Marieluise Beck: “The problem is that this thinking – German’s guilt towards Russia – is so deeply rooted in our political memory”

4 March 2021, 11:00

Being a Bundestag MP, you initiated round tables in Ukraine and Germany on Germany's historical responsibility towards Ukraine. The Center for Liberal Modernity that you co-founded also implements many projects related to historical memory in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, especially those related to the Jewish history. Why are these projects of such an importance for you?


I was born in 1952, which is not so long after the Nazi times. I am the youngest child in a family with seven kids. My eldest brother was born in 1935. This means that my parents were adults when Hitler came to power. When I grew up, I always asked myself where they had been when the Jewish people were driven out of Germany, tortured, and murdered. They must have realized it; they must even have seen it. After the end of the war, my family left the Soviet sector and moved to a sector, occupied by the Western Allies. There was a lot of storytelling about the wartime in my family, but the Jewish victims were never mentioned. This topic was a sort of taboo in my family. When I had grown up, I understood. Since then, lifting that taboo became a central theme of my political work. 


The Holodomor is one of the most important and most painful pages in Ukrainian history, though in the EU (especially in its Western part), it is still a blank page of history. Which messages should Ukraine use there and especially in Germany, so that the issue of Holodomor is heard and understood?


We need to start with historical facts. If people knew them, there would be a better understanding of why many Ukrainians do not want to be pushed underneath the Russian umbrella again. Even some sort of advice in the direction of why Ukraine would not become a neutral country, similarly to Finland, is not convincing to many Ukrainians after their historical experiences.  Timothy Snyder calls the region between the Russian and the German empires the "Bloodlands". The people living in this part of Europe experienced the catastrophes of the Tsarist Russia, the period of repressions under Stalin, the Soviet Union, and now they suffer from the Putin’s Russia. They experienced German occupation, the brutality of the Wehrmacht, SS, and the police battalions. They were called "slawische Untermenschen" (Slavic subhumans – Ed.), they were deported as forced workers to Germany, and the Jewish population had almost been exterminated. If people in Germany and the EU knew this chapter of history better, they would better understand why Ukraine wants to be a free and a sovereign country. That is what the Maidan stands for.

We need to start with the historical facts. And that will take a long time. It took us many years to comprehend that Poland is a European neighbor. It will take time until we accept it as normality that Ukraine is a European neighbor and will one day become a part of the EU. 

For the time being, almost nobody has ever heard the word Holodomor. Not to mention that millions of people had been starved to death by intention due to Stalin's policy of exterminating the so-called “kulaks” (wealthy peasants – Ed.). And there are many signs, that on the Ukrainian soil, it was not only the fight against the kulaks like in the Volga region or Kazakhstan, but that Stalin also wanted to erase the idea of a Ukrainian nation. He attempted to exterminate the culture and the language; he wanted to break the "Ukrainian neck". There is a petition filed in the German Bundestag to recognize the Holodomor a "genocide". I am afraid that this petition will be rejected because there will be a debate about whether the Holodomor qualifies as a genocide, according to the requirements, elaborated with respect to the extermination of the Jewish people. For the time being, I think we should mobilize our efforts to raise awareness about the facts, similarly to the way Agnieszka Holland did so her movie "Mr. Jones" or Anne Applebaum with her excellent book "Red Famine".  It took a lot of time, until the extermination of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire was defined as a genocide and it started with explaining facts. There is a scholarly debate among the historians about, whether the term 'genocide' should be applied to the exterminations, killings, and massacres that had happened before the term was coined in 1948.


But the genocide of Armenians also happened before the Holocaust. And that is why the situation is seen as somewhat controversial in Ukraine, because Germany defines those horrible events in Armenia as genocide, but not the Holodomor?


The problem is that in the case of Armenia you have a clear ethnic dimension. In the case of Holodomor, it is seen as a part of a broader phenomenon of the Stalin's fight against the kulaks that took place in other places – across the Volga region, in Kazakhstan, and in Ukraine. The essence of the debate is whether the elimination of the Ukrainians as an ethnic group, on top of the extermination of kulaks, which also hit the Russian farmers, was an intentional part of this policy. This makes Holodomor more complicated than the Armenian genocide. 


RELATED ARTICLE: The precursor to Holodomor

We live in a hybrid time. It is challenging to present the actual historical facts because you always have a tremendous amount of propaganda as an answer. How should Ukrainian history's presentation look like to tackle all the amount of Russian propaganda we have?

There is a wonderful Chinese saying: the grass will not grow before you plant the seeds. You might use all the channels you have, but still, you need patience.  It takes a long time to undermine deep-rooted prejudices, especially when strong propaganda tries to hide the facts. Take the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who definitely is a very decent and respectable person. Yet, when he talks about Germany's historical guilt and responsibility towards Russia, he forgets that Germany invaded the Soviet Union, not Russia in 1941. Such interpretation of the events overlooks Belarus and Ukraine and the fact that the war was mainly being fought on their territories, the "Bloodlands", and that the Soviet army consisted of the soldiers coming from all Soviet republics. 

Germany itself needed some time to come to terms with its past. At first it was forced by the Allies, through the Nuremberg Trial, to face the crimes it committed during the war.  But this was only the top of the iceberg. The truth is that there were hundreds of thousands of those, who were a part of the crimes. It took a long time until we started having our own trials in Germany. In the first Auschwitz trial of 1963, the prosecutor was a brilliant young Jewish judge who had left Germany and came back as a prosecutor in this trial. His name was Fritz Bauer.  He experienced a lot of hatred from within the judiciary in Frankfurt. We do not know the circumstance of his death for sure, but we cannot exclude that he committed suicide.  

