another. And the views of different countries vary a lot, too.

U.W.: Ukraine is suffering post-colonial syndrome and most Ukrainians are afraid to lose independence…

– Fear is a very dangerous thing. People hypnotized by fear and the thought that someone might harm them deprive themselves of a normal life. You should do what Ukraine needs and what’s good for your country and not look at Russia and the West. In my opinion, there is no danger that Russia will attack Ukraine.

U.W.: What about Georgia?

– Mikhail Saakashvili thought the West would come to his aid. But he should have remembered 1968, 1956 and 1939. The West never supported anyone. Just look at Czechoslovakia, Poland, Baltic States or the beginning of the WWII. By the way, the Poles, too, think Germany might cut a deal with Russia, attack Poland and divide it for the umpteenth time, even though there are no conditions for this. In terms of Ukraine, I think, Russia will not attack it, either. But you are the closest neighbors and that forces you to search for ways to establish good neighborly relations. You have to come to terms with Russia somehow. Just like German did with France.

U.W.: Ukraine and Russia, France and Germany are two completely different weight categories!

– Not at all! Germany was very weak after WWII. In the first five or six years, France could have taken anything it wanted: the Saarland, for instance. Yet the French realized that this policy would lead to a repeat of what had happened twice already: war. That means it’s better to cooperate. It benefits both countries. But it doesn’t mean friendship. Charles De Gaulle rightly said that two countries can never have friendship, only mutual interests. So, you need to find these mutual interests. And to remember that, in many ways, Ukraine and Russia depend on each other.

U.W.: Massive demonstrations, hunger strikes and labor strikes all over the world, all in the midst of a financial crisis and further Wikileaks disclosures. Is this some kind of new world war?

– The Cold War may be over, but now we have global terrorism. No one knows where these terrorists are, but their presence is the reality of these times. Moreover, today, people don’t trust politicians as much as they used to. With internet, they have unlimited access to information, so everyone can find out what’s going on. And there’s nothing wrong with Wikileaks. Historians are well aware that nothing can be kept hidden or secret in the end. It’s great that people go out to the streets and protect their rights. This is a new quality of politics. Today, those in power have to listen to the people more than ever before. But this is not a war, it’s a new political culture. Your Orange Revolution was something similar. It was part of the new political culture, a newborn.

U.W.: What differences in mentality is there between East and West Germany?

– There is some radicalizing in East Germany, which you can see both in Russia, and in Ukraine, as well. This was inherited from the soviet or the Nazi past and it comes from the lack of political education. It took West Germany 40 years after the war to educate people about politics, that politics is a complex thing; that all the factors in a situation need to be studied and analyzed and only then  conclusions formed; that you can’t blame everything on someone else and think you yourself are innocent.

U.W.: Are the young people different from earlier generations in East Germany?

– Yes, they are. Young people have more opportunities to see the world, to travel and get whatever education they want. And still, East Germany has its depressed regions with high unemployment. People are so inert there they don’t want to move an inch; they don’t care about finding a job. Even young people. In the past, they knew that the state and the Party would take care of them but would punish any initiatives. They just needed to be loyal to the state. Once Germany united, a lot of East Germans believed that West Germany had to give them everything. But it turned out that nobody owed them anything, nor was anyone going to give them anything. They had to look for a job on their own, be competitive, and take control over their own lives. Some people are still not interested in being responsible for themselves. They continue to blame others for their failures, Jews, dark-skinned races…

U.W.: We have depressed regions, too, as does Russia…

– In Russia, you either work or go to the mafia. The only difference is how much you make. And it’s very risky because it leaves an impression that all those who work are stupid and it’s much better to go to the criminal world, where money is much easier. I have an impression that a new wave of criminalization has started and is spreading over Russian society. I don’t think this is happening in Ukraine so far. 

U.W.: Is Germany tired of the daily feeling of guilty for the Holocaust and for starting WWII?

– No. I haven’t noticed this. I can see this in my students and high school students. They are more interested in recent history. This gets us into talks, discussions and debates. In 1950s and 1960s, people didn’t want to talk about the hard past because it was too painful. The society wasn’t prepared for open debate of these issues. Feelings prevailed then. The younger generation has a more detached, academic approach both to recent and contemporary history. Moreover, if there’s anything to learn, it’s from historical mistakes. People need to see the consequences of war, greed for conquest and xenophobia. The Nazis ruined Germany and murdered millions of people. This we can never forget. If we forget, the followers of Nazism or this so-called communism will be able to dupe people once again…

Young Germans and ordinary people learned about Ukraine only recently. We had some refugees from Ukraine after WWII, but they mostly moved on, to Canada and the US, leaving no trace behind. The current immigration from post-soviet countries is purely economic in nature. Germans did learn about Ukraine during the Orange Revolution. It provoked interest in your history, too. We even organized an international conference entitled “Divided Memoirs—Competing Memories” at Hamburg University. Among other things, it focused on the Holodomor of 1932-1933. I must say our students and PhDs made a number very interesting, profound presentations.


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