Germany is often seen as a country that has devoted many efforts to deal with this terrible part of its history and I agree with this. After the war, the Allies even forced ordinary German people to visit the concentration camps, so that the people get an idea of what had happened. It is true, we have done a lot, and still, there are blank pages in our knowledge of the past. The crimes committed on the territories of the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine are not known well enough until now. We also lack knowledge of Stalin's crimes and the Holodomor. Being aware of what had happened is indispensable from nourishing democracy and humanity. So, there is no alternative to starting to talk about this over and over again. 


At the end of last year, Ukraine launched the Crimea platform. But It seems that in the West, politicians tend to forget the Crimea annexation issue. Do you also have the feeling that Western politicians start to forget about the annexation of Crimea? What else should Ukraine do so that the Crimea issue remains on the international agenda? 


To be honest, nobody expects Putin to give Crimea back in a short-term perspective. Within Germany, there was almost nobody who really believed that the GDR and the FRG would be reunited in a short-term perspective. But maintained the goal of the united country in our Constitution and did not recognize the GDR as a sovereign state. In 1989 we witnessed how important it was to preserve the status of GDR as a part of the united Germany. I think that nobody in Europe and in the US will ever question that Crimea is a part of Ukraine according to the international law. 

It might not be on the top of the international agenda all the time, because everyone has to be patient and take a long breath. But we should remind about the history of Crimea. Many Europeans have forgotten or even have never known that Stalin deported the Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people of the Crimean Peninsula, in 1944 and they could only return home during the Gorbachov era.  History almost repeats itself now: Crimean people are driven out of their land. I think we might call it ethnic cleansing, the same way we called the events in Bosnia. There are severe human rights violations in Crimea. People of Russian origin, mostly military people, move to Crimea, Russian passports are being handed out, and schools are not allowed to teach in the Crimean Tatar language anymore. On top of that, the media in Crimea are under heavy pressure. Illegal persecutions and police arbitrariness are an indispensable part of the everyday life of the Crimean Tatars. We need to both maintain the public awareness about what is happening there and preserve the status of Crimea in accordance with the international law.


Is the Nord Stream 2 project the Realpolitik issue for Germany, or is it just money and several politicians' interests?


I think that it started with interests. There is a long tradition of German-Russian relationship. Historically, Germany was the machine-producing country and Russia delivered the raw materials. Such cooperation even went on when the countries were already preparing for the war on the eve of WWII. Now we have a modern version of such an exchange: oil and gas come from Russia and Germany exports its goods to Russia. We all know the story of the Nord Stream 1. It was inaugurated by the person who was the chancellor back then (which is very embarrassing for Germany) and who afterwards simply jumped into the project as a businessman and a lobbyist. So, there is a clear economic interest. With this project, Germany, unfortunately, creates discord within the EU. The Nord Stream 2, being advocated by an economically strong country in the middle of Europe, undermines the trust within the EU. German government has tried to defend the Nord Stream 2 as a mere economic project, like buying sugar or salt. Former foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel and the current foreign minister Heiko Maas claim that this project has nothing to do with politics.  President Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently said we need this project as a bridge to Russia. With this statement he clearly underscored the political dimension of this project. The problem is that this thinking – German's guilt towards Russia – is so deeply rooted in our political memory. So, we are back at the point, where we started our conversation.


RELATED ARTICLE: Kristina Kvien: “The largest impediment to economic transformation is the continued need for further judicial reform”


How would you evaluate the role of Ukraine for its neighbors?


Since last year we have been working on a program, which we call Eastern Partnership Plus. We are bringing together Georgia's, Moldova's, and Ukraine's civil societies because the three countries, unlike Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, have the Association Agreements with the EU and have EU membership aspirations. All those six countries are under the umbrella of the EU's Eastern Partnership policy, but they are very diverse. We want to coordinate the policies of the three associated countries to get closer to the EU and towards the EU accession. The Western European societies have forgotten, how big geographically and culturally Europe is. The division of Europe in Yalta was exactly about eradicating these memories. Way too often, we say Europe and mean the EU, thus ignoring the fact that Europe is much bigger.

With Poland's EU accession, Europe made a big step to overcome that mental line drawn by the iron curtain. The prejudice towards Poland was tremendous. I still remember people speaking badly about the Polish people back at home. Meanwhile, we have an everyday normality. If you go to Berlin and look at the construction sites, Polish is the language used there. In my hometown in Bremen, many Poles are work and live, and they are well accepted. I think that there will be much more normality between Germany and Ukraine after the pandemic is over and cheap airlines start flying again. Cheap airlines are unbelievably important for opening the minds, although I admit that they create an environmental problem. Through trips to Lviv, Odesa, or Kyiv, Germans would recognize that the Ukrainians are European. They would see that the Ukrainians are fashionable, have modern restaurants, startups, and a huge IT sector. The architecture there would remind them about the European heritage of these cities.

People like Viktor Medvedchuk will bring back the old Soviet-style life. You can see in Belarus what this means. Lukashenka's regime is not only brutal, but it is also extremely dull. When I started visiting Belarus, this reminded me of visiting my relatives in the GDR in the 70s. I could hardly breeze. The DDR was a totally dull country, grey, without joy, without fantasy, just terrible. More and more people in Belarus want to be modern and live the everyday western life with individual freedoms, the rule of law, and democratic rights. This is what Ukrainians have been striving for at Maidan. They are getting more and more of this, even if there are setbacks.


Follow us at @OfficeWeek on Twitter and The Ukrainian Week on Facebook

This is Articte sidebar